Friday, September 9, 2011

History of the Spanish football (I): The Origins

The first news about football (or at least something similar to football) in Spain were documented in 1870. El Progreso de Jerez de la Frontera, a newspaper of Jerez de la Frontera, a town of Cadiz (Andalusia), had a short reference to a cricket game that would be followed by a football game in the afternoon, where the fans could "enjoy banging in a football game". Despite this reference, it is always essential to take a look to the context. Even though the first rules of football, as we know the sport today, were written in 1863 and documented in the sport newspaper "Bells' Life", but the truth was that there were a multitude of rules depending on regions or clubs and the borders between rugby and football were unclear. While some sources claim that the real separation between football and rugby happened in 1871, when the English FA Cup appeared. Looking at the dates and the context, the reference in the newspaper probably talks about rugby-football.

El Progreso de Jerez de la Frontera

How was Spain back then? From the beginning of the 19th century to 1974, Spain had lived the Independence War against the French invasion, which led to a constant fight: absolutists vs liberals. This tense politcal situation was traduced in constant changes in the orientation of the country, civil wars, lack of stability in the different regimes, coup d'etats and the first nationalist tensions. The Spanish economy was based on traditional agriculture; a fragmented, regional and unconnected internal market, the lack of a solid financial institutions and the negative effect of the loss of the American colonies. In this context, the industry in Spain was insignificant compared with the United Kingdom, Germany or the Netherlands and was reduced to very particular zones, like the Basque country (mainly Bilbao) and, especially, Catalonia. The technology used in this industrialization was imported from foreign countries and the first signals of capitalism brought foreign investors, who set their colonies in the cities that were developing an industry and where the raw materials were collected.

One of these zones of raw materials was the province of Huelva (Andalusia), where the copper mines of Riotinto. These mines had been exploited since the ancient times, but during the last part of the 19th century, English investors founded the RTCL (Rio Tinto Company Limited). The Englishmen who worked in the mines did not have much to do in the small town, so they gathered to play their favorite sports, like cricket, rugby and also football. Although the first football games were played in 1873, we had to wait until 1878 until the RTCL formed the Club Inglés (English club) to promote culture, sport and spare time among the workers.

Huelva Recreation Club (Recreativo de Huelva)

In 1884, Dr. Williams Alexander Mackay joined the Club Inglés and created the Sociedad de Juego de Pelota (Ball Game Society), which organized football games along with other typical British sports. The development of this Sociedad is confirmed by a letter sent by Dr. Mackay to the family Dr. Ildefonso Mártinez, where the British man invited the Spansih doctor to join the club to play football and cricket games against the mariners of a merchant ship called "Jane Cory". The date of the letter was March 1st 1888 and the most significant fact is the first reference to a Club de Recreo (Recreation Club).

Dr. Mackay decided to create a sports club in Huelva, the capital of the province. The first meetings of the club was in December 18th 1889 in the Hotel Colón. The meeting was organized by Dr. Mackay along with a German businessman, Wilhem Sundheim, and they invited several personalities of the city like Charles Adams (who was named honor president of the club), J. Crofto, H. Lindermann, A. Lawson, G.M. Speirs, Gout, E.W. Palin and only 2 Spanish: Pedro Soto and José Múñoz. The foundation document was signed on December 23rd 1889: Huelva Recreation Club (nowadays called Recreativo de Huelva) was the first football club to exist in Spain.

The first game of the club was played in February 28th 1890 against members of the Club Inglés of Seville, which was not a sports or football club, but a club with different purposes (culture, spare time). The game was played in the Hipodromo de Tablada, in Seville, and Huelva Recreation Club won 2-0. This match is documented and is considered by the RFEF (Spanish FA), the first game of the history of football in Spain. During all these years, Huelva Recreation Club used to play with the English clubs of other towns like Gibraltar or Riotinto. The club was mostly completed by British players, but 6 of the 19 were Spanish people already.

Athletic Club, the football in Bilbao and the rest of Euskadi

As I already said, football was imported by the British colonies that were based in industrial zones. The first news of football in Bizkaia appeared in 1892, when the president of the Club Athleta de Astilleros del Nervión asked for permission to play in the Hippodrome of Lamiako. Even though the first games were only played by Englishmen, from 1894, the local population joined the game too. They even challenged the British team, losing 5-0.

In 1898, a group of young members of the Gimnásio Zamacois de Bilbao, who were also usual in Lamiako, formed Athletic Club. At the same time, in the year 1900, Bilbao Football Club, founded by Carlos Castellanos in Algorta, a neighborhood of Bilbao. While Athletic Club was mainly formed by local players (only one foreigner), Bilbao FC was mostly completed by foreigners. In these early days of the 20th century, Athletic Club and Bilbao FC joined to play the Copa de la Coronación (current Copa del Rey) under the name of Club Vizcaya de Bilbao, winning the title in the final against a Catalan club, FC Barcelona. In March 1903, Bilbao FC could not keep an independent structure and ended up being absorbed by Athletic Club.

Bizkaia 1902

In Donostia-San Sebastián, the first club was San Sebastián Recreation Club, born in 1903. Six years later, in 1909, the society splitted and the current Sociedad de Fútbol de San Sebastián appeared, although they used the name of Club Ciclista de San Sebastián in some competitions, since the cycling club was registered as official football club and not just as society.

In the rest of Gipuzkoa, the main center of football was Irún, a town located in the Basque coast, in the border with France. The first club to appear was Irún FC (1902), who later changed the name for Irún Sporting Club (1907). An internal division split the team in 1908 and Racing Club Irún appeared. This local rivalry was very strong in such a small town, but the success of these teams was important. Both clubs merged later in 1915.

Another important club that deserve a mention is Arenas FC (later Arenas de Getxo), founded in 1909 and located in Bizkaia, and main threat for the initial Athletic Club.

Catalan Football

Catalonia enjoyed the most developed industry of the country and, of course, there was an important British colony. The first games were documented in 1892 in Can Tunis, a neighborhood of Barcelona, hosted by the Club de Regatas (Boat race club) and were played by Britishmen and Catalan people who had studied in the United Kingdom. In the following years, other games were documented in Reus (Tarragona, South of Catalonia) and some football societies (not registered clubs) appeared in Barcelona. But the first official and registered football club was Palamós FC, founded by Gaspar Matas i Danés in this town of Girona (Costa Brava, North of Catalonia) in 1898.

Football enjoyed a fast and important devolopment in Barcelona, which was living a very dinamic moment, feeling very attracted by the new sport. In the Gimnàs Solé, November 29th 1899, the Swiss Hans Gamper founded FC Barcelona. Hans Gamper had already founded other clubs in his home country and impulsed the sport in his new city too. On December 17, Jaume Vila i Capdevila founded Català SC. As an anecdote, Hans Gamper's initial idea was to join the group of football fans that ended up creating Català SC, but he was rejected for being a foreigner. During the first years of football in Catalonia, FC Barcelona and Català SC had a big rivalry and the polemics about who was the first official club of Barcelona finished when the blaugranas proved that they registered FC Barcelona only a few days before Català SC did.

Hans Gamper (down in the center) and FC Barcelona

Other clubs appeared in the year 1900, like FBC Sant Andreu, founded in 1900 an only Scottish workers, who ended up changing their name for FC Escocés, but they had a very short life. The same group of people founded Hispania AC along with Catalan members of an unofficial team called Team Roig. The main impulse was given by the Catalan Alfons Macaya, who was the president of the club. Hispania AC had a very short life (it disappeared in 1903), but Macaya promoted the Copa Macaya, which was the first tournament ever played in Catalonia and in all Spain. The Copa Macaya is considered the first Campionat de Catalunya.

Also, in the year 1900, a group of Catalan university students registered officially the Sociedad Española de Foot-ball. The founders were Àngel Rodríguez, Octavi Aballí and Lluís Roca, who had been fellow members of the Sociedad Gimnástica Española. The name chosen was restricted by the already existing clubs of the city, which used more representative names. In 1901, before the first Copa Macaya, the club absorbed a smaller team, SD Santanach, and changed their name for Real Club Deportivo Español. The first FC Barcelona-Español (0-0) was marked by the good relationships and FC Barcelona renounced to play with foreigners as courtesy.

Club Español

Other relevant clubs were Universitary Sport Club (1900), founded in the University of Barcelona too; Ibèria SC (1901); FC Internacional (1901), first club of Samitier or Bru; FC España (1905) or CE Europa (1907). The list was endless and clubs appeared and disappeared or merged. In other zones of Catalonia, the development was very important too and historical clubs like Sabadell (1901) belong to this period of time.

Football in Madrid

The development of football in Spain was linked to industrial zones and the coast, zones with higher British influence, but the capital of Spain was an exception in the central regions, thanks to its condition of capital of Spain. The first games were played in the zone of Moncloa, promoted by the Institución Libre de Enseñanza (ILE), an educational and cultural center, which hosted Oxbridge graduates and had a decisive influence in the intellectuals of Spain during the first part of the 20th century

The first club of Madrid was Football Club Sky, founded in 1897, and used to train and play games in Vallecas and Moncola. The club splitted in the year 1900 to disappear, forming two new clubs: New Foot-ball Club de Madrid and Club Español de Madrid. The latter was founded by Julián Palacios who also helped the Catalan brothers Juan and Carlos Padrós in the creation of Sociedad Madrid FC (the current Real Madrid CF) in 1902. Carlos Padrós was fundamental for the development of football and, willing to improve the model of the Catalan Copa Macaya and using as an excuse the coronation of the King Alfonso XIII, impulsed the Copa de la Coronación in 1902 with the help of the City Council. One year later, Carlos Padrós also impulsed the creation of the first federation of clubs in Madrid.

Madrid FC in 1902

In the year 1903, a Basque colony of students lead by Eduardo de Acha met representatives of Athletic Club, one of the clubs of the team Bizkaia that had won the Copa de la Coronación (now Copa del Rey) to create a branch of the club of Bilbao in Madrid: Athletic de Madrid (nowadays, Club Atlético de Madrid). Athletic Club helped Athletic de Madrid since the first moment, giving them uniforms, the badge and the name. In the first years, Athletic de Madrid could not participate in national tournaments due to their link with Athletic Club. Athletic de Madrid got their independence in 1907, when they stopped being a branch of the classic Basque club.

Clubs in Seville

The British colony of Seville introduced football in the city and, as we said in a past entry about the Sevillian rivalry, the first club of the city was Sevilla FC, which was founded in the year 1905. Only a couple of yeas later, Sevilla Balompié was born, a club that was founded by university students. In 1909, internal polemics about the acceptance of working-class players made some members of Sevilla FC leave the institution to create a new club: Betis FC. These three clubs were the most important of the city, until Betis FC and Sevilla Balompié merged and got the "royal" title to create Real Betis Balompié in 1914. The rivalry in Seville is a strong as it was back in the first decades of football.

Valencian football

In the Valencian region, the first news of football belong to the year 1900, in the coast town of Santa Pola, where some British researchers placed their residence to study an eclipse. At the same time, it is well known that the three important harbors of the region (Grao in Castelló, Malvarrosa in València and Puerto de Alicante in Alacant) used to receive merchant ships from the United Kingdom with Britishmen who organized games in these cities.

In València, the mariners neighborhoods (Cabanyal, Malvarrosa and Port de Sagunt) were the location of the first teams of the city. In this way, unofficial societies like Universitario FC (roots of Gimnástico FC), Club Valencia, Gimàstic FC or Club Marítimo (precedent of Levante UD) were born in 1902. Later on, in 1905, Valencia FC (no relation with the current Valencia CF, which was posterior in time) was born too, probably being the most important club of the city in this decade, although it did not have much continuity.

El Cabanyal at València

In Alacant, the first football society was Sportsman's Club Lucentino in 1904 and very soon other clubs, like Racing FC, Mercurio or Alicante Recreation Club (who ended up merging with Sportsman's Club Lucentino in 1909), joined them and their matches were usual in the city, also travelling to Valencia and Murcia to play games in different events.

In Castelló, the first clubs belong to the 1910's, when CD Cervantes and CD Castalia appeared and were the roots of the future CD Castellón.

Unlike other regions, the first couple of decades lacked stability due to the weak institutional support and, in all three provinces, clubs appeared and disappeared. The Valencian federation was born in 1909, but the first regional tournaments had to wait until the end of the following decade, so the development of football in these areas was slower compared with other regions.

In the rest of Spain, the development of the game depended on external influences and location, but football definitely enjoyed the acceptance and support of the masses since the very first days. As a consequence of it, the first competitions appeared, like the Copa Macaya in Catalonia as a main reference of other regional tournaments that appeared all around the country. The winners of these tournaments used to play the Copa del Rey later, the only and most important trophy of Spain until La Liga appeared 3 decades later. We will talk about the regional competitions and the first decades of the Copa del Rey soon.

Sources:,, Hemeroteca El Mundo Deportivo at 


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  2. The people who practiced football in Jerez in 1870 were aristocrats and nobles, refined people and little fond of abruptness and violent games. Therefore, in Jerez was practiced football-association and not football-rugby. In addition, the expression "a cerrazos" refers to the fans of the batting, that is to say, the cricket players who played the same morning. In Spanish, "porrazo" is synonymous with punching.