“Gathered for Special Training”: Football and Politicisation in Franco’s Prisons

Manuel Fornés Marín (centre) with his team and niece at San Miguel de Los Reyes, estelnegre.org.

Life inside Franco’s prisons was bleak, but in dark places prisoners found their own light. Incarceration did not mean giving in to the regime. ‘We care for each other’, said Marcos Ana, a poet and lifelong socialist, the longest serving political prisoner in Franco’s Spain.  ‘Any parcels we get are divided, not amongst us all but according to needs. This man has been ill, that boy is still growing, the other is going through depression… all a man’s worries in prison are everyone’s worries.’ ‘We are not defeated,’ he stated in an interview for the Amnesty for Spain campaign in 1962, ‘you must see us rather as …  “gathered for special training”.’

The story of Manuel Fornés Marin, a guerrilla in the anti-Franco maquis, provides a similar picture of resilience. Manuel was born in 1930 in Casa Antúnez, or ‘Can Tunis’ in Catalan, a working-class neighbourhood in Barcelona (a quarter which has now been totally absorbed by industrial and port infrastructures). His father belonged to the Metal Workers’ Union of the National Labour Confederation (CNT), the revolutionary trade union which would end up spearheading the 1936 Spanish Revolution. His mother was a fervent Catholic and a domestic worker.

As a child, Manuel quickly developed a passion and flair for football as he honed his skills playing with other children from the neighbourhood. Indeed, Can Tunis was a place which seemed to be bustling with footballing talent. During the early years of Manuel’s life, he played in the Can Tunis youth team alongside the legendary Eduardo Manchón, a left winger who would go on to play for FC Barcelona between 1948 and 1957, forming part of the legendary ‘Barça de las Cinco Cupas’ (Barça of the five cups) during the 1951-52 season.

This modest club not only sharpened Manuel’s talent, it also became a gateway to radical politics. Indeed, a number of the Can Tunis players were also affiliated to the anarchist Liberatarian Youth (Los Juventudes Libertarias), a youth anarchist group which had been founded back in 1932 in Madrid.

Manuel (bottom centre), with the Can Tunis team in El Palmera, 1946, estelnegre.org.

In subsequent years, Manuel’s love of football developed in parallel with a growing interest in anarchism. Not long after these encounters, Manuel started producing anti-Franco propaganda material for Los Juventudes Libertarias. To fund such activities he, alongside other anarchists around the group, ended up participating in the famous robbery of La Casita Blanca (a brothel in Barcelona) where they managed to steal 37,000 pesetas.

Almost immediately after the Casita Blanca venture, Manuel was arrested and charged (falsely as it turned out) for having been a member of the Defence Committee of the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT), the confederation of anarcho-syndicalist labour unions, in Barcelona. These Defence Committees had taken centre-stage in Spain during the extraordinary upheaval in July 1936, when in response to Franco’s military-led coup against the Republic, CNT militia columns successively held off army mutineers. These were the days of euphoria which would see the CNT take over workplaces, collectivise land and even set up public works schemes in schools and hospitals.

But in the aftermath of Franco’s eventual victory in 1939, the new nationalist state suspended all democratic rights and unleashed terror on all those that had identified with the Republic. With the introduction in 1940 of a ‘Special Tribunal for the Repression of Freemasonry and Communism’, the anti-fascist opposition would be removed from society through mass incarceration and quasi- or extra-judicial killing.

In 1952, Manuel would be tried by a consejo de guerra (a ‘war council’ or military tribunal). Following the court’s judgement, he was then transferred to the Prisión de San Miguel de Los Reyes, a 16th century monastery repurposed by the regime during the Civil War for political prisoners. In the early years of dictatorship, the San Miguel prison was massively overcrowded. Initially built to house a few hundred, the population during and immediately after the war swelled to the thousands.

Life in the prison was generally gruelling and isolating. The food was terrible, the behaviour of (most) prison guards intolerable. But the prison, Manuel recalled, was also ‘full of militants’ who had managed to establish regular contact with the outside. To get through the long prison hours, Manuel and others filled their time with their own self-organised activities. Miguel García, a CNT member of the pre-war generation, and later International Secretary of the Anarchist Black Cross, helped him study English.

Outside of his studies, Manuel would return to his first love, football. Soon after his arrival in the Valencian prison, he helped form a prison league, consisting of several seven-a-side teams. Football matches were played in the main yard and were watched by the entire inmate population. On the pitch, Manuel soon began to attract some unexpected adulation. Among the prisoners watching the games, one could also find the odd curious prison guard cheering on the spectacle. As Manuel recalled in an interview published in 2012, ‘I played quite well and soon I had fans among all those who lived there, including [prison] officials’.

One of the prison guards, Manuel recalled, told him that he was sure he was good enough to play professionally in Spain’s top football division, La Liga. It was even suggested by the guard that he should try and go for a trial with Levante FC. But given Manuel’s record as an enemy of the state, a free pass from the Prison Directorate was simply not on the cards. Instead he would have to continue ‘producing delights’ for the fans that he had acquired in prison. In this way, Manuel was able to fashion a positive identity with his team through his own muscle and footballing skills.

But these spectacular scenes would not last. Prisoner-guard boundaries were breached when a young priest, selected by the prison to preach gospel at the inmates, joined one of the prisoners’ teams. For the prison governor, this was seen as a step too far. The Church and its clergy were trusted with ‘redeeming’ prisoners in line with the authoritarian principles of the regime’s ‘National Catholicism’. Those deemed recalcitrant had to be ‘quarantined’. ‘The young priest did not last long’, wrote Juan Busquets (another anarchist held at the prison), ‘but before he was transferred, the governor banned him from playing football… To their sick minds he was setting a bad example by departing from the straight and narrow.’

Football played a compelling role in a wider story of state violence and repression. By examining the source material at a granular level, we can see how it had the effect of disrupting the regimental structure of the prison, breaking down the hierarchies between guard and prisoner, creating a space for enjoyment and individuality, and becoming a source of social ties between prisoners. Clearly football was not ‘just a game’, but nor was it an expression of prisoners’ depoliticisation, an example of what Raymond Carr called the ‘culture of evasion’.

The Franco dictatorship was fully aware of the political potential of football, as has been well documented by Alejandro Quiroga. In the Francoist imaginary, Spain’s football stadiums were to be transformed into ‘patriotic churches’, buttressing the ‘New State’ by channelling national football victories into popular celebrations of ‘national unity’. Spanish footballers also had a role to play for Franco, emulating the cliched narrative of the so-called ‘Spanish Fury’ (Furía Española) – initially used by international commentators to refer to Spain’s aggressive and individualistic style of play at the 1920 Antwerp Olympics, the term was later adopted by the regime to present individualism as a trait inherent to the Spanish ‘race’.

One only has to look at F.C Barcelona and its role in platforming a pro-Catalan and (often) anti-Francoist identity during the 1960s and 1970s to find that, in the end, the regime failed to bring football in line with its politics. Football in Manuel’s Valencian prison also echoed the ultimate failure of Franco’s project. This was made particularly apparent in April 1957 when he was transferred to Burgos prison after organising a strike for wages. ‘On the day of the transfer’, Manuel recalled, ‘all of the prisoners gathered in line to say goodbye’. Whether this support was a result of the strike or the social ties born on the pitch is difficult to know. It could well have been both. But the fact that the whole prison population came out in support of Manuel, including those that weren’t ostensibly political, would certainly make a much stronger case for the latter. Manuel’s forced exit showed how social ties, generated and endured through football, were mobilised during these moments of confrontation. In so doing, prisoners were capable of fostering their own politicisation. ‘This was very exciting’, Manuel recalled, ‘because it represented an act of rebellion, a challenge of the entire prison’.

There is, paradoxically, something incredibly familiar in Manuel’s story. Amateur football teams the world over are stocked with players who ‘could have been a pro’ if it wasn’t for some dreadful knee injury or work commitment. Manuel’s cruelly curtailed career provides a clue as to how the intersection of state oppression with social and cultural life can be retold through football.

This also has something to say regarding how we understand contentious politics today, reaffirming the importance of culture as a vehicle for politicisation. Football, like all mass culture, will always hold the potential to be ideologically codified. We are usually presented with the pernicious effects of this (as in the present fervour for the dreadful ‘footballification’ metaphor used by liberal commentariat circles debating Brexit). What Manuel’s story shows us is that what is dominant in mass culture can also be appropriated and used against the grain.


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