How Spain discovered its football roots, with an offer of ‘fowl’ play

IT is estimated that close to four billion people tuned in to watch the FIFA World Cup last summer, which proves, without doubt, that football is the world’s most popular sport.

The sport has the highest-paid athletes and the most professional leagues, as well as the most expensive television rights.

At any given time, more than 240 million people worldwide playing football. But the history of this revered sport is complicated.

Records trace the genesis of something similar to football back 2,000 years, to ancient China, Greece, Rome… and even Central America!

In any case, the British began kicking around an inflated pig’s bladder in the 13th Century! Local denizens would travel between villages, aiming to kick the “ball” against a designated church door to settle local disputes.

But the game was often violent, and sometimes deadly. In 1815, Cambridge and Eton College began to codify the rules, and, by 1863, the English began to form the leagues and federations we know today.

Over the next 50 years, football was spread by British immigrant workers, colonialists, sailors and exchange students, to nearly all corners of the globe. And Spain was no exception.

If you ask where and when the first recorded football game took place on the Iberian Peninsula, the answer is Andalucia!

In 1873, amid the instability and financial bankruptcy of the Spanish state, the Rio Tinto mines, near Huelva, were purchased by British entrepreneurs.

Over the next few years, an influx of British miners, garrison soldiers and railroad workers arrived.

In 1887, on the feast day of San Roque (the patron saint of the sick and disabled) locals and Brits gathered to celebrate.

This two-day fiesta had the reputation of being a drunken melee, which, when the men were sober enough to stand upright, included climbing a greasy pole, donkey races and a tug-of-war, etc.

The Brits celebrated by forming two teams, picked exclusively from among non-Spaniards in the first recorded “foot-ball” match on the Iberian Peninsula.

Captain W.F. Adams, a member of an English garrison unit which served to protect British mining interests, chronicled the event for his superiors, writing: “Marched out of Huelva on Wednesday. Played football with some railway workers… the only diversion we truly had.”

Although the note was short, cursory and handwritten, it remains the earliest tangible proof of Rio Tinto’s claim to be the “cuna del futbol espanol” (birthplace of Spanish football).

But was it truly the first football game played on Spanish soil? It depends on who you ask….

But 900km to the north, in Basque country in and around Bilbao, a different story is told.  Again, the “first game of football” was tied to the British and mining, but in an entirely different context.

The Rio Tinto enterprise was run like a mining camp, the local Spanish miners being subject to exploitation, along with the uncertainty of mineral supply and demand.

For the most part, though, they were segregated from British management. Not so in the more-developed/industrialised north.

Bilbao, unlike Andalucia, was becoming an industrial dynamo.

Technology and the second half of the British industrial revolution required steel, shipbuilding and chemical industries, all of which were Bilbao’s great strength.

Local Basque shippers and industrialists were front and centre in forming a strong, Spanish, entrepreneurial class, not subject to the rule of British demands.

Yet many of the sons of Basque’s educated class completed their education in Britain, where they developed an interest in football.

And on their return home, they began arranging matches with British workers.

Thus, football’s Anglo-Saxon roots had to contend with the Basque’s strong sense of an independent culture and political identity.

Unlike the Rio Tinto/Huelva case, the early introduction of football to the Basque Country provided an avenue for integration and participation between the British expats and locals.

An 1893 article in a Bilbao newspaper speaks of when a group of Bilbainos challenged a team of Los Ingleses to a football match.

The Englishmen won the toss and chose to play the first half with the sun behind them.

The game was said to have been extremely physical, with heavy tackling, which angered the Bilbainos and gave the Los Ingleses a 2-0 advantage at half-time.

With low spirits, the local team returned to their locker-room and were confounded by the delivery of 11 “exquisitely-roasted” chickens as a gift of restitution from their opponents.

The game was delayed to allow the locals to enjoy their meal, just as the crafty Los Ingleses had planned. But this was, surely, the first sign of fowl play in football!

By the time the game resumed, the sun was setting, slowing the Bilbainos in sunlight and indigestion. But after their humiliating 6-0 defeat, the locals vowed to build competitive teams.

In 1897, four years after that definitive “chicken match”, Basque football enthusiasts were confident enough about their own abilities to form one of the first local, all-Spanish, football clubs.

The first recorded football game may, or may not have, taken place in Rio Tinto, but the first all-Spanish football match took place in Bilboa.

The football fervour spread quickly, from Basque country across northern Spain to Madrid, Catalonia and beyond.

By 1915, regional Spanish teams began league play, and in 1920, Spain won a silver medal in the Olympics (Antwerp).

By 1928, the meteoric rise of league rivals Real Madrid and FC Barcelona had become a Spanish obsession, and Spain’s international teams were prolific as well.

They finished fourth in the 1950 World Cup, won the European Championship in 1964 and were runners-up in 1984.

Winning gold in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics was a source of great national pride as was winning the 2010 World Cup

In reviewing the history of “fútbol” in Spain, it really is comical that its origins can be traced to a drunken Huelva fiesta, and the Bilbao “chicken match”.


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Posted by on Feb 22 2019. Filed under Sport. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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