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John McGovern

The connection between General Franco, a Portuguese cork manufacturing company, a Seville football agency and King William of Orange may not have been apparent to anyone else who attended El Sardinero, home of Racing Santander, on April Fool’s Day 2007.

Sitting in my office in Seville, I ‘operated’ as the only football agent who specialized in being fleeced, rather than the altogether easier art of fleecing. But an invoice too far, even for my rudimentary commercial instincts, had been received. A Portuguese Cork Company had apparently been advertising the services of my football agency in its factory. Eh? And it had charged my company 10,000 EUROS for the pleasure of informing its half a dozen staff in the village of Lourosa, in forested north Portugal, the benefit of signing a football agency contract for two years with ‘El solo agente de FIFA britannico con una oficina en Espana’, meaning ‘The only British FIFA agent with an office in Spain’. 

Not that it would have had much impact on those half a dozen Portuguese factory workers, but had the ‘advert’ been printed in Portuguese it might have had made more sense. Then again, when you think about it, probably not.

The fact that the owner of the Portuguese Cork Company also happened to be my business partner in Seville became the catalyst for a company audit which revealed little more than the words ‘You’ve been shafted [by your] amigo’. 

As I headed for the airport, realising that my Spanish vocation had come to an end, I almost forgot that I had arranged to attend El Sardinero the following evening to watch Racing take on the mighty lions of Athletic Bilbao. A flight to Santander offered more appeal than a flight to Glasgow anyway, so there I was just a couple of hours later, meeting my Brummie mate Paul, who scouted for some choice British clubs. He had targeted Racing’s giant Serb centre forward Nicola Zigic as the one to watch. Zigic, just like my business partner, was certainly worth the watching. 

An under-performing Athletic side were fighting relegation; Racing were chasing a European spot; but those stakes, high as they were, did not explain the atmosphere at the game that sunny Santander evening. El Sardinero is a small purpose-built modern stadium: ‘La catedral’ of Athletic’s famous San Mames it is not. Yet, it is quite possibly the most incredible atmosphere I have ever encountered at a football match. 

The game itself was outstanding. Zigic didn’t fail to impress, scoring a hat trick in just twenty second half minutes, including the winner in the last minute when the score was an incredible 4-4. And Joseba Exteberria, the closest thing I have ever seen on a football field to Bobby Lennox, put away a great second half double for Athletic. Eight goals in the last half hour contributed to an amazing experience. 

I would like to think that the atmosphere at El Sardinero that night had been occasioned by a quite remarkable game of football. But there was more. I could sense history. I felt hatred that night between the fans. There existed an edge that I had never experienced, and I’m a Glaswegian. 

Paul and I headed back to the centre of Santander, wondering why we had witnessed what we had witnessed. As we dined and discussed, my shoulder was tapped by a local who obviously understood our dilemma. He took us from the bar, through some dark, narrow streets until we emerged in the Plaza de Ayuntamiento. And there it was. A statue of a man on a horse: Franco. “El ultimo en todo de Espana” said our kind courier. It was the last statue in honour of Franco still standing in mainland Spain. Now I understood.

We resumed our meal relieved at our Basque/Cantabrian football political education. “What is it with men on horses and football? “ said Paul. “It’s the same up in Glasgow isn’t it?”

I ate in silence.

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