In July 1937 Spain was a torn country, divided in two by the civil war fought between the uprisen military forces ruled by El Caudillo Francisco Franco and the legitimate Republican Government defenders. Nonetheless football matches were played in republican territories, looking for a distraction from heavy bombings made by Mussolini and Hitler’s planes, supporting Franco.
The Republic of Spain capital city had just been moved from Madrid to Valencia while in Catalonia and Valencian Community a Liga del Mediterráneo (Mediterranean League) was organized and played from January to May 1937, having as a final winner FC Barcelona, over CD Español and Gerona FC. After this tournament, as usual, the national cup had to be played. It was organized by the President of Valencia FC Josep Rodriguez Tortajada and took the name of Copa del Presidente (President’s Cup), not Copa del Rey any more (“King’s Cup”, as it had been until the end of monarchy, in 1931), a name to which they added for the first and only time Copa España Libre (Free Spain Cup).
The cup had a 4-teams round among two Valencian teams, Valencia FC and Levante FC, the team of the working class port neighborhood El Cabanyal, and two Catalonian: Gerona FC and FC Español. Big absentees were FC Barcelona (going on tour for America), Múrcia and Hercules Alicante, unable to travel. After six matches, Levante FC and Valencia FC occupied the first two positions, and they got the chance to win the title in the last ninety minutes. The final match was played in Barcelona, on july 18th, 1937, one year exactly after Franco’s levantamiento. With a late goal by José Garcia-Nieto, assisted by Agustinet Dolz (local hero from El Cabanyal), Levante FC won its first title ever. Nieto and Dolz will both take part in the military defense of the Spanish Republic.
Franco takes away the title
In 1939 Franco troops celebrated the victory and started a 36-years dictatorship. As a (very) secondary effect, la Copa del Presidente became la Copa del Generalísimo, as an honor for Franco himself. Levante’s title was not recognised, and the team had to suffer a fusion with Gimnástico FC in the same years. The working class origin of the team, and the fact that all El Cabanyal remained loyal to the Republic up to the end, fighting in defense of the city and being bombed much more than other territories, may have a reason in that. The team so far has never won trophies anymore.
Fixing the past?
Franco’s dictatorship lasted until his death in 1975. In the following season the trophy took its eldest name and came back as the Copa del Rey, but the Cup of Free Spain of 1937 remained an unrecognized title.
In 2004-2009 a first acknowledgment attempt was made by some parliament parties, but the Spanish Football Federation rejected it, answering that the official competitions were off during the civil war, all tournaments which had been organized were nothing but regional, and not all the teams which had the right to participate were actually in. Recognition supporters argued that the first Copa del Generalísimo, played in 1939 only in nationalist controlled territories, and won by Sevilla FC, was considered a national cup fair and square.
On this basis, and after a declaration of FIFA about the legitimacy of Spanish Republican Federation up to november 1937, a further attempt was made in recent times, and finally, in march 2023, the Cup of Free Spain 1937 was recognized by Spanish Federation, and on July 18th 2023, Levante supporters can celebrate it for the first time, 86 years later.
One of the reasons why the Spanish Federation had long refused to recognise this title was the issue that in wartime many teams have no possibility to participate in championships, so the final result is not fair. Levante’s side answered that the opposite is true, if a situation is difficult, you achieve a harder goal in succeeding.
Has your team ever won a trophy during a war? Do you think war time trophies are less valuable than peaceful time ones, or is there more merit in winning them, because of the difficulties? And, on a more general level, what can be the role of football during war times?