Santiago Bernabéu had lots of what Spaniards describe as enchufe – connections. He was “plugged in” – he cultivated and used his contacts tellingly, none more so than in his ambitious building project for Real Madrid’s new stadium, Chamartín, which would later bear his name.

There is circumstantial evidence to suggest that the ground was built with the same consignment of strictly rationed cement that General Franco used to construct the Valley of the Fallen, the sequestered fascist theme park in the Guadarrama Mountains where El Caudillo is buried.

In a prescient piece of planning, Real Madrid’s new stadium was built on five hectares of land in an underdeveloped, northern part of the city, which today is one of Madrid’s plushest avenues, home to several mansions, ministries and museums. It was opened just before Christmas 1947.

Hitherto, the venue for the final of the Copa del Generalísimo rotated around the country, skipping between Barcelona, the Basque Country and Madrid, and to a lesser extent Andalucía in the south, as it still does today. From 1948, Real Madrid’s stadium was chosen to host the final every year for 25 seasons except three – 1957, 1963 and 1970 – when it was played in Barcelona, finals which coincided with Franco’s visits to Catalonia.

Estadio Santiago Bernabéu’s default position as the “neutral” venue for cup finals was symptomatic of the workings of football during Franco’s reign. Francoism drew its authority from the Falange Party, the only legal political party in Spain. One of the Falange Party’s offshoots was the National Delegation of Sport. It appointed the president of the Spanish Football Federation. In turn, the Spanish Football Federation nominated presidents of the football clubs and also of the National Referees’ Committee.

“They were very controlled,” says historian Carles Santacana. “It was an arbitrary exercise of power. Appointments were made “a dedo”, by pointing a finger. It was a power system from top to bottom because Franco was boss of the Falange Party.”

This was the milieu in which Bernabéu did his business. He was a pragmatist who worked in conditions which, given his political persuasion, suited him. “Bernabéu had good friends in the Spanish Football Federation,” says Fernando Carreño, author of La Historia Negra del Real Madrid. “He manipulated things. He obtained favours. In public, Bernabéu said that, ‘Real Madrid didn’t oblige people to do anything. They just convinced the rest.’ He was anti-democratic.”

He was, in Spanish parlance, cacique, the important person of his village, who operated in the shadows. He was the local, clued-in rich guy who, when democracy arrived, the peasants turned to for guidance on how to vote. Everything was directed by him. He was chief of a football club that towered over the other ones in Spain. After its famous quintet of European Cups from 1956 to 1960, Real Madrid went on to win eight Spanish league titles during the 1960s, a domestic hegemony that is unrivalled in the great leagues of European football.

“Yes, Bernabéu was a supporter of the regime,” says Santiago Segurola, Spain’s foremost football writer, “but during the Franco dictatorship it was unusual for an institution not to be controlled by Franquistas. Dictatorships are so named because they transmit power from all walks of life, from a municipality to a club. I cannot imagine that Colonel Gaddafi allowed clubs in Libya to be chaired by anti-Gaddafi elements.”

But to paint Bernabéu as a card-carrying Francoist is wrong, stresses Carreño. He was right wing and conservative. He was a monarchist, with an independent streak, and certainly wasn’t an apparatchik of the Falange Party. Bernabéu criticised Franco, for example, in 1944 over the National Delegation of Sport’s refusal to subsidise Real Madrid by more than four per cent of the costs to build the club’s new stadium.

He is, nonetheless, vilified in Barcelona for his army record. “For people who are not from Spain,” suggests Joan Maria Pou, a Catalan radio presenter, “it should be weird to hear that Real Madrid’s ground is named after a big Franquista. Could you imagine if one of Berlin’s stadiums was called after a Nazi soldier?”

Bernabéu was a corporal in Franco’s army during the Spanish Civil War. There’s nothing sinister about this. In civil wars, people take sides. He was part of Franco’s nationalist army that overran Catalonia, a formative experience, which, contentiously, he harped about during his 35 years as president of Real Madrid.

It’s not unusual, of course, for a club’s patriarch to goad rivals in the press. Bill Shankly used to say he would draw the curtains if Everton were playing in his back garden. Alex Ferguson vowed not to rest until he knocked Liverpool off its ‘fucking perch’.

Bernabéu, however, made a practice of firing politically loaded insults at Barça during a fascist dictatorship under the guise of football banter. He used to publicly refer to his role in the “reconquest” of Catalonia; and mocked Catalans at a time when the country was still reeling from the horrors of its civil war, most notoriously when he said in 1968, “I like Catalonia very much except for Catalan people.”

“The problem was that he never apologised for this statement, which could have been helpful,” says Santacana. “I found some police reports saying that, ‘Bernabéu is making life difficult for us.’ The comment had political connotations. It was not about Barça or the city of Barcelona, but against Catalan people. He was proving the identification of Barça with Catalonia. He was promoting it. He ridiculed Catalan people, not Barça supporters. There were also Catalans who supported Barcelona city’s other team Espanyol.”

At Real Madrid, Bernabéu is an inviolable figure. He was uncorrupted by power himself. He wasn’t venal, which adds to his lustre for the club’s fans. During highlight reels at the Bernabéu stadium before matches, over 30 years after his death, he is still remembered in images alongside Real Madrid’s famous players. He is renowned internationally for the mark he made in football and for his role in kick-starting the European Cup.

When he died in June 1978, there was a minute’s silence for him during the World Cup, a rare honour. Vicente del Bosque, who managed Spain when they won the tournament 32 years later, was a Real Madrid player at the time. He helped carry his coffin at the funeral.

Josep Lluís Núñez became president of FC Barcelona a few weeks before the death of Bernabéu. Núñez stayed in office for 22 years, becoming Barça’s longest-serving president. He never met Bernabéu, Real Madrid’s longest-serving president, but there is a picture of him at the side of his coffin.

This is an abridged extract from the thorughly enjoyable El Clásico: Barcelona v Real Madrid, Football’s Greatest Rivalry by Richard Fitzpatrick. El Clásico is published by Bloomsbury and is available here.

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AuthorRichard Fitzpatrick