Strength, style and silverware: Spain's first century

Spanish national team who got the silver medal in the Olympic Football Tournament in Amberes in 1920

  • 28 August marks the 100th anniversary of Spain’s first official match
  • The setting was the 1920 Olympic Games in Antwerp, where Spain claimed silver
  • Their performance in Belgium gave rise to the nickname Furia Roja

On 28 August 1920 in Brussels, Belgium, the above starting XI ran out in front of some 3,000 spectators to face Denmark in the first official match in Spain’s history.

The ensuing decades would bring a maiden FIFA World Cup™ participation and successes like their third-place finish at Brazil 1950, when Telmo Zarra scored his famous goal at the Maracana; the 1964 European Championship triumph and Marcelino beating Lev Yashin for the winning goal; the gold medal at the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament at Barcelona 1992; and of course the wonderful generation that lifted the 2010 World Cup and the 2008 and 2012 European Championships.

But every story starts somewhere, and that of Spain began with those 11 players against Denmark and a 1-0 triumph courtesy of a Patricio Arabolaza goal. La Roja may just have been starting out, but a mere seven days and four games later, they would enjoy their first major success by taking a wholly unexpected silver medal at the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament in Antwerp.

Antwerp Olympic Stadium - Amberes, VII Olympiad

Invited to the Olympics

When Spain was invited to participate in the 1920 Olympic Tournament, the country’s Football Federation, which had been founded just a few years before, was tasked with putting together a side that could compete. The team’s first coach was the remarkable and multi-faceted Paco Bru, a former FC Barcelona defender who had once worked as a circus strongman.

The leading clubs at the time were in northern Spain, so Bru opted to limit his squad to those playing in the Basque Country, Catalonia and Galicia, who would also be more used to the kind of muddy pitches they could expect in Antwerp.

Did you know…?

  • Real Sociedad, with Arrate, Artola, Carrasco, Eizaguirre and Silverio, contributed the most players. Athletic Bilbao and FC Barcelona were the were the next best-represented sides (four each).
  • Included in that first team were two veritable legends of Spanish football: goalkeeper Ricardo Zamora, nicknamed ‘el Divino’, and Rafael Moreno, better known as ‘Pichichi’, the mythical Athletic Bilbao striker who gave his name to the annual award for La Liga’s top scorer.
  • Paco Bru initially called up 22 players but, in the end, only travelled with 21 – Ramon Encinas having to drop out because he could not get permission to leave work.

Goalkeeper Ricardo Zamora (1901 - 1978) of the Spanish national team

Spain at the Olympic Games in Antwerp:

  • Round of 16: Spain 1-0 Denmark
  • Quarter-final: Belgium 3-1 Spain
  • Silver/Bronze medal tournament, first round: Spain 2-1 Sweden
  • Silver/Bronze medal tournament, second round: Spain 2-0 Italy
  • Silver medal match: Spain 3-1 Netherlands

That silver medal should have been a bronze, but Czechoslovakia were disqualified after walking off during the final against Belgium. As a result, Belgium took home gold, Spain silver and the Netherlands bronze.

1920 Olympic Games. Antwerp, Belgium. Soccer Final. Belgium v Czechoslovakia. Gold medal winners Belgium score with a penalty.

Belauste and the Furia Roja

The honour of being La Roja’s first captain went to Jose Maria de Belausteguigoitia. Belauste, as he was known, was a midfielder with a build – 1.93m and over 90kg – more suited to rugby than football. He nonetheless went down in history for the famous cry he uttered during the match against Sweden:

– “¡A mí el pelotón, Sabino, que los arrollo!”“Get the ball to me Sabino, I’ll steamroll them!”

The aforementioned Sabino Bilbao clearly heard his team-mate, sending a high ball in his direction. Belauste ran towards goal “going past opponents like a tornado”. The words are those of Manuel de Castro (pseudonym Handicap), who was the only Spanish reporter present that afternoon in Antwerp, where he also officiated as a linesman (being a referee as well).

Such was Belauste’s momentum that he ended up in the Swedish net along with the ball, the keeper and three defenders. The aggression and determination shown by Belauste and his team-mates during that move and in the game in general not only allowed Spain to stay in contention for a medal, it also gave rise to the term “Furia Roja” – the nickname by which the team was known for decades. The moniker stemmed from an historical incident involving the Spanish army, who famously ransacked Flanders, destroying everything in its path in the 17th century.

A century on, Spain now play with more ‘touch’ and less ‘fury’, but that Olympic silver that started it all remains etched in the collective memory.