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Camp de les Corts
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A black Ford saloon sporting a Catalan flag drives along a flat stretch of the La Coruña road in the pine-clad Guadarrama mountains, east of Madrid. In addition to the chauffeur, inside sits a militia captain, a journalist and a Catalan politician. The car is travelling at some speed, and shoots past several groups of soldiers, resting from the relentless sun, who are unable to warn it to stop. The four men confidently continue until they are finally stopped at a small building at Kilometre 52, known as La Casilla de la Muerte (the Little House of Death), because trucks bearing fresh seafood from Galicia to the Spanish capital regularly crashed in its vicinity. They get out of the car and salute the officers and soldiers with a ¡Viva la República!, explaining that they are on their way to visit the troops at the front. The officers return their fraternal greetings and invite them inside the hut for a drink. The travellers reply they are in a hurry and move to return to the car, but the soldiers turn their guns on them, this time ordering them inside the hut. It is August 6th, 1936 and the group have inadvertently crossed into Nationalist Spain. Within a few hours they will all be dead: shot and buried in an unmarked grave by the roadside. Among them is Josep Sunyol, newspaper owner, member of the Spanish parliament for Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya and president of FC Barcelona.
Sunyol had been sent several days earlier by the Generalitat to liaise with the Republican government in Madrid. The war was much closer to Madrid than to Barcelona at this point, and he took the opportunity to pay a visit to the front lines so he could report to the Catalan government, offer his support to the men fighting and perhaps to engage in a bit of what could be termed ‘military tourism’. At the outbreak of hostilities, barely two weeks before, there had been a mad rush by both sides to gain the commanding heights and passes in the Guadarrama mountains, forever associated with the Spanish Civil War thanks to Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, and Gary Cooper’s performance in the film adaptation. The Madrid press was full of wildly optimistic accounts of how the fascists were being driven back. One newspaper even reported how hikers were returning to the hills, known by the Madrileños simply as La Sierra. The Ministry of War was also issuing propaganda to a similar effect, giving the impression that the area was very much safer than it really was. This may help to explain Sunyol’s cavalier attitude in trying to the reach the front. In reality the lines were changing every day, and it was the enemy who had the upper hand.
Josep Sunyol was born in Barcelona in July 1898 to a well-to-do Catalan family. His father had made a fortune after astutely investing in sugar beet plantations around Spain, following the loss of Cuba in 1898 to the US. Josep continued his father’s business interests and then expanded into the media. In 1930, he founded the weekly magazine La Rambla, which, under the motto of ‘sport and citizenship’, promoted a unique blend of sport and Republicanism. Its offices were at the top of the Rambles in front of La Font de Canaletes, where Bar Núria stands today. In an era before mass radio ownership, the paper took to publishing the results of the Spanish league on a large blackboard outside its offices. Men would flock here on Sunday evenings to see the scores, discuss football and celebrate FC Barcelona’s victories. Even today some older fans still come here to argue about the latest supposed refereeing scandals or the shortcomings of a player, but the tiny fountain is now more famous as the place where Barça fans congregate to celebrate the team’s latest triumph.
Sunyol became a Barça member in 1925 in support of the club when the Les Corts stadium, the forerunner to Camp Nou, was closed for six months after the crowd spontaneously booed the Spanish national anthem as a protest against the Primo de Rivera dictatorship. Like almost anything in public life in the Thirties, sport was highly politicised, and Barça witnessed a struggle for its control between conservatives and republicans, the latter spearheaded by Sunyol, who, assisted by his fame as proprietor of La Rambla, became president in July 1935 and quickly helped turn around the club’s financial situation. On the pitch, Barça won the Catalan Championship though they were defeated by Real Madrid in the 1936 final of the Copa del Rey, thanks to a legendary performance by Madrid’s goalkeeper Ricardo Zamora in his last ever game. Four weeks later, the Spanish Civil War broke out and the train of events leading to Sunyol’s death had been set in motion.
There was much consternation in the Catalan press as to the fate of Sunyol. A week after his disappearance, news finally reached Barcelona of his murder, causing a major commotion at all levels of society. His death also marked the beginning of the most difficult period in the club’s history. The start of the war had unleashed a social revolution in which the CNT, the Anarchist trade union, set about collectivising most of the city’s industry and business. The CNT section of Parcs i Jardins (the Council’s parks and gardens department) soon set its sights on Barça. It was saved from takeover by employees of the club, who collectivised the club in the name of the far more moderate UGT, though none of them were actually members. Barça staggered through the war, with dwindling gate receipts and membership, just 2,500 members remained in 1939. Its headquarters in Consell de Cent were destroyed on March 16th, 1938, when Italian planes bombed the city. Many trophies and documents were also lost. Some players managed to get work playing in foreign leagues but most stayed with the club; as the military situation became increasingly desperate, they were all conscripted into the Republican army. Several were killed in the last months of the war.
When Francosim fell on the city, the Catalan flag in the club’s emblem was replaced by the Spanish flag, and the club was renamed Club de Fútbol de Barcelona, as part of the Castilianisation campaign. But the end of the war also represented the return of some form of normality, as football was one of the few growth industries in the ‘Years of Hunger’, as the Forties became known. The team managed to win the renamed Copa del Generalísimo in 1942, and the following year were paired with Real Madrid, which had recently been adopted by the regime, in the semi-finals. The first leg took place at the Les Corts stadium and Barça trounced Madrid 3-0. As the Barcelona team arrived at Chamartín (the forerunner of El Bernabeu) for the return leg, they were confronted by an incredibly hostile crowd of falangists, soldiers and other Francoist fauna. Then, as the story goes, while the players were in the dressing room, in came the head of police, allegedly brandishing a revolver, reminding the Catalans that Franco had forgiven their perfidious treachery. That day, Madrid went on to inflict the worst ever defeat on Barça, stuffing them 11-1, aided by a scandalous referee.
Although by the Sixties, Barça, or at least many of its fans, had gained a reputation as anti-fascists, as opposed to Real Madrid, the club itself was very much controlled by a Catalan elite with more or less close ties with the regime. With the advent of democracy, this elite morphed into dulcified Catalan nationalists, who quietly kept the lid on any uncomfortable memories of the past, refusing to pay homage to their murdered president. The 50th anniversary of Sunyol’s death was completely ignored by the club under the property developer Josep Núñez. It was not until 1996, 60 years after the event, that a vigorous campaign finally convinced the club to honour him, erecting a monolith in the Guadarrama mountains near the spot where he had died and hyperbolically elevating him to the pantheon of Barça heroes as the ‘Martyr President’.
Nick Lloyd leads Civil War tours in Barcelona with the Centre d’Estudis de Montjuïc and runs the website www.iberianature.com