“History is a relentless master. It has no present, only the past rushing into the future. To try to hold fast is to be swept aside.” (John F. Kennedy)
The history of football is an asperous one. Marked by irregular developments and incremental gains, the sport’s journey from codification in 1863 to the universalised product of the modern era has been characterised by caveats, imbalances and a generalised absence of uniformity.
Missionaries, schools and the armed forces of the British Empire all played their part in the gradual spread of football beyond national boundaries, but it was arguably expatriate British workers and industrialists who had the most direct and formative influence on the processes of sporting aggrandisement in Europe.
In the case of Recreativo de Huelva, Spain’s oldest football club, it was groups of labourers and engineers searching for copper and pyrite reserves who first introduced the game to the region. As Phil Ball writes in his quite excellent book Morbo, it is thought that the first semi-formal game of football to be played on Spanish soil was between local railway workers and British engineers in the September of 1874. Huelva, a sleepy maritime town on the Andalusian coast, was the crucible of football’s genesis in Spain and, as such, is central to the narrative of the development of Iberian sport.
While Club Gimnástico Tarragona and Athletic Bilbao have also each attempted to lay claim to being the most historic football club in Spain, it has been proved beyond reasonable doubt that Huelva, now a modest second-tier outfit, beat them to it. Fully fifteen years after that first match between the railwaymen and the engineers, Real Club Recreativo de Huelva was founded two days before Christmas in 1889. Organised by the British managers of the Rio Tinto copper mines, Recreativo was established in order to occupy the workforce and seemingly continue that most awkward tradition of British expatriate communities; the establishment and impression of their own cultural pursuits and values upon local populations.
The motives behind Huelva’s foundation may have been less than altruistic, but the club quickly became a focus of community activity. In the March of 1890 the team travelled to Seville to participate in what is believed to have been the first officially recorded football match ever staged in Spain, but at that time the club was still more of a hub for southern Andalusian social activity than an organisation which put sport before all else. As the years passed, however, Recreativo became increasingly formalised and moved away from invitational games and spontaneous fixtures against the crews of whichever ship happened to be docked in the port at any given time, beginning to take part in regional competitions around the turn of the century.
Huelva’s history, its foundation aside, has largely been a tale of mediocrity and disappointment, but during the first decade of the twentieth century the club won a handful of Andalusian championships and established itself as a real footballing force in the south of Spain. However, the advent of a national league system in 1929 and the rise of financially stronger clubs to the north saw Recreativo’s standing within the game take a dramatic slide.
Usually to be found languishing in the lower leagues, Huelva didn’t reach the Segunda División until 1940, only to be relegated back down into the abstractions of the third tier at the first time of asking. The club’s next promotion was not to come until 1957, when, true to form, they found themselves cast back from whence they came by the summer of 1958. The one truly bright period in Huelva’s more recent history came when the team achieved promotion to the top-flight for the first time ever in 1978. Again, Recreativo remained extraordinarily consistent by finishing rock bottom and falling straight back into the clutches of the Segunda.
Disaster was to follow as El Decano (‘The Old Man’, literally ‘The Dean’) found themselves back in the third-tier by 1990. A painstaking rebuilding process followed as this club of unparalleled historical significance in Spain dusted itself down and began yet another attempt at ascending the league ladder. Remarkably, and against all the odds, Recreativo made it back to La Liga with promotion in 2001/02, astoundingly reaching the final of the Copa del Rey in 2003 (beating Atlético Madrid and Real Betis on the way before ultimately losing out to Real Mallorca) despite again suffering the all too regular fate of relegation. The club made a final return to the top tier in 2006, this time clinging on to its La Liga status for a full three seasons before demotion in 2009.
Despite flirting with success on occasion, Huelva have been largely occluded from the recent history of Spanish football, the club’s footballing mediocrity and geographical isolation having seen its significance either ignored or forgotten by swathes of those who follow the Iberian game. This is a club, however, that deserves greater recognition for its formative influence on the Spanish game, and the way in which it set in motion the country’s social and political love affair with the game. Let’s hope the future shows more kindness to Recreativo than that which has been afforded by the past.