In 1937, at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, Republican areas of Spain formed la Liga del Mediterraneo (the Mediterranean League) and la Copa de le Espana Libre (the Free Spain Cup) as the national league was suspended. These competitions mark a period many in Spain would like to forget, but one club wants them officially recognised.
The competitions are just as important because of the teams that were omitted as they are for those that took part. Held in the Republican strongholds of Valencia and Barcelona, the most notable omissions were Real Madrid and Athletic Bilbao.
Athletic were Spain's most successful team in the years preceding the Civil War, but taking part was never an option for the Basques. The Basque region was on the front line in the fight against Franco, and as a consequence most Bilbao players had either joined up to fight or fled to nearby France. With few players and a competition in Southern Spain - necessitating a route through Nationalist territory - taking part was never an option. The Mediterranean League and the Free Spain Cup would miss Spain's greatest team.
Real Madrid's absence has a less obvious explanation. Historically, Real have always been associated with the political right. Indeed, Santiago Bernabeu, the former player and club President, fought for Francoist forces during the war and was actually awarded the Gold Medal of the City by La Generalisimo. At the beginning of the Civil War, however, Real Madrid's political leanings were less defined and Madrid itself was a Republican city.
Real Madrid applied for the Mediterranean League but were denied entry by the Republican authorities in Valencia and Barcelona. This was a strange decision given Madrid was a Republican stronghold and that the club's President was Communist Antonio Ortega, a volonel in Madrid's left-wing militias.
It is also worth noting that from 1931 until the end of the Civil War the Second Spanish Republic had stripped Real Madrid, along with all clubs using the Real prefix, of its royal status, and they were named simply Madrid C.F and played without the royal crest on their shirts. It is possible that Real Madrid's royal association had swayed the decision to exclude them, but as Atletico Madrid were also denied entry into the league, it is more likely the Republican prejudices were against Madrid rather than the either club.
Why Real Madrid were not included in the league remains a mystery, though history suggests they were another casualty of the Republicans’ inability to define who, or what, constituted a Republican.
Real Madrid's subsequent links with Franco have caused the club to revise its Civil War history. Official records to this day do not recognise Ortega as a former President, instead citing Adolfo Melendez in the 1936-40 period. Not accepted by Spain's left during the Civil War, Real Madrid would firmly align itself with the Franco's right thereafter.
The Mediterranean League was won by an impressive Barcelona team managed by Patrick O'Connell and including amongst its players club legend Josep Escola. The top four teams in the league qualified to compete in the Free Spain Cup, but Barcelona would not be taking part. The Blaugrana decided against playing in the tournament and instead travelled to Mexico and the United States for a well-paid tour as representatives of the Second Spanish Republic.
The tours of the US and Mexico have been interpreted in different ways. Officially, the trips were to raise funds for the Republican cause, but in reality they were raising money for their decimated club, as well as being an excuse for the players and staff to escape war-torn Spain. Of the 16 players who travelled to Mexico only four returned with O’Connell and his staff (Escola signed for Mexican side Sete and returned to Catalunia in 1940). The $12,500 profit from the tours was placed in a Paris bank account, so as not to be annexed by Republican or Nationalist forces.
The eventual winners of the Free Spain Cup were underdogs Levante, who shouldn’t even have qualified for the tournament. Finishing fifth in the Mediterranean League, they took Barcelona's vacant place and beat fierce local rivals Valencia 1-0 in the final. This holds great significance for Levante fans; the Free Spain Cup is the only trophy that their club has ever won.
Unfortunately for Levante the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF), unwilling to revisit the Civil War years, refuses to recognise the trophy in its official records.
The quest for recognition of the Free Spain Cup and the Mediterranean League is ongoing. Levante argue that the Free Spain Cup was the equivalent of the Copa del Rey, and have even had support from rivals Valencia. In 2007 the Spanish Government backed Levante and lobbied the RFEF to recognise the Free Spain Cup.
Barcelona have asked that their Mediterranean League victory also be recorded, though the significance of another trophy to the Catalans pales in comparison with the importance of Levante's one and only cup win. The RFEF has thus far refused to move from its stance that the competitions weren’t official, and continue to delay discussions with a series of tepid excuses including not having been sent the correct documents. After 70 years everyone but the RFEF is ready to acknowledge the Free Spain Cup.
The Mediterranean League and the Free Spain Cup demonstrate football's ability to survive in the most difficult of circumstances. They also highlight the strong political identities clubs in Spain have, with Real Madrid's hushed-up Communist president and Barcelona's Republican credentials being used as a smokescreen for fleeing players.
The Free Spain Cup may never be officially recognised, and the blank mark in the Copa del Rey's history could remain. The best teams may not have been there, the best players may have left wartime Spain, but Levante's victory in the la Copa de le Espana Libre is a more important record in football’s history than most.