• Rewind to 1950

The birth of La Furia Roja

ESPN staff
March 21, 2013
© Getty Images

Spanish football has enjoyed an incredible rise in recent years as they became the first team to claim three back-to-back major international titles: Euro 2008, 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012. But it hasn't always been that way. For years, the Spanish national side was viewed as underachieving - a hotbed of Iberian talent that could never quite reach its full potential. The World Cup of 1950 changed the perception of La Furia Roja on the international stage forever.

Following the example of England, who had blazed a trail in forming their own football organisation in 1863, Spain set up the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) back in 1909, having become a full-fledged member of the new FIFA five years previous. However, it would take until 1920 for the national side to play against another nation, and it was the Summer Olympics in Belgium that year that would provide the platform.

The early signs were good. A Spanish team containing the likes of Rafael "Pichichi" Moreno, Ricardo Zamora and Jose Samitier, and led by Paco Bru, travelled to Antwerp third class, but beat former runners-up Denmark 1-0 before losing in the quarter-finals to eventual gold-medalists Belgium thanks to a Robert Coppee hat-trick. The format at the time meant Spain then went into the consolation tournament, which saw them beat Sweden and Italy before also triumphing, 3-1, against Netherlands in their final game to walk away with the silver medal.

But the shoots of success were not allowed to grow. Despite the successful formation of La Liga in 1928, the political landscape of Europe was changing and 1936 saw the three-year Spanish Civil war precede World War II. As a result, Spain were prevented from playing any competitive matches between the 1934 World Cup (where they beat Brazil but lost to Italy to go out in the quarter-finals) and the 1950 World Cup qualifiers. In the intermediate period, General Franco had taken control of the country, determined to rule with an iron fist, and football would play its part in the rebuilding process.

In La Roja: The Roots Of Soccer's Spanish Fury, Jimmy Burns writes: "During Franco's dictatorship, between 1939 and 1975, soccer was a pastime that was actively encouraged by the state - that is, as long as it was not exploited by the enemy. And the enemy ranged from communists, Freemasons, and freethinkers to Catalan and Basque nationalists, most of them decent human beings whose clubs were rooted in local cultural identities. It gave Spanish soccer, when I was growing up, its political edge; it separated us soccer lovers into democrats and fascists."

One of Spanish football's most prominent football journalists, Alfredo Relano, has also written: "Soccer kept growing. Spain began to rebuild itself after the war. It was a time when there was little to do except work as many hours as possible... pick up the pieces from the ruins, and on Sundays go to the soccer match... At times there were cycling competitions, boxing fights, and bullfights, but above all soccer, and not much else."

The football that had developed in Spain during the 1920s was, according to Burns, of "direct, aggressive, spirited style". In the early days, Basque side Athletic Bilbao had set a benchmark with their physical play, and the term furia (fury) was coined to describe them. The roots of their game came not only from their physical advantage but years of learning from the British, yet under Franco's leadership it gained a new power.

The Ball Is Round, by historian David Goldblatt, quotes Falangist newspaper Arriba in 1939, a few months after Franco had emerged triumphant from the Spanish Civil War, as saying: "The furia espanola is present in all aspects of Spanish life, to a greater extent than ever. In sport, the furia best manifests itself in soccer, a game in which the virility of the Spanish race can find full expression, usually imposing itself, in international contests, over the more technical but less aggressive foreign teams."

Spain's tournament record

  • 1934 World Cup - Quarter-final
  • 1950 World Cup - 4th place
  • 1962 World Cup - Group stage
  • 1964 Euros - Champions
  • 1966 World Cup - Group stage
  • 1978 World Cup - Group stage
  • 1980 Euros - Group stage
  • 1982 World Cup - 2nd round
  • 1984 Euros - Runners-up
  • 1986 World Cup - Quarter-final
  • 1988 Euros - Group stage
  • 1990 World Cup - Last 16
  • 1994 World Cup - Quarter-final
  • 1996 Euros - Quarter-final
  • 1998 World Cup - Group stage
  • 2000 Euros - Quarter-final
  • 2002 World Cup - Quarter-final
  • 2004 Euros - Group stage
  • 2006 World Cup - Last 16
  • 2008 Euros - Champions
  • 2010 World Cup - Champions
  • 2012 Euros - Champions

The imagery of war was hard to detach from the game. Franco wanted his players to be soldiers - to fight for the glory of Spain and crush the opposition, with no sign of the creativity or artistry that is seen in today's side. A hugely one-sided 5-1 victory in Madrid over rivals Portugal in the 1950 World Cup qualifying first leg, using the popular 3-2-5 formation, made it clear that Spain's ruthless streak had emerged. A relatively routine 2-2 draw in the return in Lisbon sealed progress to the final tournament and the platform for international recognition was set, while their Iberian neighbours refused an invitation to travel to Brazil to participate alongside them.

By the time the tournament arrived in the summer, the entire Spanish nation had become engrossed in the medium of radio. As a propaganda tool, the wireless was second to none, but it also provided coverage of the tournament to those lucky enough to gain access to the crackly short-wave broadcasts. The fans at home had little expectation for the team after such a turbulent period in their history; as Phil Ball writes in Morbo: "Spain went with modest hopes and were rewarded for their realism".

The group stage containing England, Chile and United States was navigated with unerring ease. After initially going behind to United States, three goals in the last ten minutes ensured a 3-1 win and Spain then dispatched the tough Chileans 2-0 with first-half strikes from eventual top scorer Estanislau Basora and the prolific Telmo Zarra. In their final group game, against the English - the founding fathers of football - Zarra would come to the fore again.

"The leading scorer in six Spanish championships, Zarra had already achieved the popular iconic status previously attained by the legendary Spanish bullfighter Manolete, killed in the bullring of Linares three years earlier," Burns writes. "It was popularly said that Zarra played with three legs, the third being his devastating head. Zarra rammed home with his foot rather than headed Spain's winning goal, having beaten defender Alf Ramsey off a cross from Agustin Gainza. When the match was over, Spanish football's top official, Armando Munoz Calero, told Franco: 'Excellency, we have vanquished the perfidious Albion.'"

Topping their group with three wins out of three and only one goal conceded, Spain were seen as one of the shock successes of the tournament - especially as they had knocked out the Allied powers of the US and England - but they would come undone by the end. For the first and only time, the Brazilian organisers had decided that, to guarantee teams more games (and therefore more money all round), they would follow up the initial group stage with a 'round-robin' to decide the eventual winner. FIFA had been sceptical, and rightly so as there were huge issues caused by the travelling and scheduling of the games.

Still, Spain took their place in the final group alongside Brazil, Uruguay and Sweden. "In pure footballing terms, Spain were as surprised as anybody since England had been expected to make the final at least," Ball writes. "In the second phase, however, reality intruded and Uruguay, the eventual winners, should really have won a game that finished in a 2-2 draw. Nevertheless, Spain was still gathered around the radio dreaming of conquering the world when they took on the hosts two days later at the Maracana - with over 150,000 people inside. [Silvestre] Igoa got one for Spain, but Brazil replied with six. The next day, they lost 3-1 to Sweden and caught the slow boat home."

Spain were out, but they had made their mark on the game at last. Mary Vincent's Spain 1833-2002: People And State asserts: "Football - the social drug of Franco's Spain - had genuine inter-class appeal. The Spanish goal that knocked out England was supposedly heard by the entire population." In another 60 years, long after Franco's death, La Furia Roja would be reborn.

What happened next? Spain did not qualify for the World Cups of 1954 or 1958 and withdrew midway through their inaugural European Championship as Franco would not sanction a trip to the Soviet Union in 1960, as they had supported the Second Spanish Republic in the Civil War. A two-game European Championship tournament in the country in 1964, however, provided Spain with their first international trophy, but they could not build on that success. They reached the final of the Euros in 1984, and the quarter-finals of the World Cup in 1986, 1994 and 2002, but continued to live up to their underachieving tag. Until, that is, 2008, when they began the run that has seen them become one of the greatest, if not the greatest, teams to have ever played the game.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.