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Remembering Rafael Sánchez Guerra: Real Madrid’s forgotten president

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Guerra with the 1936 Copa del Rey winning squad
Real Madrid

Sports and politics is a volatile and all to common mixture. Anything that pits competing groups of people is going to attract politics and soccer is no different, Spain is proof of that. The Iberian peninsula is littered with football clubs that are a mis-mash of cultural and political identity. It provides LaLiga with a unique dimension as every football club has some sort of symbolism attached to it.

Despite championing perhaps the most notorious political moniker in soccer, Real Madrid does its utmost to steer clear of politics. “Franco’s team” hold the noble (and perhaps delusional) attitude that they do their talking on the pitch, meaning major political events such as the Spanish Civil War, are merely bookmarks in the club’s history. The unfortunate side effect of this attitude is that important characters in Madrid’s history are forgotten cause of their political activity.

One such figure is former club president Rafael Sanchez Guerra. The Madrid native was born on October 28th 1897. The son of Spanish president, Jose Sanchez Guerra, Rafael had two interests as a child, politics and football. His love of the latter grew during his schooling, attending the Colegio del Pilar where he made friends with prominent Real Madrid players of the time such as Rene Petit.

Guerra played in the club’s youth team alongside Petit, but while his gifted friend excelled, Rafael’s footballing career didn’t go too far. In politics, he followed in his father footsteps as a conservative and fought in Africa.

His political views took a radical change in the 1920s as King Alfonso allowed Spain to slip into a dictatorship under Primo Rivera. From then on, He claimed to be “a centrist, equidistant from the extremists of left and right”.

He spent most of the 1920s in jail due to his opposition to the regime. Rivera lost power in 1929 and elections were held, resulting in an overwhelming victory for the Republican party. King Alfonso was exiled, Real Madrid lost its “Real” prefix and Guerra became Secretary-General to the president of Spain.

While in government, he halted the extension of the Paseo de la Casetellana which would have forced the Charmatin to close for demolition. Using this action as a platform, he defeated his friend, Santiago Bernabeu, to become club president in 1935.

A liberal breath of fresh air to the board, Guerra introduced a number of changes during his short reign as president. He reduced ticket prices to one peseta, opening the club to a working class market and introduced a one member-one vote system. The highlight of Guerra’s presidency was winning the Copa del Rey against Barcelona in 1936.

Real’s young president had planned on building a new stadium, however the war stopped that. After ensuring Guerra that the military weren’t planning a coup, General Franco’s forces began its uprising shortly after the 1936 elections.

Guerra resigned the presidency at Real upon the outbreak of war. He served as secretary to Colonel Segismundo Casado, in charge of the Defence Council of the Republican Army. As nationalist forces began to close in on Madrid, Guerra was offered a way out of the city, he refused and stayed in the Chancellery building. He was arrested by Franco forces broadcasting an radio transmission informing Republican forces the war was over.

Guerra was among only two members of Casado’s National defence Council who chose to remain in Madrid, alongside his close friend Juilan Besteiro. He was subject to the first military investigation where the court found his “identification with the Reds was complete and absolute”. He was sentenced to death, however it was later commuted to life imprisonment.

He spent a year in prison before being released thanks to his cousin’s brother, Antonio Guerra. He was arrested again, but managed to evade prison and crossed over the French border in 1946. He served as minster of the Republic in exile in Paris, pleading with the Allies to free Spain from Franco. In October 1959, Guerra’s wife, Rosario, died and he never recovered.

He retired from politics and had Antonio negotiate his return to Spain so he could see out the rest of his life at home. His request of was granted and Guerra joined a seminary, refereeing football matches between the monks at the monastery of Santo Domingo de Pamplona. It seems Guerra didn’t tell the other monks about his past, hence, it was quite a shock when Santiago Bernabeu, Paco Gento, Amancio Amaro and Ference Puskas came to visit him shortly before he died on April 2nd 1964. The club sent a wreath for the grave and little has been said of Real’s Republican president since.

There is a part of me that understands why Real Madrid is hesitant to openly discuss political figures such as Rafael Guerra. It goes against the popular narrative surrounding Real and, as I suspect most Madridistas know already, politics and Real Madrid always end up in the same places.

However, ignoring this side of the club history isn’t particularly helpful either. People like Guerra, a man unwilling to leave his home town at a time of need, give Real Madrid a sense of place which can’t be replaced. By forgetting, the club unplugs from the local community and makes its 117 year connection with the city a little less meaningful and a little more strenuous. It’s important to remember your history, regardless of the consequences.

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