The third 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 looks in detail at the political life of Real Madrid and its supposed relationship with Franco, as well as analysing the relevance of the socio model to both clubs.

If you haven’t yet read parts one and two then just click on the links and they’ll take you through.

Santiago Bernabéu and the Politicisation of Real Madrid

Whereas FC Barcelona’s politics makes it difficult to consider it a political institution in the conventional sense of the term, Real Madrid’s supposed links to the social establishment and the Franco regime arguably bring it more in line with orthodox definitions of political institutions. Popularly held to be the “regime team”, Real Madrid has long been associated with Fascist sympathy and links with the upper echelons of Spanish society (Ball: 2002, p.88), but the extent to which that was formally the case is open to examination.

Founded in 1902 after a group of middle-class students at the city’s Institucíon Libre de Enseñanza split from their original team to form Madrid FC, the club was awarded royal patronage by Alfonso XIII in 1920 (Ball: 2003, p.117), a gesture which encapsulated the links with high-profile political figures for which it is renowned and saw it take on the name Real (‘Royal’) Madrid. The key figure in the process of politicisation that the club underwent in the early decades of the twentieth century was Santiago Bernabéu, the son of a Valencian lawyer who would go on to mould the political agenda of Real Madrid throughout the twentieth century (Ball: 20002, p.63).

Having played for the team between 1912 and 1927, Bernabéu became a director at Real Madrid and is said to have actively fraternised with the city’s financial community in order to secure the monetary assistance necessary to build the new ground he believed the club required (Ball: 2002, p.74). This ability to ingratiate himself with key decision-makers is a trend which appears time and again with Bernabéu, and is something to which I will return later.

While Bernabéu was unquestionably a member of the bourgeoisie and a supporter of the Franco regime that was to come later, on the eve of civil war neither Real Madrid nor the city itself had anything like the associations with Franco’s brand of non-syndicalist Fascism (Payne: 1999, p.476) that they would come to have further down the line. The final stronghold of Spanish leftism as well as the refuge of Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera (son of Miguel), the founder of the original Falangist movement which sought to combine nationalism with anarcho-syndicalism (Payne: 1999, p.150), Madrid was a place with no clear collective political identity other than being bound by opposition to Francoist forces.

Indeed, during the civil war Real Madrid’s president had been Colonel Antonio Ortega, a man committed to Communist ideology, a member of the Socialist Party executive, an officer in the ranks of the left-wing militia and a public opponent of General Franco (Bolloten: 1991, p.486-487). In a remarkable chapter in the club’s history it’s previously highly exclusive facilities were thrown open to the public, membership fees were slashed and the Chamartín stadium became a centre for Soviet-style displays of proletarian sporting endeavour (Goldblatt: 2007, p.302). In a series of political gestures completely contrary to the right-wing ideology the club is commonly thought to have always held, Real Madrid became a hub for the organisation of Madrid’s socialist community.

While the club was not formally a part of the political processes of the time, those who ran it during the civil war were most certainly members of highly significant political parties and, it could be argued, used the club as an extension of their socialist agenda. As Douglass North (1990, p.6) writes in Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance, the major role of institutions in a society is to reduce uncertainty by establishing a stable structure for human interaction. During a turbulent political period with civil war raging and the future of Spain in some doubt, I believe it can be said that that is the precise purpose Real Madrid served during those years of change.

If we relate Real Madrid’s institutional significance from 1936 to 1939 to the research of Jennifer Gandhi, then we can gain a deeper understanding of just how the club fitted into the institutional structure of Spain during the civil war. Gandhi (2008, p.168) argues that political elites actively seek the cooperation of groups outside of their own circle during wartime in order to recruit and mobilise far greater numbers of troops, the specific conditions of each situation determining the amount of wider institutionalisation of these groups that takes place.

In the case of Real Madrid during the civil war we can say that the club was part of a widening of the institutional ‘net’ of the Spanish socialist movement, the leaders of the movement using the club’s identity and physical assets to motivate the city’s population and propagate socialist ideals (Goldblatt: 2007, p.302). Indeed, using Gandhi’s argument of political elites and institutions spreading their influence over a wider section of society in wartime, we can argue that it was during the civil war rather than the Franco years that Real Madrid was most closely tied to a specific political party.

This perspective also tallies with the view rational choice theorists take of political institutions, namely that institutions are seen as structures of voluntary cooperation that resolve problems of collective action (Shapiro et al: 2006, p.32). The parameters of this definition sit well with Real Madrid’s role during the civil war, it being made a far more public institution, opened up to the benefit of the wider community with the aim of resolving an issue of collective action.         

While the conflict may have seen Real Madrid’s political influence grow, the conclusion of the civil war saw the club’s leading socialist officials brutally dealt with by the Franco regime. Ortega vanished at the end of formal hostilities, it being widely believed that he was executed for his role in the Socialist party (Ball: 2002, p.90), the Colonel being one of several club administrators to have been rumoured to have met their death at the hands of the Fascists.

Conversely, Bernabéu had aligned himself with Franco during the civil war, joining the future dictator’s army in Irún and fighting for the Fascist forces after returning from a brief period of self-imposed exile from Madrid (Goldblatt: 2007, p.303). As Phil Ball (2002, p.89) writes, “Bernabéu had nailed his colours to the side who were to murder several of his colleagues at Real Madrid…[he] was helping a bunch of thugs to win a nasty war and set up a brutal regime that would last for 40 years”. After a brief period of socialist involvement the club had quickly become increasingly linked with the Fascist regime, the foundations of the club’s political future having been put in place.

Real Madrid and Franco

Bernabéu was elected president of Real Madrid in September 1943, eventually taking over in 1944 and sending a telegram to General Moscardó – head of both sport and Franco’s personal military staff (Payne: 1987, p.347) – which called the General a “heroic soldier of the fatherland”. According to Ball (2002, p.94) the message could not have been clearer, Real Madrid’s president was looking to establish his club’s Francoist credentials and break any remaining ties with the Republican sympathies of the civil war years.

A run of domestic success during the 1950s (four La Liga titles in five seasons) saw the Franco regime latch onto Real Madrid, the dictator keen to use the club as a means of projecting an international image of Spain as a nation of “stylish achievers worthy of being let back into the international fold” (Ball: 2001, p.120). Indeed, after the team won the Copa Latina in 1955, all members of the squad were awarded the Imperial Order of the Yoke and Arrows, Bernabéu having the Grand Cross of Civil Merit bestowed upon him a year later (Ball: 2001, p.120). Those involved with Real Madrid were gradually being institutionalised on an individual level, their links to the Fascist regime being incrementally formalised.

In an article written for the University of Copenhagen’s Asian Dynamics Initiative, Marie Yoshida argues that political institutions are not only capable of being analysed from the perspective of legislation and economics, but also from a cultural angle (University of Copenhagen: 2008). These institutions, she argues, embody specific visions of what constitutes “the good life”, the right kind of morality, and the most appropriate forms of education and socialisation in any given social order (University of Copenhagen: 2008). If we look at Real Madrid from this particular academic perspective then it can arguably be classified as an institution of a political nature, a guardian of the civic identity the Franco regime wished to cultivate and maintain. In the words of Yoshida, this role is defined as being the caretaker of socially desirable identities, rights and duties, worldviews, and interactions between citizens and state (University of Copenhagen: 2008).

Furthermore, in line with more orthodox definitions of political institutions, the club had a number of tangible political effects, amplifying the policies of the Franco regime to a wider audience. As Jennifer Gandhi (2008, p.139) has noted, Spain experienced phenomenal rates of economic growth under the Fascist regime, a result of the nationalist programme of economics that was eventually fully introduced in the late 1940s after the financially destructive impacts of the civil war (Payne: 1987, p.246-248).

These rapid economic gains and the increased levels of social mobility they eventually facilitated amongst the Spanish middle-classes were reflected in the politics of Santiago Bernabéu and the club which he led with a growing authority and autonomy (Ball: 2002, p.93-94). As David Goldblatt (2007, p.306) identifies, the president’s leadership mobilised the capital’s middle classes and applied technical competence and financial rectitude to the task. Arguably a cultural extension of the ideals of the regime, Real Madrid’s move to the Santiago Bernabéu Stadium – located on the exclusive Paseo de la Castellana – in 1947 also reinforced the notion that the club was part of the political elite. Under the presidency of Bernabéu the club had shown itself unafraid to wade into turbulent waters, it being clearly right of centre on the political spectrum (Ball: 2002, p.63-64).

If we look at these events through the eyes of a political economist such as Douglass North then we may interpret them to be evidence of Real Madrid taking on a more institutional identity. As North (1990, p.5) maintains, political institutions are essentially ‘the rules of the game’, bodies whose primary role is to perpetuate the system that exists rather than to act as an agent of institutional change. With Santiago Bernabéu’s Real Madrid upholding the status quo imposed by the regime and taking on what North (1990, p.6) sees as another defining feature of regimes in that the club helped establish a blueprint and structure for interaction within Francoist Spain, there is an argument to be made that the capital’s biggest sporting symbol was instrumental in the popular implementation of the regime’s domestic policy goals and, in the context of its continental success, easing the fears of governments overseas.

The notion that Real Madrid is or has been a Fascist club is, however, a fallacy; its political situation not being as black and white as some have sought to portray it. While there is little doubt that Franco wished to centralise Spain’s powerbase in a city whose football team would represent the white purity of power and victory (Ball: 2002, p.100), the allegations of favourable refereeing and financial favours that some believe went their way during the Franco years are difficult to tie down and prove from a position of any objectivity.

While major books such as Jimmy Burns’ Barça: A People’s Passion propound the conspiracy theories often vented by followers of FC Barcelona and the Basque club Athletic Bilbao, clear evidence of Real Madrid being strongly favoured by the Fascist regime is difficult to come by. As Phil Ball (2003, p.121) explains, Franco indisputably benefitted from Real Madrid’s success in terms of acceptance on the international stage (the club won five consecutive European Cups from 1956 to 1960), but exactly what the club received in return is harder to determine.

From what I have discussed earlier in this dissertation we can see that Real Madrid was representative of the ideals the Franco regime wanted to advertise as the ‘Spanish way’, but the extent to which the club was actively encouraged and given incentives to adopt a certain ideological approach is unclear. Indeed, if we are to take this strand of thought to its logical conclusion, it could be argued that it was Bernabéu, a man on a political crusade of his own (Ball: 2003, p.123), who drove the political agenda of the club from within rather than it being mandated externally by the regime.

The Socio Model

To move away from the realm of the ideological and into that of the purely structural, I believe it can be argued that the membership model and mode of administration used by both Real Madrid and FC Barcelona gives them a greater political emphasis than the vast majority of other groups that are held to be socio-cultural organisations.

In 1992 the Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) ruled that all professional football clubs whose finances showed a negative balance had to transform from members’ associations into Sports Public Limited Companies (SADs), a policy which left only four clubs immune from change and able to continue as institutions essentially owned by their members; Real Madrid, FC Barcelona, Athletic Bilbao and Osasuna (UEFA: 2009, p.108).

As a 2009 UEFA report on the feasibility of a continentally representative supporters organisation explains (2009, p.112), clubs which are run as members’ associations are owned by their socios (paid-up members) and their non-profit nature forces the club to re-invest any profits or revenues gained to commercial activity back into the club. Furthermore, the board of directors is constantly held to account by the members, being required to receive authorisation from the club’s general assembly upon any sale or acquisition of property or economic rights with a value equal to or greater than 20% of the budget, and for any commercial agreement with a length that exceeds five years (UEFA: 2009, p.112).

With 156,000 and 96,000 members respectively (UEFA: 2009, p.112), FC Barcelona and Real Madrid are the two biggest sporting members’ associations in Spain and are inextricably linked to both local and national politics through the arrangements of their ownership structures. Indeed, written into the legal framework of both clubs is the agreement that, in the event of liquidation, any remaining assets must be donated to public institutions; either the municipality government or government of the autonomous region in which the club is based (UEFA: 2009, p.112).

Members are also able to vote for the club presidents in elections held every five years, incumbents not being able to serve more than two terms. Any member over the age of eighteen with at least one year’s membership already completed is able to vote in the elections, the directorship of the teams being decided in a more democratic manner than the vast majority of clubs in football across the world. Indeed, as the UEFA report states (2009, p.112), this arrangement is similar to that seen in democratic public institutions, but does that assertion stand up to more detailed academic analysis?

Josep Colomer (1996, p.180-181) explains that political parties in Spain since the first elections of the post-Francoist era in 1977 have had very low levels of membership and are highly centralised, some being organised with an assembly holding the leadership to account (as with the football clubs), with others demonstrating more of a dichotomy between the professional politicians and the wider membership. Political scientists such as Maurice Duverger and Sigmund Neumann would argue that there is a close relationship between the number of political groups and parties and democratic stability (Lijphart: 1977, p.12-13), a strand of thought which one could interpret as giving greater importance to the actions and organisational structures of Real Madrid and FC Barcelona.

While their structure doesn’t implicitly increase the political influence of the clubs in question, nor does it make them ‘political’ institutions in the strictest sense of the term, it can be argued that this political blueprint to their organisation increases the pluralism and democratic health of the modern Spanish political system. Raising levels of participation in quasi-political organisations and bodies, the socio model could be said to be politically significant and, as Lijphart (1977, p.88-89) would hold, indicative of the preconditions and levels of plurality required to induce a more consociational form of democracy amongst the tools of government that are seen as the more traditional political institutions.

  • Part Four will present the conclusions of the dissertation and will be published on Friday.