The Scottish roots of Spain’s oldest football club

Football is as synonymous with Spanish culture as paella and bullfighting, but Spain’s oldest club has its roots in British-run mines in southern Spain. We dig into the history of Recreativo de Huelva, Spain's oldest football club.

The Scottish roots of Spain's oldest football club
Recreativo de Huelva players pose for a team photo in 1917. Photo: Public Domain

Real Madrid. Barça. El clásico. La Copa Del Rey. The dominance of Spain’s national team in recent years. Football is woven deep into the sociocultural fabric of Spanish society, taking on an almost religious level of fanaticism that dictates people’s lives, schedules, moods and relationships.

Spanish clubs are some of Europe’s biggest, its players some of the world’s best, but Spanish football history has a curious tale of Scottish influence. 

Recreativo de Huelva is a fourth division club based in the Andalusian town of Huelva in south-western Spain.

Although the small club has had some stints in Spain’s top league, the majority of its history has been spent in the lower leagues living a largely nondescript and unsuccessful footballing existence.

But it is the club’s history, and how it came to be, that is the most interesting thing about it.

Recreativo de Huelva is Spain’s oldest football club, founded 132 years ago by two Scots on 23rd December 1889 as Huelva Recreation Club. 

Recreativo de Huelva in 1906. Photo: Public Domain

Scottish doctors Alexander Mackay and Robert Russell Ross, were working at the mine near the Río Tinto (Tinto river) that stretches across southern Spain, and founded the club as a way of keeping themselves and their colleagues fit as they lay train lines on the outskirts of the city.

Technically speaking, the Rio Tinto Foot-Ball Club was the first football club to be established in Spain in 1878 (also in Huelva province), but the team ceased to exist after a few years, meaning Recreativo is the oldest still existing club in Spain.

Charles Adam, the club’s first president, was also a Scot, and director of the Huelva Gas Company.

Recre’s first organised match came a few days later, reportedly against a group of British sailors docked at the town’s port, and then the first official match against Andalusian rivals Sevilla FC (formed in January 1890 by another Scot, Edward F. Johnston) in March of that same year.

Ríotinto Company Limited was founded in 1873 when of a group of British investors purchased a mine complex on the Tinto river in Huelva from the Spanish government. Photo: Public Domain

Among the names in the starting XI that day were Alcock, Smith, Yates, Wakelin, Kirk, Daniels, Curtis, and Gibbon.

Recreativo continued playing invitational games over the next few years, facing groups of Britons working or docked in Spain, but also new Spanish clubs being formed as football mania swept over the country.

Eventually local tournaments were formed in the Andalusian area, and Recre won several cups before the turn of the century.

Unfortunately for Recreativo fans, aside from short stints in the first and second divisions over the years, the last in primera coming in the 2008/9 season, those early triumphs were the highlight.

Built in 1892 , Recreativo’s Velódromo was the club’s first official stadium until it was replaced in the 1950s by the Colombino Stadium, then upgraded to the Nuevo Colombino. Photo: Public Domain

By no means world beaters, Recreativo de Huelva are no Barcelona or Madrid but they are older than both, started a Spanish love affair with football that remains to this day, and will always have a footprint in the history of Spanish football.

But Recreativo isn’t the only British connection to Spanish football.

Scots and Englishmen founded several smaller clubs around the Madrid area before the birth of Real, and the Witty family helped to found Barcelona.

FC Barcelona’s first football squad pose for a team photo in 1903, including Arthur Witty, seen here holding the football. Photo: Public Domain

Many Scots who introduced football to the Catalonia region founded small clubs, and some even went onto to play for Barcelona.

Scot George Pattullo was one of Barça’s first greats, scoring an incredible 43 goals in 23 games between 1910 and 1912 and even coming out of retirement to play against local rivals Espanyol in the 1912 cup semi-final.

In the 1890’s British shipyard workers working in the Basque Country founded Bilbao Football Club.

The Athletic Club (Athletic de Bilbao) team of 1903, winners of Spain’s first Copa del Rey , also winning the Copa de la Coronación that year. Photo: Public Domain

Basque students who had been studying in England founded Athletic Club on their return home- naming it not ‘Atlético’ but Athletic in homage to the English game, and many early Spanish clubs were named in the English tradition and remained so until the rule of Franco.

Athletic Club de Bilbao even reportedly got their kit from Blackburn Rovers and then Southampton.

One curious linguistic quirk is that the word ‘fútbol’ even exists as a Spanish anglicism of the word football, and that very few clubs go by the more traditional ‘balompié’ like Real Betis de Balompié do.

Another example of the influence the creators of the beautiful game had over late 19th century Spaniards is seen in the iconic kits of Real Madrid, who in their early days adopted the all-white look to pay homage to the London-team Corinthian, an amateur team credited with having popularised football around the world and having promoted sportsmanship and fair play.

Whatever football team you support in Spain, whether it’s Sevilla, Celta de Vigo or of course Barça or Real, there’s a high chance the club’s origins have a British connection. 

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How a town on Spain’s Costa Blanca became a Nazi retreat

Traditional wisdom tells us that many Nazis escaped to South America, but hundreds more also made Spain home following WWII with the help of fascist dictator Franco. The Valencian town of Dénia in particular hides a very dark past.

How a town on Spain's Costa Blanca became a Nazi retreat

Dénia, a small upmarket Costa Blanca port town on Spain’s easterly Mediterranean coast, is most famous for its golden beaches and lively street life.

If you’ve visited, you might’ve taken a stroll through the quaint town up to its castle, overlooking the picturesque marina, or seen the Roman ruins in its museum.

What you might not have realised is that that following the Second World War, Dénia became not only a place of transit for Nazis fleeing Europe (known as a ‘ratline’) but a place of safe haven for many who were allowed to make a home and enjoy their retirement there.

In reality, Dénia’s crystal clear waters have a much murkier past that reveals the ease with with Nazis settled on Spain’s costas, and the uncomfortable relationship between Franco’s Spain and the Third Reich.

READ MORE: Why Spain is still in the wrong time zone because of Hitler

From the 1930s to the mid-1990s there is evidence of the presence of prominent Nazis in the town of Denia (Alicante province). Photo: Capturando el Tiempo en Segundos/Unsplash

Costa Blanca, Nazi retirement home?

The Costa Blanca is one of the most sought after and visited tourist spots in the world. So much so, it seems, that even former Nazis agreed.

Dénia was, for example, the chosen destination of Gerhard Bremer, a high ranking Sturmbannführer in the Waffen SS who was awarded, among a whole host of medals and awards, the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross – an accolade only awarded for serious commitment to Nazi Germany.

After being convicted at the Nuremberg trials, Bremer lived happily in Dénia until his death in 1989, becoming a local businessmen and building bungalows and hotels during the birth of tourism on the Costa Blanca.

Bremer and his family were reportedly integrated in the community, with his children attending local schools. 

In fact, some Nazis were so comfortable in Spain that many, although remaining discreet of course, never felt the need to renounce their Nazi ideology.

According to Spanish historian José Muñoz, every April 20th a group of Germans met at the Finita restaurant in Dénia to celebrate Hitler’s birth.

“They did it in a discreet way, a small group of people during the week, not with a party open to the whole town,” he told Spanish website Newtrawl, “they were not idiots”.

READ MORE: Spain seeks return of Nazi gifts ‘proving’ Aryan origins

Another of the first to arrive on the Costa Blanca was Johannes Bernhardt, an honourary general of the SS and businessman who had supplied weapons to Franco, who then rewarded him with Spanish nationality in order to prevent his deportation.

According to historian Stanley G. Payne, “Bernhardt lived discreetly between Madrid and Dénia, without integrating with the locals. In 1953, he left for Argentina.

A third prominent Nazi in Dénia was Anton Galler, alleged by the Italian government to be the commander of the Nazi army responsible for a massacre at Sant’Anna. He lived in Dénia for the rest of his life and was buried there in 1995.

It is also believed that the notorious Otto Skorzeny, the man who organised the mission to rescue Benito Mussolini from captivity in September 1943 and who was nicknamed ‘the most dangerous man in Spain’, also lived on the Costa Blanca. 

Hitler shakes hands with Spanish fascist dictaror Francisco Franco at Hendaye train station on the French-Spanish border October 23rd1940. (Photo by AFP)

Nazis in other parts of Spain

These notable examples of known high-ranking Nazis in Dénia are just handful of hundreds of suspected Nazis that made their homes in Spain following the war.

And it was no secret; in 1947 the United States wrote to Franco with a list of 104 people suspected of being Nazis, or at least connected to the Nazi party, who were on Spanish territory.

Their initial list was as many as 1,600 names, although ultimately the Americans focused on the 104 most notorious names on the list for extradition. 

But perhaps former high-ranking Nazis making their home in Spain didn’t come as that much of a surprise to the British intelligence services.

During the war many in the British establishment worried about Spanish sympathies towards Nazi Germany, so much so that MI6 bribed top Spanish officials with bribes equivalent to €179 million in order to maintain the country’s neutrality.

Infamous Belgian Nazi Léon Degrelle made a home in Málaga, on the Costa del Sol, and in this case went to no great lengths to hide his identity. After relocating to Málaga with the help of the Spanish government and keeping a low profile for a few years, Degrelle became an increasingly public figure in the 1960s.

He socialised with other Nazis hiding out in Spain, including Austrian SS coronel Otto Skorzeny, and even wore his SS uniform to his daughter’s wedding in1969. 

After diplomatic tensions between Spain and Belgium throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s, Degrelle took Spanish citizenship and lived very comfortably in Málaga having done well financially because his construction company built American airbases in Spain, incredibly, under his real name.

Degrelle felt so comfortable in Spain, in fact, that he attended a centenary celebration of Hitler’s birthday in Madrid in 1989.

As for Skorzeny, who wasn’t so happy to also be nicknamed Scarface, in an interview with the Daily Express in 1952 he said: “I finally feel free in Spain, I can remove my mask and don’t have any reasons to live in secret”.

There are hundreds more Nazis and Nazi sympathisers who found a safe haven in Francoist Spain, from the Basque Country to Barcelona or Mallorca, living the rest of their lives in peace under the Spanish sun despite the crimes they committed. 

If you wish to delve further into the history of the Nazis in Spain, there are several books offering far more detail on the matter, as well as the 2021 Spanish-Belgian film The Replacement (trailer below) or the new Spanish series Jaguar.