The first part of four in the serialisation of my dissertation ‘To what extent can Real Madrid CF and FC Barcelona be considered to have been political institutions in Spain during the twentieth century?’, this instalment introduces the topic at hand and provides academic and historical context to the subject.


Sport and politics, it is often said, should not mix. However, as hard as some may try to keep them apart, governance and this particular socio-cultural phenomenon have regularly impinged on one another’s territory throughout history (Allison: 1986, p.12). Nowhere has this been more clearly illustrated in the last century than within the complicated contexts of Spanish football, the game on the Iberian peninsula being seen by some as an extension of the domestic and international political scenario of the day (Crolley & Hand: 2006, p.114).

An area which has been subjected to relatively little by way of detailed research within the social sciences, this dissertation will provide a unique evaluation of the extent of the politicisation of Spain’s two wealthiest and best-supported football clubs (BBC: 2010), Real Madrid CF and FC Barcelona. Indeed, the central question for consideration is whether or not the two clubs can at any stage be considered to have been political institutions – fitting with the various academic definitions thereof – within the historical context of twentieth century Spain.

While the actual levels of political involvement of these two behemoths of Spanish sport is rarely subjected to extended analysis, what is generally agreed upon is that they are grounded in political principles. In his book on the history of Spanish football, Morbo, journalist and author Phil Ball claims that it might not be going too far to suggest that, from 1905 onwards, the two clubs have accurately mirrored the main contests of twentieth century Spanish history (Ball: 2001, p.22).

During the years of General Francisco Franco’s authoritarian fascist regime from 1939 to 1973, a clear political dichotomy arose between the two football clubs. Real Madrid came to be seen as the ‘regime team’, the sporting institution which many believed Franco used to further his own political ends, while FC Barcelona was linked with Republican heroism and the preservation of regional identities (Ball: 2002, p.86-90).

To understand Spain and its politics one must first understand its fragmented nature and the manifold regional differences that have played a crucial role in the social and political problems the country has faced (Grew: 1978, p.198). It is widely agreed that Spanish football represents regional cultures more than any other country in Europe; indeed, so keenly is regional identity felt that the term ‘Spanish’ must be used with caution, for many of the country’s citizens would reject being labelled as such (Ball: 2003, p.15). It is this opposition between centrality and regionalism that has defined civic life in Spain since Visigothic times (Grew: 1978, p.199) and lies at the very heart of Real Madrid and FC Barcelona’s rivalry to this day.

That said, while a number of rather bold and sweeping statements have been made as to the politicisation of the two clubs, those claims have never been subjected to rigorous academic analysis. This dissertation, through study of the key political moments in the recent history of Spain and constant reference to the body of academic work surrounding the topic of political institutions, will dissect those broad claims and ask three main questions to which I hope to reach a collection of relatively clear conclusions on.

The first of these questions is to ask what exactly constitutes a political institution. While they are usually held to be a constitutionally formalised arm of government (Hague & Harrop: 1982, p.82), I will look into the various schools of thought – behaviouralism, rational choice theory, institutionalism, qualitative and quantitative approaches – and assess whether or not there is scope for a broadening of conventional definitions in order to encompass the actions of organisations not traditionally perceived to be ‘of government’.

The second main question involves exploring the dichotomy which is regularly drawn between political institutions and political organisations. While political institutions are seen as more formal administrative bodies, organisations tend to involve themselves with political processes rather than shaping those processes in the first instance, providing an opportunity for citizens to influence those who govern (Hague & Harrop: 1982, p.165). This often subtle but crucial differentiation will become central to our understanding of the politicisation of Real Madrid and FC Barcelona.

The third and final key question of this thesis is to ask whether or not the political alignments with which the clubs are associated come from within the clubs themselves or if they are instead projected onto them by interested parties looking for a convenient vehicle and amplifier for their views. From the history that I have read in preparation for this piece of research, I believe that there is a strong case to be made for the latter, the clubs not necessarily being founded with political sentiment at their heart, but having views and agendas attached to them by those looking to profit from their obvious popularity.

By analysing the socio-political histories of both clubs and the nature of their relationship to the mechanics of national governance, I hope to reach a clear conclusion on this point and come to a firm understanding of to just what extent Real Madrid and FC Barcelona were consciously political in their rhetoric and actions throughout the twentieth century.

Aims and Methods

The aims of this dissertation are essentially threefold, my ambitions for the research being a combination of detailed analysis of the subject in question as well as a more general overview of the place of sporting institutions as a unit of analysis within the political field.

My primary aim is to analyse the respective histories of Real Madrid and FC Barcelona, giving credence to the socio-political context of the times and eventually reaching a conclusion as to just how actively political the two clubs were throughout the previous century. The main focus of this analysis will be as to whether or not their political activities see them fit with academic definitions of political institutions.

Furthermore, with there being some debate as to just how politically engaged Real Madrid and FC Barcelona have been, particularly during the Franco years (Ball: 2001, p.121-22), I aim for my research to reach an answer as to whether the two clubs are consciously political organisations or if particular views and agendas have been foisted upon them.

Before embarking on an analysis of the extent to which the clubs fit with definitions of political institutions, it is first important to establish the characteristics and functions which make an organisation recognisable as a political institution. I aim to make a thorough analysis of the existing academic literature on the subject of political institutions, weighing up the various arguments and theoretical positions of different schools of thought in order to come to a conclusion as to the characteristics I will be looking for evidence of in the actions of Real Madrid and FC Barcelona.

This review of the existing literature will provide the academic framework for the dissertation, the different perspectives grounding the work in theory and providing me with a variety of lenses through which to view the history of the two football clubs with regard to the politics of modern Spain and the linkages between them.

Of course, in order to achieve these aims the project needs a sound methodology, a structure to which my findings can be suitably applied. With this being a relatively unexplored subject area within the social sciences, my methodology will be largely qualitative, exploratory and archival in nature. The major sources I will be drawing on throughout the project will be a combination of theoretical material from scholars such as Arend Lijphart, Jennifer Gandhi and Douglass North, while also studying the official histories of the two clubs and a variety of academic material on the subject of twentieth century Spanish politics and culture. The differing academic standpoints of these sources are further outlined in the literature review.

Indeed, over the course of the dissertation I will also carefully evaluate some of the more mainstream publications written about the two clubs’ relationship with political systems, accounts of journalists such as Phil Ball and Jimmy Burns forming a key part of the bank of available historical material. Where relevant, I will also use data from official UEFA reports and surveys which relate to the ownership structures of the two clubs, the data analysis they include adding a balancing element of quantitative and primary analysis into what is a predominantly qualitative piece of research focussing on secondary sources.

Literature Review

The most basic definition of an institution is an organisation with a public status whose members interact on the basis of their specific roles within it. In the political sphere, when we refer to an institution we usually mean an organ of government as set out by the constitution (Hague & Harrop: 1982, p.82), although there has been a significant amount of academic debate as to just how widely this definition can be cast.

As Rod Hague and Martin Harrop (1982, p.82) point out in their very basic introduction to the subject, the concept of the political institution has broadened over time to encompass organisations perhaps not traditionally associated with the political domain. First organisations without a strictly constitutional basis (local government, for example), were accepted by some as being political institutions, the remit of the term later widening yet again to cover organisations “which are not formally a part of the government” (1982, p.82). While this is a useful and unbiased overview of the growth in meaning of the terminology involved, we must study far more advanced academic material if we are to come to a greater understanding of the debate at hand.

Arguably the most important modern scholar on the subject of political institutions, the Dutch social scientist Arend Lijphart has been central to the development of thinking on institutions and their different applications under various regime types. Indeed, Josep Colomer provides an overview of Lijphart’s work in Political Institutions in Europe, expressing the Dutchman’s belief that institutional structures allow for a greater expression of political pluralism, a context which in turn facilitates exchanges and cooperation between actors (1996, p.7).

A comparativist in terms of his methodology, Lijphart sets out his frame of reference and findings in his book of 1977, Democracy in Plural Societies: A Comparative Explanation. Acknowledging the difficulties governments have had in maintaining stable systems of governance in plural societies and the cleavages therein, Lijphart (1977, p.1) focuses on democratic states (and so is not strictly applicable to swathes of twenty-first century Spanish history) but his analysis is relevant to post-Franco Spain as well as being an interesting theoretical mirror to hold up to the inner workings of Real Madrid and FC Barcelona.

Lijphart also offers a critique of the theory of “overlapping memberships” propounded by Arthur F. Bentley and David B. Truman, associating himself with their idea that when individuals belong to a number of different and diverse organised or unorganised groups their views will be moderated (Lijphart: 1977, p.10). The Dutchman goes on to state that multiple memberships subject people to political cross-pressures and so result in them adopting ‘middle-of-the-road’ positions (1977, p.10-11), but with Real Madrid and FC Barcelona being owned by their members and yet still associated with a variety of political views I believe that this assertion can be challenged through my own research.

In her book Political Institutions under Dictatorship, Jennifer Gandhi focuses exclusively on the role of political institutions in non-democratic regimes, assessing the strategies dictators have traditionally used in order to maintain power. Clearly, with a large proportion of the twentieth century having seen Spain governed by authoritarian leadership, her research is of particular relevance to the research involved with this project.

Defining ‘dictatorships’ as political systems lacking the attributes regularly associated with democracy and yet possessing the institutional structure that others have denied such regimes harbour, Gandhi (2008, p.3) analyses a variety of post-World War II dictatorships and looks for patterns in their usage of political institutions. Although she focuses her research around what may be seen as the traditional institutions of parties and legislatures, there are a number of points which are sentient to this dissertation.

Deducing conclusions from her extensive research, Gandhi states that institutions usually serve to ease the task of governing for a dictator, these extensions of government containing – and often supressing – the demands of the opposition (2008, p.79). Indeed, it is this process of co-optation that Gandhi continues to return to throughout her thesis, institutions being a key tool for concession and persuasion when such action is necessary (2008, p.109). While very little of Gandhi’s research focuses explicitly on Franco’s Spain, she does recognise the remarkable economic growth the country enjoyed under his fascist dictatorship, per capita income being eight times higher in 1975 than it had been at the conclusion of the Second World War (2008, 139).

In a departure from the work of Lijphart and Gandhi, the eminent American economist and historian Douglass North puts forward, quite unsurprisingly, a view of political institutions from an almost solely economic standpoint, offering a comprehensive description of what he believes their characteristics to be. North (1990, p.3) states that institutions are ‘the rules of the game’ in society, the instruments which shape the course of human interaction. Not only does he think that political institutions shape the present, he argues that they shape the evolutionary path of societies and are at the very centre of our understanding of historical change.

While viewing political institutions as structural facilitators in our everyday lives (1990: p.3), North goes on to draw a clear dichotomy between ‘institutions’ and ‘organisations’. He recognises organisations as groups of individuals bound by a common purpose to achieve objectives, collective enterprises borne out of a pre-existing institutional framework (1990, p.5). North argues that there is a symbiotic relationship between organisations and institutions, organisations seeking to change the institutional framework and yet simultaneously being governed by its constraints. They may influence how the institutional framework is structured, but ultimately it is the institutions which hold the power and determine the rules of the game (1990, p.5-6). North’s view is in some senses pluralistic in that he recognises the shared influence of institutions and organisations, but on the other hand he sees institutions as being the ultimate arbiters of political decision-making.

To briefly give an overview of the literature I will be using on the subject of Spanish history and the two clubs, Stanley Payne is one of the most authoritative sources on the Civil War and the life of Spanish fascism. In Fascism in Spain: 1923-1977 Payne provides a balanced and in-depth account and analysis of the regimes of both José Antonio Primo De Rivera and General Franco, expanding upon his history of the Falangist movement, Falange, which was published thirty years earlier in 1966.

José Maravall looks at Franco’s Spain specifically from the perspective of students and workers, most interestingly arguing that the weaknesses that were present in the political institutions of the time encouraged the growth of alternative institutions which satisfied the new requirements of the population (1978, p.42). As an ideological position this could be applied to the perceived increases in the political relevance of Real Madrid and FC Barcelona, although we must take into account Maravall’s past as a socialist politician when studying his writings.

As for literature which focuses explicitly on the footballing history, Phil Ball’s Morbo is a balanced account of some of the nuances of modern Spanish football in which he writes extensively on the political relationships of Real Madrid and FC Barcelona. Indeed, while recognising that the two football clubs have political associations, Ball analyses just how accurate reportage of these links has been and asks whether or not they have been overplayed in the popular narrative of Spanish football.

His book White Storm focuses exclusively on Real Madrid, scrutinising the relationship between the club and the Franco regime and asking whether FC Barcelona’s claims of favouritism shown by the dictator towards Real Madrid are actually the product of a deeply-held (and possibly politically natured) victim complex (2002, p.133). This is in opposition to the thoughts of Jimmy Burns who writes extensively in his book Barça: A People’s Passion about Catalan resistance to Franco and FC Barcelona’s place within it. However, his neutrality is called into question by Ball (2003: p.121) and so we should perhaps qualify any analysis of Burns’ work by taking into account his strong affiliation the Catalan club.

Historical Context

To gain a greater understanding of FC Barcelona and Real Madrid’s role within the political sphere of Spanish society we must first analyse the historical context that surrounded the emergence of both clubs. Indeed, the political landscape of what might be termed ‘modern’ Spain began to take shape from the sixteenth century onwards, Spanish institutions being recognised as having their origins in the Middle Ages and the reformation of Christian principles that was taking place at the time (Payne: 1999, p.3).

With localised and dynastic kingdoms the basic unit of western civilisation during that particular historical era, what we now recognise as Spain was originally formed of five separate kingdoms with the concept of an overarching sense of nationhood, ‘Hispania’, being loose at best (Payne: 1999, p.3). It was within the context of this divided and regionalised system that the deep divisions that have characterised Spanish political life arose.

While the Bourbon monarchy may have instilled a greater sense of nationhood during the eighteen hundreds, the reforms introduced by Charles III in particular serving to reinforce administrative centrality (Ventós: 1991, p.99), historical accounts would suggest that any political gains made in terms of centralisation were undone by the Spanish-American war of 1898. In what Stanley Payne calls the ‘first modern postcolonial trauma in western Europe’ (1999, p.11) the Spanish navy was decimated by American forces and so led to the seizure of swathes of colonial territories including Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines (Hendrickson: 2003, p.52).

This obliteration of the Spanish overseas empire seemed to symbolise the failure of modern Spain as a state and system, elitism giving way to a process of democratisation that could be said to have opened up even more profound conflicts within the Spanish state (Payne: 1987, p.9). Payne (1987, p.7) believes that this seminal moment in the modern history of Spain caused a ‘general absence of nationalism’, while Xavier de Ventós (1991, p.135) has written that Spanish society came close to involution, to turning in on itself and breaking up from the inside in a political implosion.

Elements of this can be seen in the ‘disaster literature’ of the Regenerationist movement which arose in Spain shortly after the loss of empire, political writings which attempted to prescribe reforms to remedy the perceived erosion of a collective Spanish identity (Payne: 1987, p.9-10). As Jimmy Burns (1999, p.xv) puts it, this was Spain’s fin de siècle, the politically turbulent time between the fall of one era and its usurpation by another.

It was into this shifting political landscape that both Real Madrid and FC Barcelona were born, something which may go some way to explaining the political relevance the two clubs have maintained throughout their respective histories to this day.

With political consensus proving impossible to achieve and each step towards democratic reform increasing socio-political fragmentation (Payne: 1999, p.11), it could very well be argued that these two sporting institutions represented different elements of the differentiation between the traditional and the modern which came to be defined through the work of the ‘noventayochistas’, writers who preoccupied themselves with the “problem of Spain” (Payne: 1999, p.11-12). What is certain is that FC Barcelona and Real Madrid were both founded at a time of large-scale social and political upheaval, the circumstances of which are reflected in their respective popular identities.


While Spain may have struggled with its own identity during the early years of the twentieth century, Catalonia had become the country’s most developed region and, according to Juan Linz (1973) cited in Hargreaves (2000, p.26), felt aggrieved at being held back by an inefficient state. Having modernised relatively quickly in political and economic terms (Hargreaves: 2000, p.26), football had taken hold among the Catalan middle classes and the expatriate population who were enjoying the fruits of a significant economic boom (Burns: 1999, p.72).

Indeed, such were the favourable economic conditions of the time in Barcelona that the city’s premier football club was founded by wealthy liberal expatriates. The man credited with the foundation of FC Barcelona, Joan Gamper (the Catalanised version of his original name, Hans Kamper), was a Swiss businessman who was extremely sympathetic to the cause of Catalan nationalists. As the official history of the club explains, Gamper became fully integrated in Catalonia, both speaking and writing Catalan and immersing himself in the regional culture (FC Barcelona: 2011).

As Jimmy Burns (1999: p.84-86) points out, the first years of Barcelona’s existence as a club coincided with the ‘great leap forward’ of political Catalanism, the team quickly coming to be projected as ‘Catalan’ in nature and linked to the liberal nationalist movement in the region. In this sense, politics has always been at the heart of FC Barcelona, its birth into a time of immense political change having an inevitable impact upon its image and perceived loyalties.

Real Madrid, on the other hand, is a club that, rather than being formally created, evolved out of pre-existing institutions. In 1897, the year before Spain’s imperial crisis, a group of student’s at the city’s Institucíon Libre de Enseñanza began to play organised games of football under the name of ‘Foot Ball Sky’ (Ball: 2002, p.46). It was this club of relatively wealthy, well-educated and middle-class members (several of its players had arrived in Spain having completed degrees at Cambridge University) that is now recognised as the forerunner to Madrid FC (Ball: 2002, p.46/47).

As Phil Ball points out in Morbo (2003, p.117), the club was hardly borne of humble origins, links with the aristocracy being present from the very beginning. Indeed, Foot Ball Sky’s original treasurer was Conde (Count) de La Quinta de La Enrajada, an Oxford graduate and member of the upper echelons of Spanish society. More strongly connected to the establishment than FC Barcelona, Real Madrid’s social institutionalisation could be said to have been rubber-stamped by the awarding of royal patronage by Alfonso XIII in 1920 (Ball: 2003, p.117).

In 1902 there was a schism amongst the members of Foot Ball Sky, a player by the name of Julián Palacios leading a splinter group and becoming the unofficial president of the newly-formed Madrid FC. The club’s official history holds the date of Real Madrid’s foundation to be 6th March 1902, rather grandly going on to state that it went on to become “the banner of the incipient Spanish football scene” (Real Madrid: 2011).

While Ball (2003: p.115) sensibly warns against the cliché of painting Real Madrid as an exclusively right-wing club, he does concede that it has a more of a claim to being an integral part of the national fabric than any other sports club in Spain, it being long since associated with the Spanish ruling classes.

  • Part Two will look more specifically at FC Barcelona and will be published on Saturday.