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


Carlos Gardel, tango singer and Barça fan
Archivo General de la Nación
(José María Silva, 1933)

The new football season was not due to start until early September, but FC Barcelona’s management board met in emergency session to discuss the club’s future in the midst of growing revolutionary fervour in the streets of the city, with armed militias menacingly asserting their control. 

The main concern of the directors of Barça was that a rapidly deteriorating political and economic climate would soon make it impossible to keep the club running as a financially viable sporting entity. While the club’s administrative offices were near the city centre, its prime asset, the stadium on the outskirts, was at the time in a less densely populated neighbourhood and vulnerable to occupation by one of other of the warring factions. 

The board voted to advise one of their star players, the Uruguayan international Fernández, not to return from holiday in Latin America until further notice, and cancelled pending negotiations with one of his fellow countrymen. Barça’s other foreign player, the Hungarian Berkessy, was also taken off the books as a cost-saving exercise. O’Connell was asked to stay and agreed.   

The board and the manager decided that the club would in the short-term at least continue to play football in areas as yet not caught up in full-scale fighting, pending developments in the Spanish Civil War. This meant that the club missed involvement in the suspended Primera Liga and restricted itself to some less important competitions at regional level. The decision to adopt a ‘business as usual’ position was a gesture of faith in Barça as an enduring political and cultural entity. However, the fate of the club was complicated by the fact that over the years it had developed a reputation as a symbol of Catalan pride and identity, opposed to the centralising tendencies of Madrid. Prior to the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, the political tension had translated into rivalry on the pitch between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid. This rivalry became far more acute during the post-war years of the Franco regime.

The extent to which football was being subsumed into the politics of Spain was clear from early on in the Spanish Civil War when FC Barcelona’s president Sunyol was captured by pro-Franco forces north of Madrid and shot. The precise circumstances of Sunyol’s death remained a mystery throughout the Franco years. It was only in 1996, on the sixtieth anniversary of his disappearance, that the results of the first detailed investigation into the death were published jointly by the Catalan journalist Carles Llorens and two academics, José María Solé and Antoni Strubell. Though Sunyol’s body has never been found, the site of his summary execution was located in a winding mountain road outside the town of Guadarrama, which the politician had mistakenly believed was safely in the hands of Republican forces. In fact the town had been taken by the military insurgents. It seems he was shot simply because his political beliefs were opposed to Franco’s, although the symbolism of his presidency of FC Barcelona would have been an additional incentive to have him shot. 

By October 1937, Franco’s Spain had official control over some of the country’s best known football clubs. They included Betis, Racing and Real Oviedo, the three clubs that O’Connell had managed when Spain was a Republic. In Madrid and in Barcelona, the two major cities which remained resistant to the military uprising, football struggled against the rising tide of left-wing political militancy. Real  Madrid’s right-wing president was forced into exile and the club’s stadium in Chamartín was periodically requisitioned for Soviet-style sports demonstrations.

Worried lest they might meet with the same fate at the hands of unruly anarchist militias, the surviving directors of FC Barcelona set up a consultative workers’ committee aimed at pre-empting any attempt at having its assets seized. These were turbulent times and Barça struggled as best it could to keep afloat as a functioning entity, organising games and keeping young players as occupied as possible so that they would not be drafted to the front.

Yet during O’Connell’s first and only full season as manager, the club faced the looming prospect of a financial crisis, with gate receipts falling off and an increasing number of club members not paying their dues. While many Barça supporters remained loyal to the club, they were too caught up in the war politically, and had to prioritise their spending on essential goods. There were other Catalans who were politically sympathetic to the Franco cause, and were averse to participating in an organisation ruled by a workers’ committee, however much its founders found it a convenient smoke screen to hide their independence. 

What is beyond doubt is that FC Barcelona’s survival as an organisation became increasingly at risk because of political developments beyond the stadium. By the middle of 1937, in scenes later vividly depicted by George Orwell in his Homage to Catalonia, the city of Barcelona was submerged in an ideological struggle between anarchists and Trotskyites on the one side and Stalinist communists on the other. In such circumstances, officials and players at FC Barcelona began to look towards the future with a deepening sense of vertigo, caught up in a political spiral that was out of their control. 

Then, suddenly, there came an unexpected lifeline, in the form of an invitation from Manuel Mas Soriano, a Mexican basketball-player-turned-entrepreneur. Soriano wanted FC Barcelona to assemble its best team and send it to Mexico on a tour of the country and of the USA. The deal was that the club would be paid US$15,000, a considerable sum by contemporary values, with flights and all other expenses covered separately. 

To the club’s committee, the players and O’Connell, the deal seemed heaven-sent, the kind of lucky throw of the dice that the Irishman had never lost his faith in from his early days as a gambler. It not only offered a temporary solution to the club’s cash-flow problems, but also allowed its personnel to escape from a political situation that could no longer guarantee their safety. That the late Ángel Mur, the grounds man, managed to be included in the trip was thanks to a mixture of good luck and Irish humour, as he recalled in an interview with me many years later. 

Mur told me how he had been on the pitch doing some gardening duties when O’Connell approached him. At first Mur thought the Irishman had come to berate him about the poor state of the turf. To his surprise, O’Connell told him he wanted him on the Mexico/USA tour as the club’s masseur had recently left. The fact that Mur knew nothing about medicine or therapy of any kind appeared not to matter too much. O’Connell assured him that he would teach him the basics. Mur subsequently claimed that he learnt the rest from a couple of books on anatomy on the human body that he picked up from a local library.


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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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