Volume 6, Number 1

March 2008

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Don Patricio O’Connell: An Irishman and the Politics of Spanish Football

By Jimmy Burns


Patrick O'Connell (centre, with hat), Barça manager, 1935-1937
(Jimmy Burns, 'Barça, A People’s Passion'. London: Bloomsbury, 1999)

For O’Connell the time spent at Arlington also proved to be a launch pad, but of a very different kind. Far from helping him consolidate his life as a player in Britain, it sent his career in a completely new direction, to Spain, not as a player but as a manager, leaving his numerous family behind in Ireland and England. Like so much of O’Connell’s life, the precise reasons behind this dramatic turn of events remain shrouded in some mystery, but there seems little doubt that a gambling instinct lay behind them.   

Compared with much of northern Europe, Spain - both on account of its history and geology - was still a strange, idiosyncratic land, officially part of the continent, yet separated from France by the Pyrenees in the north and sharing centuries of common cultural traits with North Africa in the south. The exceptional advantages enjoyed by Spain as a neutral producer of war materials and other essential goods had vanished with the peace. A succession of internal political crises made Spain the scene of one of the more savage social conflicts of post-war Europe, with violent revolutionaries suppressed by a military dictator in 1923, marking a break in Spanish constitutional history, and parliamentary monarchy based on universal suffrage was banished until 1977. 

O’Connell was leaving behind a country that was emerging from a war he himself had played little part in, but which had left his fellow countrymen struggling with another acute phase in their troubled history. For the Irish problem had emerged from the First World War as the gravest challenge to British statesmanship, with the IRA launching a violent campaign against the British ‘invaders’ and London responding with the ‘Black and Tans’, followed by the ‘Auxis’ of the Auxiliary Division. 

O’Connell left for Spain in 1922, the year in which the Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland unravelled into a brutal civil war between the Irish Free State and a considerable section of the IRA, setting Irishmen against Irishmen. There must have been a strong part of him that made him feel that just as he might not have much to gain from heading towards Spain he probably did not have much to lose either.

Moreover, whatever the uncertainty of Spanish politics, Spanish football appeared to be going from strength to strength, with the sport now as popular a cultural pastime among large swathes of the population as bullfighting. Twenty-six years had elapsed since the foundation by the ingleses in 1878 of Spain’s first football club, Recreativo de Huelva, on the southwest coast of Spain, near the Río Tinto copper mines. By the turn of the century, the ingleses were helping to create other historic football institutions - Athletic Bilbao, FC Barcelona and Madrid FC (later Real Madrid).

Spanish football’s staggered journey of expansion from the arid south to the north of Spain and to Madrid, and its gradual translation into a mass sport, reflected the shapelessness of Spanish society, and in part its differentiation from the rest of Europe for much of the nineteenth and part of the twentieth centuries.

The Spain of small towns with their local fiestas linked to religious icons and localised economic activity endured alongside the Spain of the cities and bullfighting, the national fiesta with its roots in the Iberia of Roman times. Bullfighting had become a business enterprise in the nineteenth century, with the railways being exploited for the regular transport of both fighting bulls and spectators. In spite of the attempts of Spanish reformers to introduce football, its spread to the lower classes was much slower than in the United Kingdom.

That the first games of football in Madrid were played in a field near the old bullring, with participants using a room in a local bullfighting taverna as one of their meeting places, was perhaps not entirely coincidental. Spanish Football, far from seeking to take the place of bullfighting, came to coexist with it quite easily as a cultural and social phenomenon, generating similar passion and language, with the great players joining the great matadors in the pantheon of popular mythology.

O’Connell began his new life in Spain during the 1920s, a period that saw the results of a significant demographic shift in the country that had begun during the First World War. With South America cut off during the war as a destination for Spanish emigrants escaping from rural poverty, there was a major population movement within Spain from the countryside to the big towns. The influx of low-income families into the bigger towns around Spain brought with it a whole new sector of the population that turned to football as a form of entertainment and social integration. 

Among the northern Spanish ports along the Cantabrian coast, Santander alone aspired to rival the Basque Bilbao and the Galician Vigo, with its navy, fishing vessels, and maritime trade with Northern Europe and the Americas. Together with its spectacular surrounding mountain scenery and beaches, it boasted a certain enduring air of nobility. In the early twentieth century the city became the favourite summer resort of King Alfonso XIII and his British Queen Consort Ena. 

As in Huelva and Bilbao, the first games of football in Santander involved locals playing against visiting British and Irish seamen, with the town adopting a distinctly un-Spanish sounding name Racing de Santander at the foundation, with the King’s blessing, of its first official football club in 1913. 

Ten years later, the club had developed a reputation as one of the best teams north of Madrid with a liking for attacking football. This demanded speed on and off the ball from its young players. Several of them ‘graduated’ to the bigger clubs like Real Madrid. The strategy and tactics use by the players improved still further with the arrival of Fred Pentland, a charismatic former English football player who had played for Blackburn Rovers, Queens Park Rangers and Middlesbrough, as well as England. After retiring as a player, Pentland had gone to Berlin in 1914 to take charge of the German Olympic football team. Within months, the First World War broke out, and he was interned in a civilian detention camp. Famously, Pentland helped to organise hundreds of prisoners -some of them professional players - into teams to play an informal league championship. After the war he coached the French national team at the Olympic Games before travelling to Spain.


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Copyright © Society for Irish Latin American Studies, 2008 

Online published: 12 March 2008
Edited: 07 May 2009

Burns, Jimmy
, 'Don Patricio O’Connell: An Irishman and the Politics of Spanish Football' in "Irish Migration Studies in Latin America" 6:1 (March 2008), pp. 39-47. Available online  (www.irlandeses.org/imsla0803.htm), accessed .


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