Sunderland’s Spanish conquest: ‘the essence of English football in its purest sense’

This well-researched and, for Sunderland fans, heartwarming slice of football history was written by David Hewitt, a PhD researcher in the school of modern languages, cultures and societies at Leeds University, and appeared at The Conversation France, which kindly gave permission for its reproduction here. Our thanks to them and to David for reminding/informing us that Sunderland AFC were such a force in the mid-1930s (which we knew) that they were seen as ‘a harmonic unit like we have never seen before in Spain’. Apologies for the way the photo sizes mess upon the left-hand sidebar; still working on fixing that …

File 20180608 191959 1v5fe1o.png?ixlib=rb 1.1
Sunderland AFC playing Spain in 1934.
Journal La Educacion Fisica, Author provided

David Hewitt, University of Leeds

In May 1934, the Spanish Football Federation invited Sunderland AFC to Spain to help them prepare for the World Cup in Italy. For all their troubles now (they were relegated to England’s third tier in April), in the mid-1930s Sunderland were one of Europe’s strongest sides. As the Spanish sporting newspaper El Mundo Deportivo noted, they represented the “the essence of English football in its purest sense”.

Germany took a similar approach, playing against Derby County. But while the Nazi regime relished the chance to demonstrate their superiority against English opponents, in Spain the Sunderland tour was rather a chance to hold a mirror up to Spanish football – and indeed to Spanish society in general – and recognise its shortcomings.

Sunderland went on to win the FA Cup in 1937.
wiki, CC BY-SA

Three matches were played in just six days. The first, on May 14 in Bilbao, featured a more experimental Spanish XI. Most notably, Ricardo Zamora, Real Madrid’s goalkeeper and the undoubted star of Spanish football, did not feature. The match finished 3-3, with Sunderland scoring twice in the final minutes. A second match, at Madrid’s Chamartín stadium, finished in a 1-1 stalemate. Finally, the two teams met in Valencia where Sunderland beat Spain 3-1.

National regeneration

Far from taking heart from the series, the matches were held up as evidence of Spain’s footballing shortcomings. In the pages of the leading sports newspapers, Spain’s poor showing was blamed not solely on the players’ skills or the manager’s tactical acumen but rather on deeper faults. To a significant extent, the theories put forward in the match reports and associated editorials – and the language used to make such arguments – were representative of a wider debate concerning national regeneration (regeneracionismo) that had been dominating Spanish intellectual life for more than three decades.

Defeat in the Spanish-American War and the loss of Cuba in 1898 (known as El Desastre) caused many to question what was “wrong” with Spain. The answers put forward were many and varied. One common idea was that Spain had become physically weak or, in the words of writer, polymath and leading regenerationist thinker Joaquin Costa: “a nation of eunuchs”.

At the same time, several other thinkers lamented the perceived deficiencies of the Spanish people. As the essayist and politician Salvador de Madariaga argued: “Indifference, laziness and passivity are all part of the Spanish character. But above all, the Spanish are a profoundly individualistic people.”

A photograph of the front page of Spanish sport magazine, AS, from 1934.
AS, Author provided

From the turn of the century, team sports, most notably those imported from England, were recognised as one way of regenerating the “Spanish race”. Far from simply concerning themselves with gossip and match reports, the sporting press lobbied for individualistic, militaristic gymnastics to be replaced by team sports within Spain’s education system.

When the Second Republic was declared in April 1931, sport was seen as one means of building a new society, of converting the subjects of the Bourbon monarchy into citizens of a democracy. The prime minister, Manuel Azaña, himself noted:

Sport not only strengthens the body, but instils in those that practice it a spirit of cooperation, of subordination of the individual to the collective, and so contributes to correct the fierce individualism of our people.

The sporting press largely agreed – and saw in the May 1934 matches evidence to support their arguments. The English press praised the superior skills of the Sunderland players, as well as the “scientific tactical method” of manager Johnny Cochrane.

‘Just individuals thrown together’

In Spain, however, reports published in, among others, El Mundo Deportivo, AS and the more education-focused Educación Física attributed Sunderland’s dominance to other factors. They praised the speed, strength and fitness of the Sunderland players. Even though the English players had played more games over the previous season, AS noted:

Spain have shown a terrible tiredness … the players seemed completely exhausted and lacking any energy to make any real, sustained effort.

Indeed, their stamina – and conversely Spain’s lack of it – was seen as the reason the hosts conceded two late goals in Bilbao and one reason why they would struggle in Italy.

But above all, Spanish “individualism” was blamed for this difference in class. “Moving together, Sunderland were a harmonic unit like we have never seen before in Spain,” Educación Física concluded. Similarly, AS summed up the series by observing:

All the evidence shows that Sunderland is a team that can teach Spain a real footballing lesson: not a lesson in individual skill, but a lesson in playing as a team.

While for El Mundo Deportivo, the host’s shortcomings were similarly obvious: “The English are masters of football. Together, they play as one team – unlike Spain, who are just individuals thrown together.”

For all the pessimism, Spain were hardly humiliated in Italy. After a celebrated 3-1 victory over Brazil, they lost in a quarter-final replay to the hosts (arguably thanks to some questionable refereeing decisions). This was to be Spain’s last World Cup until 1950. By that point, Spanish football had been embraced as a propaganda tool by the Franco dictatorship.

Unlike during Spain’s shortlived experiment with liberal democracy, teamwork and a sense of collective spirit was no longer promoted as the idea. Instead, the Spanish press would denigrate the weakness of other nations, including their technicality and tactics. The directness and aggression of the “Furia Roja” (Red Fury – the popular nickname for the Spanish football team) was paramount and would arguably remain so for more than 50 years.

* The original version of this article was published by The Conversation.

Dutch rampage cancels another refereeing howler (NB: Shearer and Lawrenson disagreed)


At the 2010 World Cup final in South Africa, Spain were dirty, the Netherlands thuggish and Howard Webb struggled to cope with it all though I thought he did as well as any ref could given two sets of players intent on ending the game with as few on the field as laws permit.

Tonight we had niggles rather than the brutality of 2010, a crushing defeat for the cup holders Spain and display of refereeing incompetence to rival that of Yuichi Nishimura in Brazil vs Croatia – yes, I know Jeremy Robson suggested worse – but ultimately, on this occasion, of no assistance to the beneficiaries.

Read moreDutch rampage cancels another refereeing howler (NB: Shearer and Lawrenson disagreed)

Salut!’s Week: gripping Newcastle build-up plus breathtaking Evra/Sissoko/Ribery/Giroud move

A look at our week of derby-related wisdom and fun – and a marvellous 93rd minute climax to the Spain-France World cup qualifying game. There was more – catch Goldy’s analysis of the really big football story of the week (Danny Rose and Serbian racists) and more besides by going to the home page and pottering around …

John O'Shea & Olivier GiroudImage: Ronnie Macdonald

There are moments in football that stick in the memory a long time, even forever. They do not have to involve your own team, though it is all the better if they do.

So Sunderland supporters recall Gary Rowell’s completion of a hat-trick at St James’ Park, each of the four goals we slammed past Chelsea on an unforgettable first half, Larrson’s winner on Martin O’Neill’s managerial debut, Richardson’s free kick against Newcastle … and the final whistle at Wembley on May 5 1973.

Watching Spain v France live on French TV the other night, I saw another. Not entirely neutral – living partly in France, half-French family by marriage – I still didn’t attach too much importance to the outcome but wanted France to get an improbable result provided they earned it. Which they did, restricting Spain to a one-goal lead (thanks greatly to Hugo Lloris, with his penalty save and other heroics) at half time and carving out chances of their own.

Allez, allez” yelled the TF1 commentator as Patrice Evra’s crucial block dispossessed the advancing Juanfran and France launched a last-ditch assault. The screen showed the minimum three minutes’ stoppage time to have passed. Could there still be a storming finish?

Expecting the whistle at any time, I saw the possibility as Sissoko powered forward and supplied the ever-menacing Ribery whose exemplary cross from the left was dispatched with strength, direction and aplomb by Olivier Giroud. If if was a riveting experience for someone hoping but not praying for an equaliser, it must have been a feast for one member of the TF1 panel in Madrid, Arsène Wenger OBE. Arsenal fans who have given Giroud and, by extension, Wenger so much grief should think again. See the clip in the footnote.

Jake couldn't resist this one ...

Sunday’s match is bigger, of course. And to mark the occasion, Salut! Sunderland has done its best to bring you some tip-top build-up coverage, which I now summarise (click highlighted text for full articles):

* Bill Taylor’s wry look at Newcastle United’s tie-up with Wonga. Sample …

Some cynics are saying the renaming (or should that be de-naming) of the Sports Direct Arena is a ploy by Wonga to cast a cloud of sentimentality over the whole vexed question. Not everyone is fooled. The BBC reports that, for one, Ian Lavery – MP for Wansbeck and a Mags season-ticketholder – won’t be returning to the stadium, saying, ‘A city like Newcastle and the region should not have any ties with an organisation like Wonga. This business makes profits off the back of deprived people who are desperate and who are the most vulnerable in society.’

* David Athey’s
fascinating memories, as a lifelong NUFC supporter, of derby day banter minus “naked hostility”. Sample:

When the Magpies (we didn’t call them the Toon in those days did we?) played Sunderland at Roker Park, we would hire a bus and the 50 of us, both Newcastle and Sunderland supporters, would not only travel to the game together but we would also stand together in the Fulwell end, sporting our respective colours and cheering ourselves hoarse. On one occasion, a pal of mine even “borrowed” the school bell, which he painted red and white and rang enthusiastically throughout the match.

* John McCormick reinvents himself as Shakespeare for a foray, once more, unto the breach. Extract:

Let Sessegnon run at the Magpie team

with Adam Johnson, let Fletcher o’erwhelm it

As fearfully as doth young McClean

O’erhang and jutty their confounded backs,

Swill’d with the dead ball skill of Larssen.

* Guess the Score.
Still time to have a go at winning a Salut! Sunderland mug:

Jake cannot believe prizes are back

… occasional series, and it is open to supporters of both sides – and of neither – to enter.

* Mick (not Micky or Mickey) Gray’s tremendous set of answers, from a Newcastle-supporting perspective, to the Salut! Sunderland “Who are You?” questionnaire. Example:

Q: Many players have done well for both clubs, sometimes having to put aside personal allegiance. Do you have first-hand or received wisdom on any of them – Bracewell, Chopra, Clark, Given, Moncur, ‘Pop’ Robson, Shack, Venison, Waddle and Stan Anderson spring to my mind?

A: As an older fan – I saw all of that list play except Shack. Bobby Moncur has to be my favourite – great player and the last United skipper to lift a significant trophy. Bryan “Pop” Robson was a good player, as was Barry Venison. By the way, Robbie Elliott who played for both clubs is doing a 1,500 mile bike ride for cancer charities, starting this week in Lisbon and visiting all the cities where Sir Bobby Robson was a manager. If anyone would like to support this great cause just Google “bike for bobby”.

* And
if you want even more, Monsieur Salut has also been kept busy at the ESPN site’s Sunderland pages:

1 … Great to win but should draws be made compulsory? Sample (quoting Keith Topping, writer and broadcaster (and Mag), from a previous season’s “Who are You?”:

I don’t really like derby matches. I have to be honest. I know the atmosphere is good … and, if you win it’s, like, the greatest day ever. But it really is a ‘so much at stake’ thing. I mean, I work in an office three-quarters full of Mackems. I know the true cost of defeat on a highly personal level. I tend to have the attitude of just wanting to get them out of the way, have two 1-1 draws and then get on the rest of the season.

2 … Derby cult heroes. A parade of Sunderland stars from Wear-Tyne and Tyne-Wear encounters dating back 104 years:

Kevin Phillips, Niall Quinn, Thomas Sorensen, Gary Rowell, Stan Cummins, Kieran Richardson, Len Shackleton, Patrice Carteron, Eric Gates, Marco Gabbiadini and George Holley.

Join the Salut! Sunderland Facebook group – click anywhere along this line

And follow us on Twitter: @salutsunderland … click along this line

Click anywhere on this sentence for a glance at the home page – and highlights of all the most recent articles …

In case you don’t win Guess the Score, click here for the Martin O’Neill ‘Team of all Talents’ mug: £9.50, post-free for UK buyers, from the Salut! Sunderland Shop


Monsieur Salut, by Matt

Au revoir Angleterre, goodbye France: Nasri’s parting shame, England’s limited game

176/366: Come on England!!!Image: Gene Hunt

Late news: big debate brewing in France on whether certain players – the suspects, by and large and overlooking the squad’s surly return to French soil, are identified below – should receive their €100,000-a-man bonuses for reaching the last eight …

The first thing to say is that Euro 2012 seems to have whittled down the competing nations to the four that logically merit a presence in the semi-finals.

Jake: l'artist

Read moreAu revoir Angleterre, goodbye France: Nasri’s parting shame, England’s limited game

Johann Cruyff on a very Dutch murder


Sunday was the night the Netherlands, with complete premeditation, killed football, or at least did their level best to do so. Everyone, except their own short-sighted and indignant fans, knows this to be true, including – as Jeremy Robson, pictured with his young ‘un, points out – a certain Dutch master of the Total Football at which his country once excelled …

I’ve always been a huge admirer of Johann Cruyff.

As a player, he was sublime. The now famous “Cruyff turn” which he introduced to the world in 1974 is a practice drill for aspiring footballers the world over. Hard to believe that up to 40 years ago, this move had never been witnessed on a football field.

Read moreJohann Cruyff on a very Dutch murder

The Van Bommel snarl that epitomised this rotten finale


In another of our reflective glances at the World Cup, Bill Taylor starts and finishes with the sort of welcome a prisoner gives when told years have been knocked off his sentence. Four years off World Cup football – and the thuggishness, at the end, of a once-refined footballing nation – is maybe the least reward Bill can expect for getting the winners and runners-up spot on …

Ah well, at least we get another four years off before we have to go through this again. And the REAL football starts in five weeks.

There has been some good, some great football played during this World Cup but there have also been far more terrible moments than there should have been. Many of which were crammed into the final’s seemingly interminable 120 minutes.

Read moreThe Van Bommel snarl that epitomised this rotten finale

Spain 1 Netherlands 0: la cima del mundo

spainImage: gsfc

So SPAIN are top of the world, winners of the 2010 World Cup after at one stage looking more like heading home in disarray. But South Africa confounded so many people with the way it handled the event – think back to all those warnings, and not just from tabloid newspapers, of the likely security headaches – that it deserved to host a better final than the lame, petulant affair mustered by Spain and the Netherlands. Yet Spain generally played the better football, and triumphed with a late, late winner from Iniesta. The Dutch claimed injustice, a missed offside, but deserved nothing better after their cynical, ill-tempered display …

Read moreSpain 1 Netherlands 0: la cima del mundo

Spain v Netherlands, and the wonder of Darren Bent: through Spanish eyes


Where to go for a Spanish ‘Who Are You?’ in response to Edgar Meyer’s Dutch preview of the 2010 World Cup final. Marta in Belfast? “Typical kneejerk fan – probably couldn’t name any players,” said her husband. The tapas bar I like so much in Ealing? It’s Portuguese. Let’s try the Spanish Embassy in London then. And into our lives, with many thanks to the press office for putting us his way, came Benjamin Leyton* a fan of Cadiz, a Chelsea steward and, best of all, a man who admires Sunderland and Darren Bent. Three-nil to Spain, he reckons …

At one stage, people were saying Spain might go out at group stage. Now you are a step away from winning the World Cup – what went right?

Read moreSpain v Netherlands, and the wonder of Darren Bent: through Spanish eyes

Raining on Spain’s parade


Tomorrow Salut! Sunderland brings you a very positive view of Spain, as you’d expect since it is our Who Are You? feature in which a Spanish supporter is interviewed; Jeremy Robson is not so sure, and gets his retaliation in first …

What a sad indictment it is that Spain will be contesting a World Cup final.

The only pleasure to be derived from this is vicarious. It’s great for the citizens of a true football nation to see their national side in the final for the very first time.

Read moreRaining on Spain’s parade