Historian Daniel Gray draws connections between football and the Spanish Civil War, as personified by the Basque refugee children who became footballers in England. This article was published in issue 59 of ¡No pasarán! in January 2022.

In October 1938, La Pasionaria described departing International Brigaders as examples of ‘the universality of democracy.’ The Basque refugee children who went on to be footballers represent the universality of football: an internationalist game for an internationalist cause.

By the early spring of 1937, Spain’s Basque Country was, perhaps, Franco’s deepest irritation. Hitler’s Condor Legion and the Italian Legionary Airforce were laden with bombs and advanced on the Basque Country. What happened next was a heinously brutal chapter in a war full of them. For the first time, civilian targets were bombed from above and modern methods of atrocity were born.

In all of this, of course, children, or those that survived, had to carry on. They had to find their joy, kick stones among ruins, play hide-and-seek in the rubble. Our six footballers were among them; most came from Durango and Guernica.

In May 1937 an evacuation programme for Basque children began. Thirty-three thousand children were shipped off to Belgium, Denmark, Mexico, the USSR and Switzerland. At first, Prime Minister Baldwin held the British non-intervention line – no children would be taken, and in his words, ‘the climate wouldn’t suit them.’ But public pressure could not be ignored.

Though no government aid would be given, a ship carrying 4,000 children would be permitted into Britain, each permitted to stay for three months. Most stayed for longer; some made their homes here.

The ship carrying them to the UK was a cruise liner, the Habana, adapted to carry ten times its normal capacity of 400. It docked in Bilbao on 20 May 1937, preparing to set sail for Southampton.

It is a difficult scene to try and imagine. No one really understood where they were going; Britain was left to the imagination. Clasping a few belongings wrapped in paper and tied with string, each child queued to climb aboard the Habana. Every girl and boy had an identification number, written on a tag worn around their neck. Among those children were: Emilio Aldecoa, Sabino Barinaga, José Bilbao, Antonio Gallego, José Gallego and Raimundo Pérez Lezama. Each one of these boys would grow into a
professional footballer.

On 23 May, they arrived at Southampton to a splendid, heartfelt welcome from locals and those from elsewhere who had been part of a magnificent fundraising campaign for the Basque children.

All children were given a medical, fed and put into a camp consisting of hundreds of bright white tents. Football soon erupted – balls scrounged from somewhere and dribbled among guy ropes and campfires. Then, the children were dispersed to homes or ‘colonies’ across Britain.

As there would be no state aid for the refugee kids, everything provided would have to come from charity: fundraising, donations, appeals, events. Everything ran on goodwill, too – churches, wealthy people and educational establishments gave up
entire houses that were hastily converted into homes for the Basque children.

The example I know best is Mall Park in Montrose, 30 miles north of Dundee. Its creation and existence were typical of the many places our footballers and the other refugees found home. Its funding came from a typically diverse set of people: The Bakers’ Union, the Blind Institution, the Dundee Breakfast Club and the Women’s Liberal Association donated generously. Dockers took on a team of locally-berthed Spanish seamen at football and raised a hefty sum on the gate and from donations, while the Dundee School of Music staged a concert in Caird Hall.

The first residents arrived in late September 1937. Though distraught with homesickness and worry for their families in Spain, the children did find great contentment. Bene González, 15 years old on the day she arrived at Mall Park, recalled in 1985 that the
children had lived ‘immensely happily, and joyfully’.

It is important to point out that the Basque children also raised money for themselves. They performed dance routines and organised football matches. It was in these matches that some of our six first showed their remarkable talents. Which brings us to one such boy, Emilio Aldecoa. Emilio was 14 when he boarded the Habana, one of the older refugees. From Southampton, he was sent to live in a Basque colony in Stafford. His interest in football blossomed into love, and Emilio developed his tricky, wily left foot not least in those fundraising games.

Being old enough, instead of returning to Spain in 1938 or 39 when so many did, he decided to stay in England, despite the end of war in Spain and its beginning in Britain. Emilio took a job with English Electric and began playing for the works football team. His skill was obvious. He stood out. Wolverhampton Wanderers offered him a trial.

This was war-time football, meaning that the normal league structure had been suspended, and regional fixtures organised in its place, all of them to take place in daylight on Saturdays.

Guest players were needed, but few were more exotic than Emilio. In 1943 Emilio made his first-team debut against Crewe Alexandra. It made him the very first Spaniard to play a professional match in England. What a thing for a teenager who had seen
and heard things that no-one should, a migrant who had sailed into the unknown.

That 1943/44 season, Emilio was Wolves’ top scorer. He was a dazzling footballer, full of vim and verve. Here was a technicolour footballer in a black-and-white world. In 1945, Emilio moved on to Coventry City, scoring against Portsmouth on his Sky Blues debut. He married a local girl and stayed for two seasons. For a while, another Basque refugee Habana kid played alongside Emilio. By some strange fate or mere coincidence, José Bilbao wound up at rickety Highfield Road.

Emilio Aldecoa playing for Wolverhampton Wanderers. With his debut game in 1943, he became the first Spanish footballer to play a professional match in England.

José was an outside left, meaning that for his six Coventry games he played immediately next to inside left Emilio. Such an unlikely pairing so far from home; two young Basque men in the blue and white of Coventry City, tearing down the wing in their long shorts. ‘City’s attack proved that it was the best constituted for a long time,’ said one match report in a local newspaper. ‘The all-Spanish left-wing was a happy partnership.’

Walking around Coventry must have been a chilling reminder of what was left behind almost a decade before. The city, much like their Basque homeland, had been pummelled by German planes, its cathedral violently sacked. Yet both had played football just as it was being reborn after the horror of war. A footballing boom was on the way, one tenet of quietly emerging optimism in the country. It is hard to think of a more intriguing time for the Basques to have been plying their beloved trade in middle

José Bilbao slipped from view like many war-time footballers; we don’t even know if he stayed or went home. Emilio Aldecoa returned to Spain and played for Athletic Bilbao, Valladolid and Barcelona. Perhaps Emilio’s greatest achievement came after
his playing career. A dedicated, precise and sagacious student of the game, he compiled a lengthy blueprint document for youth development and scouting, setting out how Barcelona could become the greatest club in the world.

Football cards ofAldecoa (at FC Barcelona)

Emilio was not finished with England, and from 1960 undertook a coaching and scouting role at Birmingham City, implementing systems for finding and developing players way ahead of their time.

Before Emilio Aldecoa and José Bilbao had begun their professional careers, two other Basque refugee boys had used England as a starting point for theirs. Both would become greats of the Spanish game. Sabino Barinaga and Raimundo Pérez Lezama were also among the 4,000 on the Habana.

Sabino was leaving behind the debris of the bombed town of Durango, while Raimundo came from Baracaldo, just outside Bilbao. At the time of the sailing, Sabino was 14 and Raimundo 16. By some cosmic coincidence, these two young people that
would become Spanish football stars were housed together.

Neither was forced to leave Southampton, a place of fond memories for young Basques after the welcome they had received. The two teenagers were instead given lodgings in Nazareth House, a city orphanage run by nuns. Outside, in the safety of this refuge’s gardens, both began to play football in every spare moment they had. Raimundo went further, studying textbooks about the game and its rules in his bunkbed. That adoration of football was again blossoming for young Basques in England. Their enthusiasm was
matched by ability.

It seems that both-footed forward Sabino impressed Saints first-team manager Tom Parker. ‘Sabino is one of the most brilliant youngsters I have ever seen’ noted Parker.

Goalkeeper Raimundo was soon scouted too, or possibly concurrently; one telling of the story goes that the two were spotted kicking a ball around in the car park outside The Dell, Southampton’s dear old home. Both soon began playing for the
Southampton youth team.

Raimundo Perez Lezamo playing goalkeeper for Basque team Athletic Bilbao

In 1938/39, their performances in the local youth leagues were astonishing, even if at a level clearly already beneath them. The team played 33 games, winning 31, scoring 277 and conceding just 17. In the 13 games he played in, Sabino scored 62 times.
Raimundo eventually played three games for the first team. Southampton wanted to make them first-team players, but their Home Office licenses to remain were not extended. Besides, Britain was now at war where peace, albeit buttressed by violence and suppression, existed in Franco’s Spain. The two travelled home in March 1940.

In three years they had grown into young men, fought the psychological traumas of fascist invasion and become two of the most promising footballers in Europe. Back in Spain, they pursued what family they had left.

Being Basque in Franco’s Spain was difficult enough; being Basque and probably the sons of dreaded Reds was even worse. Maybe it was football that spared them the repression of so many thousands of others.

Spain needed players; it needed to rebuild its teams and league. Despite an offer to stay in Bilbao and play for Athletic (now renamed Atlético under Franco’s orders), Sabino understandably took the greater offer of Real Madrid money. Seeing the
poverty of his family must have made that a fairly simple decision.

Raimundo signed at first for a lesser Basque side, Arenas, but after three months was spotted and scooped up by Atlético Bilbao. He was to stay for 16 years. Raimundo’s playing style made him both a marvel and a novelty. With Atlético Bilbao, the
bunkbed boy of Nazareth House won two La Ligas and six cup medals.

Sabino, meanwhile, set Madrid alight. The strapping Basque scored four goals in an 11-1 mauling of Barcelona in 1943. Then in 1947 he became the first man to score at the brand-new Bernabeu Stadium. Perhaps, in quiet moments, he allowed himself a bittersweet grin: the son of a Basque communist, now the hero of what some regarded as Franco’s team.

Raimundo and Sabino’s paths must have crossed regularly in league fixtures, but in 1943 the Nazareth boys clashed in the Spanish Cup Final. Atlético Bilbao defeated Real Madrid 1-0; some said that Raimundo Lezama won the match. What joy to have seen
Franco’s face that day.

While Raimundo was a one-club man, Sabino played for Real Sociedad and Real Betis after the Bernabeu. He then became a manager, holding the reigns at more than a dozen club and international sides, in Spain and across the world.

Sabino died in 1988, aged 66, while Raimundo lived on until 2007, passing away aged 84. Both retained a lifelong love of Southampton, and of the England that gave them everything, including football. While at times the relationship between Sabino and Raimundo could appear to be that of adopted brothers, our last two Habana refugee footballers were blood brothers.

Antonio and José Gallego came from Errentería in the far northeast of the Basque region. In April 1937, their father had been killed at Guernica. Defying the heartbreak it would bring, the boys’ mother insisted they board the Habana with their three sisters for safety in England. Twelve-year-old Antonio, 14-year-old José and their sisters were given beds at first in Eastleigh, and then Cambridge. They stayed in a home for 30 Basque children, owned by Jesus College Cambridge.

Soon, like Sabino and Raimundo on the lawns of Nazareth House, and Emilio Aldecoa with his fundraising games, the Gallego brothers set up football teams and matches. Then in his late 80s, Antonio told the El País newspaper in 2012:

‘Football was all we thought about. As long as we had football we were happy. It meant everything to us; it was the only thing we knew about. We got attached to Cambridge and made a lot of friends there through playing football. If it hadn’t been for football, we would have lived a very different life.’

Though never scaling the heights of Sabino, Raimundo or Emilio, both Gallegos had talent in abundance. They may have daydreamed that, had they gone home to Spain like those three, their careers could have taken off. But England, particularly
Cambridge, had become home to the Gallegos.

In the mid-1940s, José, a left-winger, and Antonio, a goalkeeper, were signed up by local non-league side Cambridge Town. Scouts flocked to see the exotic Basque boys in this most unlikely of settings. José was signed by Brentford, and Antonio by
Norwich City. Things did not work out for Antonio, and he was freed in 1947, returning to Cambridge Town. José played six times for the Griffins, before a 1948 move to that home-from-home for Basques, Southampton.

Football, while clearly a second heartbeat for the Gallegos, must often have faded into the background as the five siblings wondered what had happened to their mum. That year of 1947 marked a decade since they had last seen her at the harbour in Bilbao as the Habana set sail. Then, a breakthrough: mother and beloved children were reunited after the Red Cross helped her locate them. Soon, she too settled in Cambridge. A family reunited 10 years after those vile bombs had fallen on their homelands.

The Gallego brothers, meanwhile, played football into their 50s, the game was under their skin. Antonio married, started a family and stayed here for the rest of his days until he died seven years ago. The story of the Basque refugee footballers is an incredible one. Six young people, from the jaws of hell, arriving in a country where people defied their cowardly government to open their arms and rooms. All six were united by the misery they had left behind, and the miracles they became.

Daniel Gray is author of ‘Homage to Caledonia: Scotland and the Spanish Civil War’, ‘Black Boots and Football Pinks’ and many other books on the history of football and Scotland. This is an edited version of a talk given at the IBMT’s Len Crome memorial
conference in March 2019.

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