Euro Moments: General Franco pulls Spain from 1960 tournament

Original championships was a political minefield for the nations who entered

Euro 1960: Spain boycott first tournament

A bit of a cheat, this one, in that it’s the only one of this series which doesn’t actually relate to events at a Championship finals tournament; rather General Franco’s decision to stop Spain’s side travelling to Moscow for the first leg of their quarter-final of the very first Championship in 1960 helped the Soviet Union on the way to the first tournament (in France in 1960) and the first European Nations Cup title while underlining the challenges that could still exist for the organisers in getting countries from either side of the iron curtain even to play football with each other.

In fact, the most immediate challenge in 1958, 31 years after France's Henri Delaunay had come up with the idea, was getting countries to enter in the first place with the likes of England, Italy and West Germany initially deciding the give the entire thing a wide berth.

The Eastern Bloc was generally behind it, though and just about enough from the west, including Ireland, entered to make the qualifying tournament viable. There were actually 17 entrants and so a preliminary round was required. The Irish were drawn into this, against Czechoslovakia, and so Ireland might be said to have played in the opening games of the European Championships.

Sadly, the scheduling was a bit chaotic back then and the game, at Dalymount Park on April 5th 1959, was played well after the earliest games of the first round proper. The very first of those had been played the previous September, at the Central Lenin Stadium where just over 100,000 turned out to see the locals beat Hungary 3-1.

There were 37,500 in Phibsborough six months later as Liam Tuohy and Noel Cantwell got the goals in a 2-0 win over the Czechoslovakians but the return leg, in Bratislava a month later, did not go as well. Uefa lists Ireland's manager that day as simply "Committee" and their collective team talk may not have been up to much because, having trailed at the break to an early penalty, the visitors conceded another three to go out 4-2 on aggregate.

The Soviets, meanwhile, completed their defeat of Hungary and the Spanish thumped Poland 7-2 over two legs but there was some trepidation in both camps when they were drawn against each other in the quarter-finals with General Franco’s regime remembering well the role the Russians had played in their country’s civil war and conscious that they had happily allowed thousands of Spaniards to volunteer to fight with Germany on the Eastern front.

Franco was not averse to using football for propaganda purposes as he had shown with his backing for Real Madrid, the dominant force through the earliest years of the then recently formed European Cup, and there appeared to be some cause for confidence that a Spain side that included several outstanding players, most notably Alfredo di Stefano, Luis Suarez and Laszlo Kubala, could beat the Soviets but, as Vadim Furmanov notes is his excellent piece on these events for The Antique Football there were other considerations; the Generalissimo is said to have objected to the tournament rules that stated that the other team's flag must be flown and its national anthem played when they came to play their away leg while he was also apparently concerned that there might be some display of public support for the communists from amongst the oppressed portion of his own people.

Still, the games did initially seem set to go ahead and the Soviets, no strangers to a propaganda opportunity themselves, devoted very considerable resources to preparing their players. Their own league was out of season and so they headed to central Europe to play a succession of club sides before returning home to be based at a resort normally reserved for leading politicians.

Their final warm up game was a 7-1 thrashing of the Poles which was watched by a couple of officials from Spain. It may have been at this point that Franco decided that the whole thing was too much of a risk although it is widely reported that the Spaniards offered to play in Moscow but actually wanted to move their home leg to a neutral venue only to be rebuffed by Uefa.

In the end, it was on May 25th 1960, according to Furmanov, just two days before the squad was supposed to travel, that the players were finally told that they would be going nowhere. Di Stefano, who had already missed out on successive World Cups, is said to have reacted angrily to the news but Federation president, Alfonso de la Fuente Chaos told him simply that there were “Orders from above. Franco said no”.

Notices appeared in the Spanish newspapers the following day after which the entire affair was quietly forgotten about in Spain. In the USSR, on the other hand, they went on about it a bit more and Nikita Khrushchev even cracked a 'right winger scores own goal' type gag that, had Stalin still been in power, might have resulted in fatalities amongst high ranking officials desperate not to be the first to stop laughing.

In any case, the Soviets were heading to France for the Euros although with less to worry about on the ticketing front than the modern day Irish.

Emmet Malone

Emmet Malone

Emmet Malone is an Assistant News Editor at The Irish Times