Spain’s first football club: Recreativo de Huelva

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Recre in 1906 at El Velódromo [Credit: Recreativo de Huelva via Alejandro López]

In the spring of 2016, Spain’s oldest club faced extinction. As debts spiralled, fans packed the 21,670-capacity Estadio Nuevo Colombino in both support of the team, and protest against the running of the club. “Recre” – the “Dean” of Spanish football – is now languishing in the third tier. While the club clings to life, we look back at its birth, and the Scot that formed it.

As was the case in many countries, football gained a foothold on the Iberian Peninsula via a port city club. Huelva, nestled in the southwest corner of Spain, has a long naval tradition. Huelva, like the home of Italy’s first football club, Genoa, has a strong connection to Christopher Columbus. It was from Huelva that the Genoese navigator set sail for India and landed in what became known as the Americas.

In many other ways, the establishment of football in Spain mirrored that of the game’s nascence in Italy; a sports club for expatriate Brits introduced a whole new ball game to their adopted country.

The purchase by the British Rio Tinto Company Limited of the eponymous copper mines in 1873 led to an influx of British workers. These workers needed pastimes, of course, and were keen to cling to the customs they were used to back home.

The first football match in Spain

The earliest record we have of a football match taking place on Spanish soil occurred on 10 September 1874, when a team of railway engineers building a line from Huelva to the mines at Riotinto took on a team skippered by Captain W.F. Adams at a game of “foot-ball”.

It was not until four years later that the “English Club” was founded to promote sports and activities among the by now sizeable British community in Huelva. These included cricket, tennis, golf, polo and, of course, football.

The early days of Recre

William Alexander Mackay [Credit: Recreativo de Huelva via Alejandro López]

In the early 1880s, a young Edinburgh doctor, William Alexander Mackay, arrived in Huelva as an employee of the Rio Tinto Company. He became heavily involved in the sporting life of the British expatriate in Huelva and it was he who invited a local, Ildefonso Martínez, to participate in “games of football and cricket…sports that our Recreation Club has been developing for several years”.

On 18 December 1889, the first meeting took place of the Huelva Recreation Club or Club Recreativo de Huelva. Both English and Spanish names were used from the outset, reflecting the cultural mix of the first 32 British and Spanish socios, or members. It was to be distinctive from the exclusive English Club.

In many expatriate communities around the world, such as Genoa Cricket and Football Club at the outset, the British clubs were for the British, but Recreativo opened its doors to the local Spanish population. There were a number of young players, including the translator José Garcia Almansa, Alfonso Le Bourg, Ildefonso Martínez and José Coto. They all turned out for Recre in the 1880s and Mackay continued as president right up until 1924.

The 1891 Guide to Huelva describes Club Recreativo as a place to meet “great players of foot-ball, cricket and lawn tennis”, according to Alejandro López, a Recre historian, and this is why the club is officially recognised by the Royal Spanish Football Federation as the original Spanish football club, El Decano.

Decano translates as ‘Dean’; the most experienced or revered person in an academic institution. Phil Ball’s description in Morbo, his brilliant story of Spanish football, as “the grand old man” is probably the most fitting.

But when you’re the first football club in a country, whom do you play against? Recre played against teams of directors and engineers of the Riotinto mines, versus teams from the nearby mines of Tharsis and against seamen from visiting British ships.

Only in 1890 did Sevilla FC emerge in the Andalucian capital, some 90 kms from Huelva. Finally, another club in another city, and the expansion of the game in Spain could truly take off. This was still nearly a decade before the formation of FC Barcelona. Madrid followed a few years after that.

By 1912, Recre had adopted its familiar blue and white stripes. [Credit: Recreativo de Huelva via Alejandro López]

I asked López what the locals made of this new game being played in their paddocks.

“A lot of young men from the higher social classes in Huelva were curious for the game and liked to imitate all the things that arrived from Great Britain,” he explains. “For the rest of the population, they viewed the sports as ‘English oddities’, watching adult foreigners dressed in long johns chasing a ball.”

By 1892, Recre had its own stadium, El Velódromo, designed for multiple sports and host for the 400th anniversary celebrations that year of Columbus’ “discovery” of America. This included a match against nearby Gibraltar.

The 1900s was a pivotal decade for Spanish football. In 1906 the first nationwide competitions were being held in Madrid. Recre sent a team to a tournament that only included Athletic Club de Bilbao and Madrid FC. For the 1907 edition, Recre sent a team that – significantly – did not include a single Briton, and in 1909 it became a founder member of the Federación Española de Foot-ball, the country’s football association.

1909 was also the year that Recre formed an Andalucian championship and adopted its famous blue and white stripes. The kit was bought in London. 

Modern Recre and the fight for survival

As the game spread across Spain, Recreativo from its small enclave on the south-western edge of the peninsula, struggled to compete. At the time of writing (2017), the club has only spent a total of five seasons in the top flight of Spanish football and never won the title, its zenith a 3-0 away win at the Bernabeu in 2006 versus David Beckham’s Galácticos. That Recre team featured Santi Cazorla, who went on to make a name for himself at Villarreal and Arsenal, and former Liverpool forward Florent Sinama-Pongolle.

Recre Nuevo Colombino

Sundown at the Nuevo Colombino [Credit: Andrew Gillan]

Andrew Gillan, originally from Northern Ireland, now lives in Huelva and is a season ticket holder at Recre. According to Gillan, the fans’ pride in being the original team in Spain resonates through terrace song.

The club anthem reads Tu leyenda será siempre la primera (Your legend will always be the first), which no other club can claim. Also popular is:

El escudo que tu llevas, late en mi corazón (The shield you bear, beats in my heart)

Recreativo de Huelva, tu eres mi campeón (Recre, you are my champion)

ningún título ganaste, pero eso me da igual (You’ve not won any titles, but I don’t care)

eres Decano del fútbol español (You’re the grand old man of Spanish football)

In recent years, the club has been in dire financial straights, coming dangerously close to extinction in 2016. Despite the critical state of El Decano in 2016, Gillan believes the club has now turned a corner, led by fan support and action from the city council.

“On the pitch, the club went through a huge number of players, struggling to field a settled side for ages and generally struggled for goals, but eventually did just enough to stay up with a week to spare,” he said. “The game where they clinched their Segunda B status was the sixth best-attended game in Spain that weekend, which gives a hint of the potential there. Falling into the Tercera would have been disastrous for the club but looking ahead, it’s hard to imagine them going from a relegation battle to pushing for promotion. Segunda B is notoriously difficult to get out of and Recre could be in for a few more years of struggle before finally seeing light at the end of the tunnel.”

There is life in the grand old man yet…

With thanks to Recre historian, Alejandro López, for his insight and assistance in putting this together. Also, be sure to check out Andrew Gillan’s blog, Mis Viajes en Fútbol (My Travels in Football).

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