If the early history of the European Championships can be seen as explicitly wrapped up in the politics of the time, then Spain’s victory on home ground in 1964 European Nations Cup could be regarded as one of international football’s ultimate flashes in the pan.

This was a victory that was simultaneously the last gasp of one of the greatest club sides that European football has ever seen and the beginning of a lull that would last for more than twenty years, a brief victory for the ultra-nationalism that blighted Spanish political life for the most of the four decades that followed the Spanish Civil War of 1936 to 1939.

The qualifying competition – this tournament was expanded to take in twenty-nine nations, although West Germany would continue to sit it out – provided a couple of surprises of its own. England, entering the competition for the first time, chose their Preliminary Round Second Leg match against France as the opportunity to debut their new manager, Alf Ramsey. Having drawn 1-1 at Hillsborough in the first leg, Ramsey’s first match as the England manager saw his team lose by five goals to two in Paris. Elsewhere, in the First Round Luxembourg beat the Netherlands by three goals to two – and only narrowly lost in the quarter-finals after a replay in, ironically enough, Amsterdam against Denmark after drawing against them twice – and Greece withdrew from the tournament by their nationalist government after being drawn to play against Albania in the Preliminary Round, in another case of politics trumping sport.

For Spain, however, this particular perhaps begins almost a decade earlier with UEFA’s decision to introduce the European Cup for club sides. The first five tournaments, between 1956 and 1960, were all won by Real Madrid. That Real Madrid had become politicised in the wake of the Spanish Civil War cannot be argued, with the manner in which the great Alfredo Di Stefano arrived at the club from the Colombian club Millonarios after having been courted by Barcelona being a classic example of how the political system could be made to work in Madrid’s favour, and it was di Stefano and club president Santiago Bernabéu who were the architects of the club’s success at the time, rather than any specific coach or tactical direction.

In the fourteen years prior to Di Stefano’s arrival, Real Madrid had not won the league title, but the balance of power shifted fundamentally with his arrival and Barcelona would go on to win just three league championships – in 1959, 1960 and 1974 – over the next three decades. In addition to this, at a time that Spain was looking, tentatively, to open up after years of isolation (1958 saw an agreement to allow the USA to set up military bases on Spanish soil), Real Madrid became, on account of its success in the European Cup, one of its best known exports – as the country’s Foreign Minister Fernando Maria Castiella put it at the time, “Real Madrid is a style of sportsmanship. It is the best embassy we have ever had.”

For all of this, however, there is little solid evidence of Real receiving favours from officials or referees in Spain during this period. Whilst there are clear links between the club and Franco’s regime, the benefits that they received were, more often than not, peripheral rather than direct. After winning the Copa Latina, for example, all members of the squad were awarded the Imperial Order of the Yoke and Arrows, and Bernabéu received the Grand Cross of Civil Merit a year later.

Spain’s withdrawal from the European Championships in 1960 – rather than playing the Soviet Union over two legs – was another example of the sort of political interference of the era. Real Madrid’s success on the pitch – with their 1960 European Cup final win against Eintracht Frankfurt being one of the greatest performances by any side in this competition – couldn’t, however, be mirrored by the national team. Spain had failed to qualify for the 1958 World Cup finals (placed into a three-team group also featuring Scotland and Switzerland, they were effectively eliminated after taking just one point from their first two matches) and in reaction to this brought in Hellenio Herrera to coach the team.

Herrera, however, was unable to replicate the success that he had with Barcelona and and Internazionale in Italy. Shortly before the 1962 World Cup finals in Chile, Di Stefano – an Argentinian by birth who had played for both Argentina and Colombia before becoming a naturalised Spaniard in 1956 and played for them for the first time the following year, although the Colombia team that he played for wasn’t at the time recognised by FIFA) became injured and clashed with the coach over whether he should play in the tournament or not. Spain were again knocked out in the first round of the competition, losing to Brazil and Czechoslovakia whilst beating Mexico. Di Stefano retired from international football thereafter, and the following year all foreign players were banned from Spanish football – a rule that would remain in place for the next ten years.

In the Preliminary Round for the 1964 tournament they were drawn against Romania, and a 6-0 win in the first leg set them up for a comfortable win and, although they may have had cause for concern when they found themselves two goals down in eight minutes in the return match in Bucharest, they qualified by seven goals to three on aggregate. The first leg of the first round of the competition saw them struggle again, this time to a 1-1 draw against Northern Ireland, but they won in Belfast by a single goal to set up a quarter-final tie against the Republic of Ireland, where four goals in the first half of the first leg in Seville set them on the way to a 7-1 aggregate win.

With the semi-finals and final being played on home soil in Madrid and Barcelona, this time there was no question of Franco stepping in to withdraw the team. Their semi-final against Hungary, however, turned out to be tougher than they might have expected. Hungary were nowhere near the strength of the team that had demolished England twice in 1953 and reached the final of the 1954 World Cup finals in Switzerland and a Spanish goal ten minutes from half-time scored by Jesus Maria Pereda gave them a lead that they held until six minutes from time, when Ferenc Benes equalised for Hungary and forced the match into extra-time, and there were just five minutes left to play when Amancio Amaria scored a second goal to send them through to the final, to play the team that Franco had boycotted four years earlier, the Soviet Union.

A match pitched as an ideological battle as much as a football match was as tight as might have been predicted, but this time Spain had just about enough to beat the Soviet team. Two early goals – Pereda for Spain after six minutes and Galimzyan Khusainov for the Soviet Union two minutes later was perhaps an apt metaphor for the tense stalemate that existed between the two countries at the time, but deadlocks have to be broken in football and, with six minutes left to play, a long-range header from Marcelino Martinez won the trophy for Spain. The Spanish press, predictably falling behind the party line, was jubilant (“there has never been displayed a greater popular enthusiasm for the state borne from the victory over communism”, read one over-excited editorial) and the result was considered of sufficient importance to raise the displeasure of the Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev, but this was not to be the start of a successful period for either Spain’s biggest club sides or its national team.

Having lost two finals to Benfica and Internazionale in 1962 and 1964, Real Madrid managed one final hurrah in the European Cup in 1966, beating Partizan Belgrade by the odd goal in three in Brussels. In the same year, however, the national team won just one of its three group matches against West Germany, Argentina and Switzerland at the World Cup finals in England. Real wouldn’t appear in another European Cup final until 1981 (and wouldn’t win the trophy again until 1998), and the Spanish national side wouldn’t appear in the World Cup finals again until 1978. Barcelona, meanwhile, wouldn’t complete their revival until the start of the 1990s, a decade that would see them win La Liga six times and, in 1992, finally bring the European Cup back to Catalunya with a win against Sampdoria at Wembley.

Franco, meanwhile, died in November 1975 and Spain would go on to hold its first free elections since the Civil War on the fifteenth of June 1977. There would be hiccups along the way, but its transition towards democracy was in many ways a remarkably peaceful one. Spain’s return to normality would be marked by their hosting of the World Cup finals in 1982, but it would not be until the European Championships of just four years ago that the previously perennial tag of “under-achievers” would finally be cast to one side. The Generalissimo got his victory in 1964, but there would be far greater victories ahead for Spain both on and off the pitch.

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