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Life during wartime: Real Madrid and the Spanish Civil War

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Since the coronavirus cancelled sport a century ago, Real Madrid have been among a handful of clubs to take centre stage in their reaction to the crisis. Since the pandemic really hit Spanish life hard, Real Madrid and its players have donated medical supplies, opened up the Bernabeu to be used to fight the pandemic and have attempted to fully pay their staff up until recently.

The club has also used its worldwide following to encourage people to stay at home. Under the #YoMeQuedoEnCasa (I am staying at home) streaming old football matches on Real Madrid TV and Youtube to encourage people to stay at home and to raise money to fight the virus.

Realistically, the club shouldn’t be commended for these decisions, especially given Real Madrid’s public profile has benefited from them too. However, as we have seen elsewhere, its not always obvious to football clubs to take the humane and sympathetic option and at the very least, we can be grateful to see the club owners haven’t completely lost track of what matters during times like these.

The scale and off-pitch response to the crisis had me looking back on when Real Madrid were last face with off-field disaster, The Spanish Civil War. Between 1936 and 1940, Los Blancos were caught right in the middle of a brutal conflict that would scar the Iberian Peninsula for decades. Real Madrid’s story through this conflict is a tale of chaos, bravery and destruction and certainly puts elements of the current crisis in perspective.


In June 1936, Real Madrid lifted their seventh Copa del Rey. Los Blancos had gone 2-0 up early and though were dragged back to 2-1, a late Ricardo Zamora save secured the trophy. It was that generation’s fourth trophy in seven years, a generous haul for a club that hadn’t won a major honour in 15 years preceding their inaugural league title. Despite the relative young age and promise coming from Madrid in 1936, the cup final would be this generation last together.

The Players

Real Madrid wartime story is spilt into two parts, the story of the club itself and the story of the players. From my research, none of the 1935-36 squad were killed during the war, but a select few came close.

Ricardo Zamora was held at knife point by a left wing extremist until the man recognised him, dropped his knife and hugged him. The would-be murderer was a Madrid fan and two had a long conversation about Zamora’s career at the club before going their separate ways.

Zamora would have a second brush with death before the end of the war, when he was arrested and sentenced to execution in Toledo. His celebrity status once again saved his life and he eventually escaped to France.

One particular interesting Madrid player story is that of the Reguiro brothers. Luis and Pedro Reguiro had moved to Madrid from Real Union in 1931 and 1932 respectively. Both were distinguished players during their playing career, Luis in particular. The older brother became Madrid club captain and was the first Blanco player to score at a World Cup in 1934.

Fierce Republicans, on the outbreak of war both brothers, and club teammate Emilio Alonso, played in charity matches to support the Republican war effort and to help those who had been made orphans by the fighting. Towards the end of the war, a Basque government was formed in the North of Spain. The president of this wartime nation, Jose Antonio Aguirre, came up with the idea of a travelling Basque team to raise money for the war. With all three being born Basque, the Real Madrid trio were picked for the team.

Luis Reguiro standing beside Ricardo Zamora.
Jose Miguel

Luis Reguiro captained the side through a successful, but bittersweet tour of Europe as it became clearer that the team would not be welcome back home. Nonetheless, the tour was a brave effort and showed the world that Spain wasn’t just for the Spanish.

“With Franco’s revolt under way it was no longer possible to play football (in Spain),” Reguiro said of the tour, “there was however a huge need to bring home to the rest of the world that we Basques were different to what some wanted to make us out to be. It was this idea that inspired us both inside and outside the stadiums we played in abroad, winning games on the pitches and generating sympathy and friends beyond them”

In October 1937, the impressive Basque outfit were invited to tour America, visiting places like Cuba, Argentina and Chile, even competing in the Mexican premier amateur league in 1938/39, finishing second.

Both Reguiro brothers remained in Mexico when football returned to Spain following the end of the civil war, a decision many of their teammates would also make.

The Club

There are various reasons as to why players never returned. Some feared arrest or worse should they return to Spain while it was simply for some. Real Madrid squad had a number of Hungarians, for example, whom went home during the conflict and would have risked exile from their homeland had they tried to return to Spain.

Upon the outbreak of war, Real Madrid’s president, Rafael Sanchez Guerra was on holidays and never managed to return to the club, despite coming back to Madrid. He resigned sometime in August 1936 and its from here that the leadership contest becomes extremely complicated.

Following Guerra’s resignation, Real Madrid was seized by a Spanish government committee. The committee was headed by Juan Jose Vallejo and was made official on August 5th 1936 with a friendly against Atletico Madrid. It was made up of two men from the Spanish sports federation, Pablo Hernandez - a former goalkeeper and club secretary - who acted a s a technical adviser and was seen as the de-facto president, two club socios and some employees.

Heading this committee was Juan Jose Vallejo, a military man with, it seems, little connection to Real Madrid. He would remain in charge until November 1936 when he handed the reigns to Antonio Ortega.

Another military man, Ortega became a Republican hero for his defence of Madrid. He led Madrid for about a year between 1937 and 1938 and was supposedly sacked when it was discovered he was a Soviet spy. Neither men are officially recognised as club presidents by Real Madrid.

Throughout the war, Real Madrid was used as a “crude propaganda machine”. The Charmatin, was used for charity friendlies, military demonstrations and gymnastics (of all things). Club staff and to donate a day’s wages to the Republican war effort and only club members with a membership to the Republican ruling coalition were allowed on club premises, though this was not strictly enforced.

Real Madrid players making the Republican salute in May 1937
War in Madrid

Real Madrid did try to continue playing football during this era. When league football was suspended, new competitions like the Catalan championship, sprang up in places not heavily affected by the war. Real Madrid, under the management of Paco Bru, applied to play in the Catalan championship and had managed to convince most of the league to let them play under a number of conditions. However, Barcelona rejected Madrid’s entrance into the league, effectively ending any hope of some normality at the Charmatin. Barcelona stated their reasons for denying Madrid entry was to protect the regional spirit of the championship.

Madrid’s silence during the war ultimately came in their favour as there was less to explain away when it was over. Before the committee takeover, Madrid followed the lead of other Spanish clubs in a self-confiscation i.e offering themselves to the government to help in the war effort. When the war was over, Madrid’s narrative changed, saying they self-confiscated to save the club from left wing extremists.

Post War

The Spanish Civil War ended on April 1st 1939 with the fall of Madrid. From Real Madrid’s perspective, it had been devastating. Four members of the 1935-36 squad returned to Real Madrid following the end of the Civil War, many of them had been bench players before the war as many starters either retired or played elsewhere when the war ended (one even moved to Barcelona).

None of the 1936 playing squad died during the war, but not all former Madrid players and staff members had been so lucky. Monchín Tirana who had played for Real Madrid between 1928 and 1932 was executed by Republican forces alongside with his two brothers in 1936. Like Zamora, Tirana held right wing views and surrendered to Republican forces when his mother and sister were threatened, banking on his popularity to save his life.

Monchín Tirana, one of the few Real Madrid playing causalities of the Spanish Civil War.
Wikipedia

Real Madrid’s former vice president, Gonzalo Aguirre and treasurer, Valero Rivera were all executed by Franco’s forces after the war. Antonio Ortega was also executed, though instead customary firing squad, he was garroted (choked with a thin string of chord) to death. Rafael Sanchez Guerra was jailed and went into exile while most of his board was arrested. Hernandez Corrando survived, explaining away his management of the membership rolls as protecting the club from “the red menace” and remained at the club as secretary.

The Charmatín suffered thousands pesetas in damage and took six months to rebuild. Los Blancos’s home had become a processing centre for war prisoners towards the end of the conflict and was raided for stuff to burn. The pitch had been turned into a vegetable patch and staff member Juan Carlos Alonso was living in the the changing rooms.

A new board was elected by the Franco government in 1943 with Santiago Bernabeu assuming the presidency. Bernabeu complained upon election that most of his team was in jail, an ironic complaint considering the moniker Real Madrid would gain in the intervening years.