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Royalist, Republican, Socialist, Fascist: The Chequered History of the Copa del Rey

Since its inception in 1903, the Copa del Rey has been treated like a political football. Over the decades, it has been appropriated by everyone and anyone who has ruled over Spain.

by Will Magee
Sep 1 2016, 4:46pm

Athletic Bilbao, with the 1903 Copa del Rey // Via Wikicommons

This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.

When the first round of the Copa del Rey kicked off this week, it heralded the 115th staging of the competition. The opening fixtures saw clubs from the Segunda B and the Tercera Division clash across the regions and provinces of Spain. From Valencia to Salamanca, the Basque Country to the Balearic Isles, third and fourth-tier teams vied to see who could make it through to the next round, and a potential match up with one of the Segunda División's biggest clubs. Survive the second and third lot of games, and they could live the dream. There, in the Round of 32, wait two titanic draws against Barcelona and Real Madrid.

Back when the competition was first conceived, it was a far more local affair. For the first few years of its existence, matches were played at the Hipódromo in Madrid. Historically a racing track and haunt of the capital's old aristocracy, it came to host football matches at the turn of the 20th century. It was then, in the spring of 1903, that the Copa del Rey first put down roots.

Before there was the Copa as Spain now knows it, there was its precursor, the Copa de la Coronación. This was held on the cusp of summer in 1902, and also played in the rarified climes of the Hipódromo. The one-off tournament was thought up by Carlos Padrós, a pioneer of Spanish football and soon-to-be president of Madrid FC. It was held in honour of the royal ascension of Alfonso XIII, the king who would later be ousted from the throne at the birth of the Second Spanish Republic.

Alfonso XIII, to whom the Copa de la Coronación was originally dedicated // Via

The Copa de la Coronación set a precedent, in that it was inextricably tied to contemporary politics. It aligned the burgeoning sport of football with the new monarch, and doubtlessly swelled the influence of Padrós. He would go on to be elected Madrid FC president two years later, and would hold the position for a four-year tenure. In that time, Madrid would earn their first piece of silverware, and lay the groundwork for their status as the capital's leading football club.

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There was another precedent set by the Copa de la Coronación, in that it produced the first recorded meeting between Madrid and Barcelona. The latter won 3-1 in the semi-finals, before succumbing to Bizcaya, a team created for the sake of the tournament and representative of the Basque city of Bilbao. Carlos Padrós personally refereed the final, which drew a sizeable crowd of spectators. Madrid FC went on to win the Gran Peña Cup, a consolation trophy contested amongst the losers and conceived in the true spirit of the turn-of-the-century gentleman.

Club Bizcaya, who won the original Copa de la Coronación // Via

In response to the success of the Copa de la Coronación, the Copa del Rey was inaugurated the following year. It wasn't known by its modern Copa del Rey (or 'King's Cup') moniker, however, and was instead given the rather less catchy title of the 'Copa del Ayuntamiento de Madrid' (or 'Madrid City Council Cup'). This was, again, partly political, in that the competition nodded to the power of the local council and its grandees. Soon, however, the tournament had a rather loftier figure to honour. In 1905, it became known as the 'Copa de Su Majestad El Rey Alfonso XIII'.

With this change of name came a meaningful development in the chequered history of the Copa del Rey. From hereon out, at least until it adopted its modern moniker, the competition paid homage to the most powerful man in Spain. Now, when we look back on the history of the Copa, it seems inextricably tied up in the vicissitudes of Spanish politics. With the country soon to be plunged into decades of turmoil, the Copa was tossed on a stormy and violent political sea.

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The competition retained its name as the 'Copa de Su Majestad El Rey Alfonso XIII' for almost three decades. In that time, it changed from being a de facto Spanish championship to a more traditional knockout cup. The Campeonato de Liga, or domestic league, was founded in 1928, at which point the Copa abdicated its role as a national championship. Three years later, Alfonso XIII fled the country, and the tournament's name soon came to reflect the new administration.

Between 1923 and 1930, Alfonso XIII had supported the dictatorship of Miguel Primo de Rivera. This made him deeply unpopular, especially amongst those who had suffered under the semi-authoritarian regime. When the economy slumped in the early 1930s, de Rivera resigned and anti-monarchist sentiment ran dizzyingly high. Alfonso was soon a ruler in exile and, accordingly, the Copa had to change allegiance. Not long after the declaration of the Second Spanish Republic, it became known as the 'Copa del Presidente de la República'.

The Copa had gone from a royalist institution to a republican one, though it wouldn't remain so for long. With the onset of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, it ceased to be played for three long and gruesome years. In 1937, while the International Brigades were being slaughtered at the Battle of Brunete, a competition known as the 'Copa de la España Libre' was played in the socialist stronghold of Barcelona. It was also known as the 'Trofeo Presidente de la República', and would probably have become the spiritual heir to the old Copa had Francisco Franco not won the war.

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With Franco's final victory in 1939, a broken Spain prepared for the return of the Copa. It was renamed the 'Copa de Su Excelencia El Generalísimo' (or 'His Excellency, The Supreme General's Cup'), a fitting tribute to a fascist dictator with a grandiose outlook and a profound insensitivity to the absurd. The Copa remained the Generalísimo's cup until his death in 1975, before it was finally named the Copa del Rey in 1976 with the return of the monarchy and the ascension of Juan Carlos I. With Spain's king now a symbolic head of state, the Copa del Rey is no longer quite such a political football.

For decades, then, the Copa was synonymous with political power. It was the tournament of a high-handed monarch, the cup of a republican president, the one-time kickabout of Spain's socialist militias and the long-time plaything of a pompous totalitarian. It was caught up in a succession of political crises, and stained with the gore of the Spanish Civil War. It can trace its roots back to the start of the twentieth century, and there's little it hasn't witnessed since then.

With such a hectic and tumultuous legacy, it's little wonder that its history is contentious. While Athletic Bilbao still display the Copa de la Coronación in their club museum, the Spanish Football Federation doesn't recognise it as an official Copa del Rey. While Bilbao fans might have something to say about this, they don't say it quite as loudly as their counterparts at Levante. Having won the ill-starred 'Copa de la España Libre', they have campaigned for it to be recognised for decades. While some see it as the rightful republican Copa, others are unwilling to cede the point.

Having been born to coincide with a coronation, the Copa has been appropriated by everyone and anyone who has ruled over Spain since then. Only in recent times has its identity remained constant, though its past will always be chaotic and contradictory. From royalist to republican, socialist to fascist, the Copa has been forced to swear fealty to a strange and unlikely succession of masters. Now, in the modern era, it has come full circle, and serves as football's homage to a king.

@W_F_Magee