This week, to mark the centenary of Barcelona's 1920 Copa del Rey triumph, we look back at what Spanish football was like a hundred years ago and uncover one of football's greatest historical curiosities – of how Barcelona have effectively been deprived of eight Spanish championships.
On the afternoon of Saturday 2 May 1920, Joan Gamper made his way to the Camp de la Indústria, the ground of FC Barcelona. There, along with a number of supporters and officials of the club he had founded 21 years earlier, he waited for news of the national championship Final being played that afternoon in Gijón. Barcelona were up against the most powerful club in the country, the famous Athletic Bilbao, who already had seven Spanish championships to their name and were heavily backed to win an eighth.
When the telegram arrived, it bore surprising news. Barcelona had beaten their Basque rivals 2-0 and been crowned champions of Spain for a fourth time. According to La Vanguardia, “thunderous applause” followed Gamper’s announcement of the result and the news spread quickly around the city. "El FC Barcelona, Campeón" proudly ran the headline in El Mundo Deportivo on 6 May 1920 under the banner "Campeonato de España de Fútbol", while La Vanguardia went with “El Barcelona, campeón de España”. When the team arrived back at the Estación del Norte, they were met by more than 6,000 supporters, with the team waving from the windows of the train as it approached the platform.
Celebrating winning the Spanish championship is something that the people of Barcelona have become accustomed to doing. According to the record books their title success in 2019 was their 26th and the team were chasing a 27th before the season was interrupted by the coronavirus. But the record books also list the first of those titles in 1929, the year the Spanish league was formed. So, what’s going on?
Thrown out of FIFA
The answer lies in the early history of football in the country. For large countries like Spain, Germany, Italy, France, Sweden and Norway, the distance between cities presented huge logistical challenges, which meant that the game was initially organised along regional lines. Although Spain is listed as one of the founding members of FIFA in 1904, the lack of a national organisation meant that they were forced out of FIFA until the formation of the Real Federación Española de Fútbol in 1913 and it wasn’t until seven years later in August 1920, at the Antwerp Olympics - that the Spanish took to the field in an international match for the first time.
Spain had watched the First World War unfold from the side-lines, so the progress of football in the country had continued uninterrupted while elsewhere it had ground to a halt. But that growth had been highly localised. Not even the flu pandemic of 1918 to 1920 managed to stop football. Rather unfairly it became known as the Spanish flu: not because it originated there, but because, unlike other European countries where there were reporting restrictions due to the war, the pandemic was freely reported on in Spain. Spain became the most visible victim of the crisis and so gave it its name.
The Copa del Rey
In 1920, just as they had every year since 1902, the winners of the regional leagues around the country played a simple knockout tournament at the end of the season to determine the national champions. And this is where it gets interesting, because the trophy they were given as the national champions was the Copa del Rey. Yes. The same Copa del Rey that the Spanish Cup winners receive today. Despite the introduction of the national league in 1929, the Copa del Rey continued as an end-of-season competition between regional teams until the 1950s, when it became a cup competition in the true sense of the word. This means that either by design or default, Barcelona's triumph in 1920 is today listed as a cup win rather than a national championship!
In this respect, it differs from Germany, which had a similar system before the advent of the Bundesliga. There, the regional league winners also played an end-of-season knockout tournament, with the winners today regarded as national champions with the same status as the winners of the Bundesliga. The lack of a similar status in Spain seems rather harsh on both the Finalists in the 1920 tournament. Barcelona won eight pre-1929 titles while Athletic Bilbao went one better with nine, making them comfortably the two most successful teams of the era.
A muddy pitch and two Englishmen
One hundred years ago, on 2 May 1920, Barcelona and Athletic walked out onto the rainswept and muddy pitch at El Molinón in Gijón. In 1920, El Molinón was regarded as one of the best stadiums in the country. Totally enclosed, it boasted a new wooden grandstand that offered protection against the rain for a few lucky spectators that day. Almost all of the crowd who braved the open terraces were Basques who had made the short journey along the coast from Bilbao and they were vocal in their support and confident of an eighth national title.
The teams were both coached by Englishmen. Billy Barnes was "El Míster" at Athletic. In 1902, he had scored the winning goal in the FA Cup Final for Sheffield United and this was his second spell in charge of Athletic, having led them to the Spanish Cup in 1915 and 1916. He would win a third in 1921, but this was to be the year of his compatriot Jack Greenwell, a lesser-known figure in England, but someone who was building an outstanding reputation in Spain. Greenwell had joined Barcelona as a player in 1912 and took over as coach in 1917, retaining the job until 1923 – making him the club's longest-serving coach until he was overtaken by Johan Cruyff seven decades later. In 1929, he led Barça's rivals Español to the Copa del Rey, but he fled Spain when civil war broke out and guided Peru to the 1939 Copa América – he is still the only non-South American coach ever to win the title.
Two teams for the ages
The team’s line-ups resonate down the ages. They pitted one of the all-time great goalkeepers, Ricardo Zamora, against one of Spain's most iconic strikers, Rafael Moreno, more commonly known as Pichichi. They now respectively give their names to the yearly awards in Spain for the best goalkeeper and the top scorer.
The Barcelona team contained some of the most iconic names in the history of the club. Josep Samitier has a road leading up to the Camp Nou named after him while the Philippines-born Paulino Alcántara remains the youngest player to represent and score for Barcelona. In the 1920 Copa del Rey Final, he was just 24 but had already been with the club for ten years, having made his debut at the age of 15. Félix Sesúmaga was appearing in the Final for the second year running, having won it in 1919 with Arenas, and he would go on to win a third title in 1923 with Athletic.
For Athletic, the best-known player alongside Pichichi was José María Belauste, who won six Spanish titles with the Bilbao outfit. He captained Spain when they played their first international three months later at the Antwerp Olympics, leading the team to a silver medal. The big, burly centre-forward was a fervent Basque nationalist and he had refused to carry the Spanish flag at the Games, but ironically, his legendary contribution to the Spain national team lives on even today thanks to its nickname. At a free kick during the match against Sweden, he yelled out to his team-mate Sabino Bilbao: "Give me the ball, Sabino, and I'll crush them!" Sabino obliged, Belauste scored with a powerful shot and the legend of La Furia was born.
A refereeing controversy
Ironically, it wasn't any of the players or coaches who attracted the most coverage after the game, but referee Beltrán de Lis, the President of the Spanish Referees’ Association. De Lis, who hailed from Madrid, awarded Athletic a penalty early in the game after a handball by Barcelona defender Galicia. José María Laca scored but De Lis disallowed the goal after fellow Athletic striker Germán Echevarría encroached into the area. But instead of instructing Athletic to retake the kick, as the Laws of the Game stated he should, he awarded Barcelona a free kick.
El Molinón, Gijón, 2-05-1920
BARCELONA 2-0 ATHLETIC BILBAO
Goals: Martínez 70, Alcántara 80
Referee:Beltrán de Lis
Ricardo Zamora - Coma, Galicia - Ramón Torralba, Agustín Sancho, Josep Samitier - Viñals, Félix Sesúmaga, Vicente Martínez, Paulino Alcántara, Plaza.
Coach: Jack Greenwell ENG
Juan José Amann - Domingo Acedo, Luis Hurtado - Sabino Bilbao, Francisco Belauste, Jesús Eguiluz - Serra, Rafael Moreno 'Pichichi', José María Belauste, José María Laca, Germán Echevarría.
Coach: Billy Barnes ENG|
Who knows what the result would have been if Laca had been allowed to retake the kick and had scored? It is certainly, even today, seen as a great injustice by supporters of Athletic Bilbao, although they had plenty of time to rectify the situation. It wasn’t until 20 minutes from time that the first goal was scored when Vicente Martínez headed home a cross from Miguel Plaza. Five minutes later, Martínez then turned provider when he passed to Alcántara, who secured a 2-0 victory for Barcelona. The Catalans were champions of Spain for the fourth time.
The lost titles
Barcelona would go on to dominate the tournament in the 1920s, triumphing in the Finals in 1922, 1925, 1926 and 1928 before winning the inaugural season of La Liga in 1929. Indeed, they, along with Athletic and Real Unión Irun , were the only teams crowned champions in that decade. But all of them are forgotten champions. Search and you won’t find any official records showing Real Unión Irún as champions of Spain. Cup winners, yes. Champions, no.
Just six teams won the Spanish championship before 1929 – Athletic Bilbao (9), Barcelona (8), Madrid FC (5), Real Unión Irún (4), Real Sociedad (1) and Arenas (1). But if you include these totals, the list of Spanish champions takes on a new complexion. Real Madrid would still head the list with 38 titles, but Barcelona would lie just four behind with 34, instead of the current gap of seven. Perhaps Athletic fans will one day celebrate the fact that their club have been national champions 17 times, seven ahead of the current third-placed team Atlético Madrid on ten. And sitting proudly in sixth place would be “newcomers” Real Unión Irun, just two championships behind Valencia.
Next in our series of posts looking back 100 years to the 1919-20 season, we will focus on how the All-American Ben Millers of St Louis beat a Fore River team packed with Scottish imports to win the 1920 US Open Cup.