May 30, 2023

Who was the team of the regime?

After loathing each other to varying degrees for the best part of a century, the fiery relationship between Barcelona and Real Madrid had shown some signs of cooling in recent years.

Both could unite against a common enemy in the form of La Liga – with the Spanish top flight proving to be a stubborn obstacle in the way of a shared ideal, the European Super League.

However, Real Madrid squashed any links that had formed when they sided with La Liga and the Spanish FA in the complaint against Barcelona regarding alleged payments made by the Catalan club to former referee chief Jose Maria Enriquez Negreira earlier this month.

Barcelona president Joan Laporta stoked the flames of the Clasico rivalry while vehemently protesting his club’s innocence, going so far as to label Real Madrid “the club of the regime” and claim that Los Blancos have been historically favoured by Spain’s officials.

Real Madrid have often been derided as the darling of Francisco Franco’s blood-stained dictatorship between 1936 and 1975. But the club did not let Laporta’s latest swipe pass unnoticed. In response, Real Madrid released a four-and-a-half-minute video asking: “Who was the team of the regime?”

As the capital of repressed Catalonia, Barcelona are painted as the epitome of anti-Francoism. However, life – and especially football – is rarely so simple.

Expertly shifting the focus away from Barcelona’s guilt, Laporta turned the tables on Madrid’s holier-than-thou stance.

“They claim to feel aggravated in sporting terms by this,” the Barcelona president said. “This comes from a club, as we all know, that has been favoured from refereeing back in history and still nowadays. A club that was regarded as ‘the club of the regime’ back in the days.

“Why was that? Because of how close they were to the political, economical and sportive power… it might have to be remembered that during seven decades, the majority of presidents and officials from the refereeing committee were former Real Madrid partners, former Real Madrid footballers or former Real Madrid executives. During 70 years, the people in charge to make decisions in that regard were from Real Madrid.”

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Real Madrid’s long-serving vice-president Raimundo Saporta claimed: “Madrid is and always has been apolitical. It has always been so powerful because it has always been at the service of the backbone of the state. When it was founded in 1902, it respected Alfonso XIII and in 1931 when the Republic was proclaimed, the Republic; in 1939, the Generalismo [Franco]… It is a disciplined club that accepts with loyalty the institution that runs the nation.”

As a player and coach of Real Madrid for the best part of four decades, Vicente del Bosque is in a strong position to make sweeping judgements about the club. Given that his father spent three years in a Francoist prison camp, the World Cup-winning manager also has an idea of the political landscape in Spain. “Madrid represents all of Spain,” he once declared. “The idea that this is Franco’s club is totally off the mark. It doesn’t make any sense, any at all.”

There are those on Barcelona’s side of the divide that also agree with Del Bosque. Former Barça president Joan Gaspart told Sid Lowe in Fear and Loathing in La Liga (an excellent book that delves into this topic in brilliant detail): “I’m convinced that a high percentage of Real Madrid’s fans don’t know who Franco was and don’t or wouldn’t like him. They’re not the regime team any more. Spain’s a democracy and we don’t even talk about Franco.” Well, his successor Laporta has churned up this murky part of the nation’s history.

Ever the politician, Laporta’s comments would have resonated in Catalonia. According to a poll taken during the club’s centenary year, 85% of Barcelona fans believed that the Franco regime systematically handicapped them.

Off the pitch, Franco undoubtedly sought to repress Catalan nationalism at every turn, famously refusing to allow Catalan names and instead forcing parents to choose “Christian” ones. If he hadn’t already, Johan Cruyff cemented his status as a Barcelona icon by insisting on calling his son Jordi, rather than something like Juan.

Yet, incredibly, the hatred of Franco is not universal in Barcelona. During Laporta’s first reign as Barcelona president, one of his most trusted directors – and brother-in-law – Alejandro Echevarria, was revealed to be a member of the Fundacion Nacional Francisco Franco – an organisation dedicated to the former dictator.

Laporta strongly denied the accusations but was forced to embarrassingly accept the plain facts. The protest from fans at the time never fully materialised, scarcely stretching beyond a splurge of stickers which shouted: ”Zero tolerance with lies, repression and Francoism. Laporta resign!”

Echevarria was described by the Spanish publication Sport as Laporta’s ‘Mr. Wolf’, the Pulp Fiction character portrayed by Harvey Keitel brought in to fix problems. Ironically, Echevarria created a sizeable predicament for Laporta which is rearing its ugly head again.

Echevarria was also a close friend of Xavi, the club’s current head coach, and was known to holiday with the former Barcelona midfielder in Ibiza.

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It’s complicated. As Real Madrid’s video points out, Barcelona won five La Liga titles during Franco’s reign before Los Blancos claimed their first, 15 years after the Generalismo took power. Although, the footage fails to mention that Real Madrid won the league 14 times overall during this period – almost double Barcelona’s tally.

Ultimately, especially for those outside of Spain, it is far too simplistic to adhere to the stereotype that Laporta is pedalling.

As the former Real Madrid winger Michel points out, there are plenty of cliches that should not be blindly believed. “The Englishman who sees Madrid as Franco’s club,” Michel once said, “probably thinks Spanish women dress as Flamenco dancers.”