Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Journey to the Centre of the Universe

“You have to understand that the Athletic was at the time, at the height of its glory, and Dulwich was an amateur team playing against [in effect] a professional one. Of this you can be sure, Bilbao has a reputation for self-esteem as never has been seen. We were, are and will be the centre of the world, of the galaxy, of the universe, of whatever." Angel Uriarte

What do the following footballers have in common: Hungarian Ferenc Puskas; Argentineans Mario Kempes and Alfredo di Stefano; Mexico’s Hugo Sanchez; Raul of Spain; Brazilians Ronaldo, Romario and Bebeto; the Dutchman Ruud van Nistelrooy and Diego Forlan of Uruguay?

Each one of these great players has been the top goalscorer, or the Pichichi, in Spain’s La Liga Primera Division. The award, which dates back to the late1920s, is named in honour of the legendary Basque footballer Rafael Moreno, known to all followers of the game in Spain by his nickname ‘Pichichi’.

At the tender age of eighteen Pichichi began a very successful playing career with Athletic Club de Bilbao, the team he had supported from a boy. He remained at the club for the next eleven years achieving an iconic status like none other. The sports chroniclers of the day viewed Pichichi as the complete player. Those who saw him perform spoke in wonders of his great vision and intelligence, of his deft touch, and of the terror he caused to defences.

On field he was easily distinguished by the white bandana he wore, a ‘gimmick’ that singled him out from among his fellows. In 1915 a charity bullfighting event was arranged in Bilbao and featured various celebrities participating as matadors and toreros. Pichichi was the main attraction. The combination of football player and the national spectator past-time was the brainchild of a local journalist called José Maria Mateos, who is also said to be the one who originally came up with Rafael Moreno’s ‘Pichichi’ moniker. In the public eye, the brilliant Athletic footballer was now put on a level par with the top bullfighters, all of whom had wonderful nicknames.

He was also commemorated in a couple of paintings by influential artists of the day. One picture, by Jose Arrue, depicted the entire Athletic cup winning side lined up in the goalmouth with English coach Mr Barnes in the background. This was often reproduced for many years and can be found today at the click of a button. Most notable, however, is Aurelio Arteta’s Idyll in the Fields of Sport, in which the Basque hero in playing kit relaxes against a perimeter fence, chatting up a young female fan. He was the boy any mother would want her daughter to bring home – a sort of Latin Edgar Kail. The fact that Pichichi later married the woman in the picture added to the mythology and romance. All he had to do next was to die young and leave a good looking corpse and he would achieve immortality.

Two years after the Great War, when a man of experience was required to captain Spain’s very first national football team at the Olympic Games, the selectors chose Pichichi. Throughout the second decade of the twentieth century, Pichichi, more than any other player in Spain was the embodiment of the beautiful game imported from England.
However, the football tournament in the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp, turned out to be one of pure farce when finalists Czechoslovakia were disqualified after walking off the field at 2-0 down to hosts Belgium. Among other things, they were not entirely happy with the English referee and linesmen (one of whom was the famous amateur international Charles Wreford-Brown), or the intimidating Belgian army surrounding the pitch. The hastily arranged ‘consolation’ competition saw Spain eventually beat the Netherlands 3-1 to win the silver medal. Pichichi, who picked up his five international ‘caps’ at the Games, scored the third goal for the Spaniards. Incidentally, there was even some Dulwich Hamlet interest at the tournament with former marksman Hussein Hegazi starring in the Egyptian side.
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For centuries ships have departed from Portsmouth on the south coast of England for the Bay of Biscay, and the west coast of France and north coast of Spain. The mouth of the River Nervion opens into the renowned seaport town of Bilbao, one of the chief gateways to Europe and far flung reaches beyond. Among the passengers on board the ship that set sail in the fourth week of March 1921 was a party of Dulwich Hamlet footballers, some of the best amateur players in England. Two friendly matches were planned over the Easter weekend against Athletic Club de Bilbao and a further match in Paris en route home.

Dulwich Hamlet were spoilt for choice where they could stage their annual tour. They now had a reputation that was second to none following the outstanding 1919/20 season in which the players were celebrated as the ‘Victory Team’, having done the ‘double’, winning both the Amateur Cup and the Isthmian League title.

The annual Easter trip was marked in the fixture list of the Club handbooks the previous August. It was not stated where it would take place, but telephone calls had been made, telegrams and letters sent and travel tickets and hotels booked, matches arranged, and so on; and from what we know about the people that officiated at Dulwich Hamlet, every little thing would have been meticulously planned well in advance. Not a thing was left undone.

The Hamlet’s Dick Jonas had a hand in the choice of location. He was as influential a clubman as there has ever been at Champion Hill. He had only been the team captain for eight months yet within a few years he would be running the club. This was only his second voyage with the side, the first being a visit to the Channel Islands the year before, but he was familiar with Bilbao. Just eight years earlier he had played the very same team at the very same ground where Dulwich were due to participate in two invitation games against the Basque region’s premier side.

The Athletic Club moved into its Cathedral of a stadium that was San Mamés in August 1913, and it was Pichichi who scored the very first goal on the ground. Of the new stadium one wrote, “Only the field of the Chelsea can be compared with this one, no other.” This opinion was shared by members of Shepherd´s Bush FC, who declared they had never seen a field so fine. The Bushmen were more used to the mudbaths of the Isthmian League, but the new surface was perfectly smooth and more like a tennis court. The inaugural matches consisted of a triangular tournament starring hosts, the Athletic Club, Shepherd’s Bush and Racing de Irun (another Basque side now known as Real Union). The King of Spain watched from the royal box as the Londoners won both their matches and captain Jonas (below) lifted the trophy.

Cup triumphs followed for the Rojiblanco (red and white) but it was always Pichichi who grabbed the headlines over the Athletic – which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. It still brought the crowds in. One might even argue that without the popularity of Pichichi they would never have been able to build San Mamés in the first place.

Bilbao, is the largest city in the Basque Country of Northern Spain, and in the early part of the twentieth century it was regarded as one of the major ports of mainland Europe. Its iron mines, foundries, steel manufacturing plants and shipbuilding industry forged a proud but arrogant spirit in the Bilbainos. A different breed among men, they wisely made an affinity with Great Britain which is still very evident today. Unlike other Spanish sides who use ‘Atletico’ in their name, the English spelling of ‘Athletic Club’ has always been preferred in Bilbao, as its roots lay in the British workers associated with its origins in the late Victorian period. The first Athletic players had names such as MacLennan, Davies, Evans and Langford.

In the Athletic Club, Bilbao boasts one of the most successful teams in all Spanish football, having won twelve titles and the Copa del Rey (the King’s Cup) on twenty three occasions. More times than Real Madrid and just a couple less than Barcelona.

Athletic featured four internationals in its team – Pichichi, Sabino, Belauste and Chomin – whilst the Hamlet squad contained eight of the side that lifted the Amateur Cup the year before. The official version of the tour from Hamlet records reads: “The club had a delightful tour at Easter, nine days being spent in Bilbao and Paris. Not only was the trip a success socially and financially, but from a playing point of view it was splendid, for the team put up such fine games that the reputation of English football was, if anything, increased after our visit. Three games were played, and all were won, the two matches against Bilbao were won 3-0 and 4-2 and the other game against Stade Français (Paris) resulted in a 3-1 win.” But this is incorrect: the Athletic Club correctly records a 3-2 scoreline for the first match and the goalscorers are listed in their files and can be found in reports of the game.
Expectations in Bilbao were very high. The two matches had been advertised in the Basque newspapers, and fliers had been given out days before to ensure a bumper crowd. The English champions were in town and everyone eagerly awaited an exceptional standard of football. Surely the Englishmen would be even more advanced than they were before the war, and the team representing England – the founders of the modern game – would “outshadow the glories of other teams that had played on the same San Mamés field.” They expected to be enlightened, that the display would serve as a practical example of how the game should be played. As one Spanish pressman put it, “That it would serve as a practice school for our teams to complete their footballistic science. …But nothing of this happened.”

Whether this disappointment was the general feeling of all who attended the matches is difficult to tell. The Athletic had had visits from touring amateur teams like the English Wanderers and the New Crusaders before to great applause, and more recently top European side Sparta Prague had made a huge impression. But the Dulwich performance was not to be compared. “They taught us nothing except for an endless display of dirty tricks.”

One gets the impression that someone, perhaps in the pre match hype, had built the game up thinking that the English Football League champions were coming to town, not the ‘lowly’ Dulwich Hamlet, who, although Amateur Cup holders and Isthmian League champions were no Tottenham Hotspur.

The two press accounts we’ve seen are on the whole, one-sided affairs that lack not a little kindness. One writer was not over-impressed with “the famed goalkeeper Coleman”, who had just six days earlier won a full England cap against Wales. He does point out, however, that there were a couple of occasions where Coleman shined, and was clearly “the best we saw from our guests. But, if these are the English Amateur champions,” he concluded, “then they are rather poor.”

Not much else was worth a mention, he says, apart from some interplay on the right side of the Hamlet defence and the work of the left winger, who we are told was not playing in his usual position. Not having the team line-up we cannot argue with this. The first Dulwich goal translates literally as “boring.” but I suspect the Spanish could also mean ‘a soft goal’. It certainly was – a shot from Sid Nicol which managed to slip through goalkeeper Rivero’s grasp. The equaliser, on the other hand, came from a formidable attack. A great pass by Pichichi resulted in goalmouth action involving shots from Laca and Allende before German finished off.

Dulwich, played a short pass and move game, had good positioning to receive the ball, marked their opponents well, but almost ignored spraying the ball out to the wings. When they did, the outside left showed great skill and intent, but lacked imagination. Dulwich kept good shape going forward but when it counted they wasted a good number of opportunities. But if Dulwich didn’t live up to expectations, Athletic were also having an off-day, despite the presence of the internationals

The second half was barely begun before the Hamlet restored the lead after an “unforgivable lack of concentration in the Athletic defence.” Another equaliser for the Athletic soon arrived in the shape of “a masterly header” by colossal centre half Jose Maria Belauste, before they had a chance to take the lead through Chomin, who was brought down inside the Dulwich box and a penalty awarded. The injured player rose to his feet, placed the ball, and declared himself fit enough to take the spot-kick, but somehow contrived to miss. The injury caused by the challenge was far worse than he first thought and he immediately pulled up and retired hurt from the field of play.

With both sides locked at 2-2, the last fifteen minutes was dominated by Dulwich, who kept possession of the ball and made precious few forays into their opponent’s box. A few minutes before the final whistle when Athletic had more or less given up, the Hamlet scored the winner.

But it is the ‘dirty tricks’ label that seems most strange. “Dulwich are masters in the art of using their fingers.” Such an ambiguous statement could mean anything from shirt-pulling to climbing on an opponent in an aerial battle. Whatever it was, “Arzuaga, the referee, should have spoken to the Dulwich players early on in the game about their tactics. However, he allowed this dirty playing to continue. The patience of the spectators showed towards the end.”

Danubio of the La Gaceta del Norte, Bilbao’s principal daily journal, referred to the Dulwich players as “The Children of John Bull.” With quite a deal of emphasis on the word ‘Bull’ one would hope. And where was the great matador Pichichi in this contest? This was his Arena, his Bullring, yet he hardly gets a mention as the Hamlet bulldozed their way to triumph. It wasn’t pretty, and with boos bellowing all around the ground one could understand if a few of the visiting players had some reservations about returning the following day.

So, let’s have an action replay of that winning goal again. The final paragraph of Danubio’s Sunday column reads: “The Athletic players were confused and the English knowing it took advantage and struck hard, creating constant danger for the Athletic goal defended by its backs and mediums. With only three or four minutes of the match remaining the unmarked outside left, squeezed like an eel at breathtaking speed, ‘saluted’ Rivero with a low strong “zambombazo” [shot like a bomb] that gave Dulwich the victory. Today the match will be repeated. We shall see if it is true what some people say, that the English have kept the best of their repertoire for today. But I doubt it.”

We do not know which players were selected for the Hamlet, or who they kept in their ‘repertoire’, but the squad consisted of about fourteen. Among them were Dick Jonas, George Shipway, Fred Sweeting, Herbert Coleman, Bill Davis, Edgar Kail, Fred Pilkington, Sid Nicol, Tommy Brooker, FB Young, and Ernie Bunce. A photograph of the touring party was taken at the game against Stade Francais just a few days later. The players, ready to take on the Parisians, are surrounded by Dulwich officials and a handful of wives and lady loves, some of whom taught in South London schools. It is unlikely that not a single one of them was able to speak or read Spanish. It must have come as quite a bit of a shock to pick up the Sunday papers from the Bilbao hotel lobby and find accusations of ‘dirty tricksters’ and the suggestion that the game had only been won by cheating.

Undoubtedly, George Wheeler, Tom Smith and Bert Hardy would have had discussions with Dick Jonas and the rest of the players to try and restore the reputation of Dulwich Hamlet Football Club. The fact that the Athletic Club had an English manager in Mr William Barnes would also have helped matters. The second match went ahead as planned and Dulwich improved on the previous day’s score, winning by 4 goals to 2. And if the following season’s club handbook is to be believed, Dulwich Hamlet turned things around, and put on such a display which only enhanced the reputation of English football.

As the players left the field just after 5.45pm on Sunday evening, opponents congratulated each other on a good game. The Hamlet men all shook hands with Pichichi, no-one would have known that within a year the legendary Basque footballer would be dead.

It turned out that the Hamlet was one of the last teams that Pichichi faced. Not many weeks later he hung up his boots and retired from the game he loved. He was even seriously considering a new career as a referee, and towards the end of the year he took charge of his first match. It was soon after that he became very ill and passed away in March 1922, a victim of typhus aged just 29. There was nothing unusual about his demise either. Between 1918 and 1922 typhus caused more than 3 million deaths across Europe. But when Rafael Moreno ‘Pichichi’ passed away, a nation mourned.

Tradition dictates that when a visiting club plays at the San Mamés stadium for the first time, they deposit a bunch of flowers at the bronze bust of Pichichi that was commissioned after his death. The greater tribute, however, came when the first national league was set up in 1928, and it was decided that the player with the most goals in La Liga be titled, the Pichichi.

As a postscript, it was at this time that another Englishman, former professional footballer Fred Pentland, who had already coached France in the ill-fated 1920 Olympic Games, arrived on the scene. Later in 1921, Mr Pentland, nicknamed El Bombin because of his custom of wearing a bowler hat, took over the coaching role at the Athletic Club, and totally transformed the Spanish style of play. It was Pentland who masterminded Athletic’s 12-1 victory over Barcelona, Barca’s worst ever defeat. By 1929 he was assisting our journalist friend-cum-national coach José Maria Mateos with the Spain side, who managed to outwit the inventors of the game in the mid-day heat of Madrid by 4 goals to 2. It was the first time England had lost a match on foreign soil. The Hamlet’s Edgar Kail played in the Dixie Dean-less England side with his forehead swathed in a Pichichi like bandage to keep the sweat from his eyes.

Sources: 75th Anniversary 1893/4 – 1967/8 History of DHFC, Spanish newspapers, Creating A National Passion: Football, Nationalism, and Mass Consumerism in Modern Spain by Andrew Michael McFarland.

Acknowledgements: Paul Sanders for supplying the image of the 1921 handbill, Arrate Sustatxa of Athletic Club de Bilbao, Angel Uriarte for research of the Spanish newspapers and translation, Jack McInroy II, Javier Guerrero and Miriam Esther Rodríguez García for being very helpful.

Original article from HH22. Copyright: Jack McInroy ©


  1. the athletic club mentioned us in their matchday programme in may last season.