Barcelona is a club intrinsically linked with the history and politics of Catalunya. The club’s rise during the early 20th century marked a time fraught with conflict, as the city was repeatedly torn apart by political infighting, the Primo de Rivera dictatorship, and finally, civil war. While fans and officials of the club were often at the forefront of these social and political upheavals, few experienced them with the intimacy of Josep Sunyol. President of both the Catalan Football Federation and FC Barcelona itself, Sunyol’s murder at the hands of Francoist troops in the hills surrounding Madrid remains one of the darkest days in the club’s history. On the 75th anniversary of his martyrdom for the cause of Catalan independence (August 6th), we pause to remember the man who gave his life for his club, and the people it stood for, the Catalans.
Born in 1898 to a wealthy Barcelona family, Josep Sunyol i Garriga came of age during a renaissance of Catalan nationalism, a movement that would influence him deeply. A lawyer and journalist, Sunyol was also heavily active in politics, joining the left-leaning Acció Catalana and eventually winning election to represent the Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya in the Spanish parliament. In an effort to avoid a drawn out discussion about the complexities of Catalan politics during this era, we will focus on his time with the club. Those interested should refer to Barça: A People’s Passion, which offers an excellent in-depth analysis of the political role of the club and its members during this time.
Sunyol became a member of FC Barcelona in 1925 at a time when the club was beginning to experience the repression that came to characterize its treatment by the central authorities during the Franco years. The team’s fans had jeered the Spanish national anthem during a match in June of that year, and the Primo de Rivera dictatorship swiftly responded by closing down the team’s Les Corts stadium for six months and outlawing public displays of nationalist sentiment. It comes as little surprise that the left-leaning Sunyol had gravitated towards the club during this period: already a growing focal point of Catalan nationalism, the galvanization of the club’s fans by the Primo de Rivera dictatorship no-doubt appealed to the politically-minded young Catalan.
Sunyol join the club’s board of directors in 1928 during the presidency of the staunchly monarchist Arcadi Balaguer (this bit of political irony perfectly illustrates the tumultuous state of Catalan politics at the time). During his tenure on the board of FC Barcelona, Sunyol also served as the president of the Catalan Football Federation (1929-30), as well as publishing a weekly sporting magazine, La Rambla. He was elected to the Spanish parliament as a representative of the Republican Left of Catalunya (Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya, or ERC) in 1931, a post he would hold until his murder.
Sunyol’s efforts for the ERC did not get in the way of his duties for the club, and on July 27th, 1935 he was elected president of FC Barcelona. The following season proved an exciting one for the club, winning the Catalan Championship and narrowly losing a thrilling Cup final to a Real Madrid side led by Ricardo Zamora (for whom the Zamora goalkeeping trophy is now named). The outbreak of the Spanish Civil War on July 17th, 1936, effectively halted the normal rhythm of domestic football, and would ultimately seal the fate of the Catalan club’s president.
In his role as a representative of the ERC and the Republican cause that now found itself at war with Franco’s Fascism, Sunyol left Barcelona in early August for Valencia, and after a brief stopover, continued on to Madrid. This proved an unwise decision: as the nation’s capitol, Madrid would prove to be a hotly contested battleground for the warring sides, and already the two belligerents had begun hostilities in the area. Sunyol’s official car had left Valencia flying both the Republican and Catalan flags, and it is only reasonable to assume that they remained so as his car navigated the road that wound through the Sierra Guardarama overlooking Madrid. The fighting in the hills had left pockets of Republican and Fascist troops scattered haphazardly, and Sunyol had the great misfortune of being stopped by the Fascists, who no doubt recognized the flags on his car. There are few concrete details as to where or when his car was stopped, but Josep Sunyol did not arrive in Madrid that day, nor ever.
News of the club’s president did not reach Barcelona until a week later, where conflicting reports of his death or capture caused widespread outrage. A posthumous tribute to the fallen president was not made until November of 1939, after the Fascist victory and the end of hostilities. The Franco regime’s distaste for Catalunya and all who were tied to it led to an official campaign to tarnish Sunyol’s reputation, labeling him “anti-Spanish”, and effectively ignored his contributions to the club.
Josep Sunyol was only one of the victims of the Spanish Civil War, but his murder represented the birth of FC Barcelona as a vehicle for dissent against the new regime. Already a source of displeasure with the Primo de Rivera regime, the club would spend the next several decades firmly under the thumb of Francisco Franco, who despised everything that it had come to represent.