Neil Morris on the only foreign club ever to compete in La Liga. They held their own, in case you were wondering.
If you were to pay a visit to a home game at the Saniat R’mel stadium in the Moroccan City of Tetouan, you would be forgiven for thinking you were in the domain of a lower league Spanish side. For although this is the home of Maghreb Athletic Tetouan of the Botola League, there is a distinctly Spanish theme present amongst the clubs fanatical supporters. From the banners honouring “Los Matadores” (the matadors) and the passionately waved Spanish flags, to the replica shirts of Athletic Bilbao and Athletico Madrid that echo the Red and White colours of the home team, the tributes are commonplace on the terraces.
This blatant nod to the League of their neighbours across the Mediterranean Sea is by no means a simplistic show of admiration. It is in fact a nostalgic evocation of a unique and proud past - a past which saw the team nicknamed “the White Doves”, become the only foreign club ever to grace La Liga.
This remarkable fairytale became a reality in the 1951/1952 season and although they only got to rub shoulders with the best teams in Spain for one season, the event remains a proud and enduring moment in the clubs history as well as a badge of honour for their fans.
The origins of the club can be traced back to 1918 when a merger of three local teams saw the formation of Athletic Club but it wasn’t until 1922 that the foundation of the club was officially recognised. The Spanish Influence was evident even back in those early days and the clubs colours are said to be inspired by the kit sported by Atletico Madrid and their shield is reportedly a re-working of the one worn by Athletic Bilbao. This influence was an obvious by-product of the Spanish Protectorate of North Morocco and the founders took full advantage of the Footballers who were conscripted in Tetouan. One of the original directors, Fernando Villavicencio, had in fact played for Atletico Madrid.
By 1933, the club became known as Atletico Tetouan and played in the North Moroccan League - winning the title in only their second season. The title winning line up of 1936 consisted of: Guash, Fernandez, Otilio, Rojas, Cuenca, Andrew Matthew, Maquinay, Granados, Paco Mateo, Trinchart and Puente. This success in the North Moroccan League gave them the opportunity to play in the Spanish Cup and face the mighty teams from the Spanish Leagues for the first time.
After a suspension of the competition during the Civil War, Atletico had to re-group as many players were lost or did not return to the club for various reasons. After a couple of seasons of re-building however, they soon returned to winning ways and by 1942 they were once again Champions of North Morocco. It was during the same season that the Spanish League was re-structured and this gave Atletico the chance to gain a place in the Third Division of Spanish Football, a feat they achieved in 1944 through the play-off system. This promotion marked the beginning of their brief but memorable odyssey that would take them all the way to the top flight of Spanish Football.
That first season in Spain they faced: Hercules, Cadiz, Malaga, Coria, Algeciras, Linares, ONUB, Cordoba, Jaen and Olympic Linense Balompedica and finished in a commendable fifth place. In the following season they found things much tougher and were eventually relegated after finishing bottom. Despite this setback, it did not take them long to return and after beating Cadiz in another play-off, they were back in the Third Division.
Three years later the ascension continued as they gained promotion to the Second Division where they faced: Albacete, Alcoyano, Balompedica Linense, Cartagena, Castellon, Cordoba, Elche, Granada, Hercules, Levante, Mallorca, Mestalla, Murcia, Ultra Plus and Salamanca. Despite being newcomers they pushed for their ultimate dream of promotion to La Liga and despite missing out they finished in a respectable fifth place. The team from that season consisted of: Pachon; Larosi, Humanes, Cabello, Ramoní, Sevilla, Antonito, Solano, Bozambo, Pepin and Mancheno.
It was in the following season of 1950/1951 that they finally achieved their dream and were promoted to La Liga as Champions of the Second Division. What had once seemed so far-fetched and improbable had now been achieved and they took their well-earned place amongst the elite of Spanish Football. Fans of Atletico will always remember the names of: Hurtado, Pachon, Castillo, Humanes, Seisdedos, Alarcon, Jaco, Solano, Marti-Gimeno, Sevilla, Vivet, Patricio, Manolin, Moreno, Chicha, Julian and Antonito as the heroes of 1951.
Life in La Liga was never going to be easy for Atletico and after an opening day home defeat to Real Zaragoza it soon became apparent that survival was going to be a struggle. Their biggest downfall was their dismal away form and they lost every game except one on their travels.
The one game that still stands out from that season was the home tie against the mighty Real Madrid. On a beautiful January afternoon in front of the Jalifa and the High Commissioner, Solano (the Captain of Atletico) proudly presented a pennant to Real Madrid legend Miguel Munoz. The atmosphere was electric in what was then known as Estadio Varela and the Atletico players were clearly inspired by the occasion. They played the game of their lives that afternoon and to the delight of the crowd they dominated the first half and reached half time with a 3-1 advantage and the belief that they could go on and win the game. Inevitably, in the second half Real Madrid fought back and despite the valiant efforts of Atletico, the superior fitness and technical ability of Los Blancos eventually paid off and the game finished 3-3.
Atletico finished the season bottom of the league and were duly relegated; they continued to perform well in the Second Division for a couple of seasons until the independence of Morocco brought an end to their Spanish adventure both on and off the pitch. Suddenly the dream was a fading memory and the Club was split in two; one half merged with SD Cueta to form Club Atletico Cueta and they continued to play in the Spanish League until their later demise. Atletico Tetouan went back to the Moroccan League and eventually became known as Maghreb Athletic Tetouan, the name they still use to this day.
Fifty years on from that glorious season there are still those that remember the epic journeys across land and sea to watch their beloved team play in the famous stadiums of Spain. There are also a new generation of supporters who take great pride in reminding anyone who may have forgotten that this is a Club with a truly unique past.
To read more from Neil, visit El Punto de Vista.