By Dan Parry
The rusted shackles of dictatorship were finally loose. After Franco’s death in 1975, successor King Juan Carlos I declared Spain open for democracy. For the first time in nearly 50 years Spaniards could openly challenge authority.
In a long and arduous process known as la transición, Spain took its first steps towards becoming a modern constitutional democracy. Across the country citizens began to celebrate their distinctive cultural backgrounds, speak previously banned languages and educate themselves about their working rights. It was no different for the nation’s footballers.
During the dictatorship everything related to sports came under the direct control of the Delegación Nacional de Educación Física y Deportes. When it came to football, the government entrusted their power to the Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) and from them it trickled down to the clubs, whose presidents were often carefully selected.
As with people in all walks of life, professional footballers saw the transition as an opportunity to wrestle back some form of control and autonomy. Television and massive support ensured that players at the top level made a pretty penny, but further down the leagues their working conditions were quite abysmal and many were languishing in poverty.
Cabrera Bazán, a prominent lawyer and future politician, caused a storm when he once asserted that footballers ‘along with prostitutes and household employees were the only three professions in which people lived in a constant state of insecurity.’
They started by forming a union, and then in March 1979 they went on strike bringing Spanish football to a halt for the first time in its history. It was known as La Huelga de Botas Caídas -The Strike of Fallen Boots.
The Creation of AFE
In the autumn of 1977, inside a popular Madrid nightclub called Cerebro, ex-teammates Juan Gómez ‘Juanito’ and Manuel Esteo discussed the reprehensible state of Spanish football. In a 2011 interview with AS, Esteo recounts the events of that night:
‘Juanito told him “Pulpo -Esteo’s nickname-, what’s going on with football? The people below don’t earn anything, financially the whole thing is a disaster and the right of retention is unacceptable!” Esteo’s response, “Franco died two years ago, it’s time for us to create a player’s union. May the players unite!”’
Almost immediately the duo got in contact with Rubén ‘Ratón’ Ayala, the Atlético de Madrid striker, who passed on the statutes that were used to found the Argentine Footballer’s Union, Futbolistas Argentinos Agremiados.
Esteo and Gómez then met the Spanish national team during a pre-World Cup team meeting, they gave the players leaflets explaining the ‘necessity of a union’, most seemed to approve of the proposal.
It probably didn’t come as much of a surprise. Apart from the woeful treatment some had suffered in their own careers, especially if they had competed in the lower divisions, many were already politically inclined towards supporting labour movements.
In Goles y Banderas, writer Alejandro Quiroga states that in June 1977 Don Balón surveyed players to gauge their political stance. From those asked only ‘a dozen or so expressed a preference for the extreme-right party Fuerza Nueva -the reincarnation of a post-Franco Falange Party-, whilst the majority were in favour of democracy.’
After the meeting with the internationals, they sent leaflets to every professional in the country and in November 1977 the first general assembly took place in the Hotel Meliá Castilla. The organisers were aware that there was widespread support for the union, but they didn’t expect 270 players to show up.
On the 23rd of January 1978, 3 months after their first general meeting and about a year on from the legalisation of unions in Spain, more than a thousand footballers came together to officially legalise the Asociación de Futbolistas Españoles (AFE). The union’s statutes, almost identical to those of their Argentine counterparts, were formalised and inaugural elections were held leading to the appointment of Joaquín Sierra Quino as President and Ángel María Villar and Santiago Bartolomé Rial as Vice-Presidents.
The appointment of Quino was particulary significant. In 1970, his club Real Betís refused to sell him to Real Madrid, instead invoking the ‘right of retention’. Quino rebelled against Betís’ decision and refused to play for almost an entire season and in 1971 they sold him to Valencia CF.
El Derecho de Retención was a legal clause that could bound players to their respective clubs for an entire career. The right stated that clubs only had to increase a player’s yearly salary by 10% to prevent a contract from reaching its conclusion. Many a burgeoning career was lost or floundered do this heinous rule.
Unsurprisingly, one of AFE’s initial demands was the complete abolition of the right of retention. Also high on the agenda for the union were: the payment of all outstanding debts owed to players, a new labour agreement for players, one which would grant them inclusion in the national welfare system, and the end of the under-23 only restriction in the Tercera División.
The newly born AFE wielded considerable power, mostly thanks to its substantial membership; when the 1979 strike came around AFE had around 1700 people in its ranks.
The repayment of debts was their first point of success. During negotiations in July 78, AFE managed to strong arm the clubs into paying back around 130 million pesetas in money owed to players. It was quite a powerful first show of hand.
Nevertheless, the RFEF -lead by Pablo Porta- and the clubs had ruled the game for so long and they were determined not to just gift the keys to the national game to their employees. The dismantling of Franco’s regime, the slide into democracy and AFE’s rise had seen their influence diminish but they could still bite hard.
Time to Strike
It didn’t take long before relations between the two opposing structures completely disintegrated. In spite of the July agreements, AFE felt that the clubs weren’t taking their demands seriously enough. Therefore in January 79, the players took the hefty decision to call a strike that would take place in March.
Apart from the considerable pressure from some parts of the media and threats of sacking or monetary punishment being levied at them by the club presidents, the biggest obstacle to the strike was solidarity.
First Division players were well paid and had few financial difficulties. For them striking was a huge risk which could put their employment status in major jeopardy. Naturally, the top tier players became the poster boys for the movement, something which infuriated many members of the public. The media took advantage of this and would often use the term ‘huelga de los millonarios’ when discussing the protest.
Real Madrid Captain Vicente Del Bosque, one of the most prominent figures said ‘going on strike wasn’t an easy choice to make’. Graham Hunter quotes Del Bosque’s Madrid teammate Ángel in an article for The Blizzard where he aptly describes the pressures footballers were under at the time:
‘It wasn’t easy to play for Real Madrid and be a member of a union, but we joined up. Not for ourselves, because we were comfortably off, but for the penniless guys who spent their nights in sleeping bags during or after their careers…’
Esteo even received death threats: ‘People were ringing my house and they were telling me that if the strike went ahead, they were going to kill me. They were tense days. There were a lot of people involved and football was already moving a lot of money back then.’
The first day of the strike was daunting. Nobody was sure if the players would hold their nerve. The Federación forced the referees to attend the games, whilst the clubs applied pressure to their players by making them travel and train.
Juan Manuel Asensi, an active Barcelona and Spain player and now President of AFE, travelled all the way to Las Palmas: “We’re not refusing to travel nor train, we’re just not going to play a match.”
The first and most crucial round of strikes took place on Saturday the 3rd. The Canteranos would lead the first strike in Spanish football history. Castilla took on Sabadell whilst Tenerife were up against Bilbao Athletic. Esteo was so worried that he snuck into the Ciudad Deportiva inside a suitcase in order to support the Castilla youngsters. He found a completely relaxed Castilla captain who told him ‘to be calm, they weren’t going to play.’
A quick phone call to Tenerife confirmed the same for that game. The actions of those players, under immense pressure, is not lost on Esteo: “If they had gone to play, the strike wouldn’t have triumphed.” Not only that, but if they had actually played, the whole union itself probably ‘wouldn’t have continued’ as Esteo put it.
On the morning of the 4th, journalist José Damian Gonzalez in his El País column declared that the strike was now ‘a fact’. Some of the country’s top players made statements to the press. Perhaps none more powerful than that of Salamanca captain Enrique Miguel Martin who was quoted in the same piece saying: ‘The only ones to blame for the strike are the RFEF, they have not taken us seriously and they have broken too many promises.’
In Bilbao, Del Bosque and Real Madrid didn’t turn out against Iribar and Athletic Club. In fact, the Athletic faithful showed their support by not going to the ground. When the referees went to start the game, San Mamés was vacío, empty. Not a single game was played across the top 3 divisions on that Sunday. Shouts of “¡Suspendidos!” echoed out from the radios and televisions across Spain. There was no turning back now, Spanish football would never be the same again.
There were repercussions, or at least there were threats of serious repercussions. For example, the night before the strike Atlético de Madrid players were warned that 25% of their March pay packet would be deducted for refusing to play.
Espanyol’s president was heard apologising to socios attending the game via a megaphone whilst promising that the punishments would be of the mano dura -heavy-handed- variety.
The most infamous of all the anecdotes was that of Asturian club Langreo whose players were left stranded when the directors refused ‘to pay for their return bus journey.’
The success of the action left the RFEF and the clubs with no choice but to come to the table. A swift truce was made and service resumed as normal the next week. On the 13th of July 1979 the first ever official agreement was signed between AFE and the clubs: the derecho de retención was limited, all players would now receive fixed monthly payments with paid holidays and their rights to union membership were recognised.
After the strike the RFEF ‘began to take us more seriously’ Esteo continues ‘there were a lot of advancements thanks to that strike.’
New Battle Lines
Although 1979 was an important battle for the players, the war was not won. But that first strike did set a sturdy platform. Over the next five years, there were further disagreements and player protests as the landscape of Spanish football continued to shift.
By time the final big strike ended in 1984, Spanish footballers had almost as much power as anyone else: the right of retention was completely abolished, they could influence fixture scheduling, had much greater representation at higher levels of the game and many more previously unthinkable advantages. AFE has become one of the most influential insitutes in the nation, it even contributed the last two presidents of the RFEF: Angel María Villar and current incumbent, Luis Rubiales.
In many ways what happened in 1979 was emblematic of wider society at that time. Power was moving from the government back to the citizenship. Much like the rest of the country, footballers gained back control of their lives. The ‘pioneers’ cleared a path and those that followed have continued to benefit , and profit, from their bravery ever since.
Header image comes from AS
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