The Second World War caused severe disruption to formalised footballing competition throughout Europe, but Spain was left relatively untouched as it recovered from Civil War and remained neutral and non-belligerent under the leadership of General Francisco Franco.
While the majority of the continent’s leagues were suspended during the conflict, La Liga ploughed on during the 1940s and produced some fascinating narratives, not least of which was the success of Atletíco Aviación.
The forerunner to the club we now know as Atletíco Madrid, Aviación was originally founded as Athletic Club de Madrid in 1903 and began playing at the Ronda de Vallecas in one of the traditionally working-class districts of the Spanish capital. Moderate success followed for the fledgling club, but its fortunes took a drastic upturn upon the resumption of La Liga after the Civil War in 1939.
Having lost eight players in the political violence, a severely depleted Athletic Club agreed on a merger with Zaragoza’s Aviación Nacional, a team which had been denied a place in the reformed La Liga on the basis of their pre-Civil War relegation in 1934.
Formed by members of the Spanish Air Force, one might have thought that Aviación would have been a team to Franco’s taste, and so it proved as the club was selected to replace Real Oviedo who had not been able to fulfil their commitments to the league due to their ground being destroyed during the conflict.
As a result of this stroke of good fortune the club that had been created by the merger – Athletic Aviación de Madrid – took its place in La Liga under the management of one of the most famous sportsmen in Spain, Ricardo Zamora.
Zamora, a former Barcelona and Real Madrid goalkeeper famed for his cloth cap, polo neck sweater and hedonistic tendencies, was a politically controversial figure who had been a darling of Catalan nationalism before rumours of Francoist sympathies had begun to surface during the war.
While the matter of his allegiances was never completely resolved, Zamora’s grateful acceptance of the Great Cross of the Order of Cisneros from Franco is held by some to be a clear indicator. Either way, the former Spanish international’s politics should not be allowed to obscure what was an impeccable record at the top level of the Iberian game.
Having briefly managed in France with Nice during the Civil War, Zamora took to his first coaching job in his homeland with typical ease. Achieving impressive results including a 3-0 victory over Barcelona and a 4-2 beating of the much-fancied Sevilla, Aviación went on to win the title by a point from the Andalusians with 14 wins from their 22 games.
Constructed around the solid central midfield partnership of Spanish internationals Germán Gómez and Ramón Gabilondo, Zamora’s team built on their success by storming to a second consecutive league title. Forced by Franco to change their name mid-season to the more traditionally Spanish Club Atlético de Aviación, the Madrid club won the league by two points from Athletic Bilbao.
Major honours may have eluded Aviación for the remainder of Zamora’s tenure, a series of respectable finishes including second place in 1943/44 being the height of the club’s achievements during the rest of the decade, but the groundwork for future success had been completed.
After the charismatic manager’s departure in 1947 the club distanced itself from its military links, its name being changed one last time to Club Atlético de Madrid, the title it holds to this day.
Zamora went on to manage Celta Vigo, Espanyol and Spain amongst others, finally retiring from the game in 1961 at the age of 60. Built on the foundations the famous goalkeeper had laid, Atletí has gone on to become one of the biggest clubs in Spain, seven league championships and nine Copa del Rey titles being added to the trophy cabinet since Zamora’s departure.
The 1940s may not have been the most stable of times in Spain, but for Atlético Madrid it proved to be the decade in which the club came of age.