In 1970, political unrest and a puzzling penalty led to one of the wildest chapters in the storied rivalry between Barcelona and Real Madrid.
By Robert Mohr | Photo Courtesy of Freddy Monteiro
[A] few grainy seconds of unflattering film and two sides of a controversial story are all that remains of Emilio Guruceta, the centerpiece of one of El Clásico’s most enigmatic subplots. Being called to officiate Barcelona — Real Madrid may be a referee’s proudest moment, but as Guruceta’s story proves, it could also haunt him to the grave.
Today, widely accepted stereotypes surround both storied clubs. Real Madrid is known as the regime team, although the club defines itself by a gentlemanly sporting ambition. Barcelona’s players are seen as freedom fighters, while critics say the club carries a perpetual victim complex. Of course, all of these narratives can be debunked with a brief review of the history of Spanish soccer.
Regardless of the facts, to the people who belonged to an earlier era, these labels created very strong emotions that invited chaos to the Nou Camp in 1970, a time fraught with social unrest.
The totalitarian regime of Francisco Franco wouldn’t conclude for six years, and the persecution of Catalan nationalism was still commonplace. Football and FC Barcelona had become a vessel for Barcelonistas to fight back against the oppression seeping through Spain’s peripheral regions.
In the eyes of Catalans, centralism would also be forced upon them through Spain’s most successful football club, Real Madrid. Opinions aside, when the pair were drawn together for the quarterfinals of La Copa del Generalismo, hysteria followed.
Real drew first blood, winning 2–0 at home, an advantage they would take to Barcelona for the return leg. The second act was to be presided over by a youthful and ambitious Basque referee from San Sebastián. At 28, Emilio Guruceta was enjoying his first year overseeing elite competition and had just been handed the brassiest match in Spain.
Missiles of all types were raining thick through the salty Mediterranean air.
Barca had previously toppled los blancos at the Bernabéu in the tournament’s 1968 final, an outcome the partisan crowd welcomed with raining bottles. Now Real were only 90 minutes away from cold revenge.
With the violent 1968 display as a precursor, the 1970 quarterfinal second leg would rattle Spanish football. Overflowing with optimistic blaugrana supporters, the Camp Nou faithful were in for an unforgettable night for all the wrong reasons.
Barcelona’s Charly Rexach opened the scoring early. As legend has it, Barcelona were tormenting their guests at that point and seriously threatening to overturn the result from Madrid. However, it wasn’t long before poor officiating took center stage and ruddered the game down a different path.
Manolo Velázquez was brought down on the odd Real surge forward from what appeared to be a position outside the area. The tackle from Juaquim Rife sent Velázquez flailing into box.
Some 30 yards behind the action, a whistle sounded; Guruceta pointed to the spot.
Roars of shocked disapproval snaked their way through the terraces. Real’s Amancio converted the penalty and Barca’s Eladio was sent off for mocking the decision. Chaos erupted throughout the Nou Camp. Only Barcelona’s manager could persuade his players to continue on.
Unable to rekindle their ebb and flow, a man light and two goals down on aggregate again, the crowd turned violent. Missiles of all types were raining thick through the salty Mediterranean air. With fragile moments ticking from Guruceta’s watch, the madness discharged. Suddenly, the pitch was invaded by hoarse supporters hot with rage.
Guruceta and his linesmen high-tailed into the tunnel and the result stood. Real Madrid were through.
• • •
[P]roof. Proof is what Barça fans claimed. Proof that Madrid bribed referees, proof that Franco’s cronies had long since plotted to destroy Catalan culture through sport. They’d cheated their way to five straight European Cups, and they were doing it all again here as retribution for ’68.
In the heated days following the match, Real supporters wrote the protests off as the same crybaby act that Barcelona had become known for. The team and its fans were playing to the stereotype. The ‘scandal’ fell on deaf ears at the federation but hardly a culé was surprised.
Guruceta did receive a ban, however. Not for bias, but for letting the contest get out of control. His match report listed 30,000 seat cushions had made their way onto the pitch and a bottle allegedly struck Real Madrid coach Miguel Muñoz. Police also cited 238 damaged seats, 11 windows broken, and 5 benches burnt according to Fear and Loathing in La Liga by Sid Lowe. The referee and his linesmen were even forced to spend the night in a police station holding cell for their safety.
For years that famous night haunted helpless Barcelona supporters. Adding to the bribing conspiracy, Guruceta was suspiciously spotted driving a high-end BMW in the months following the quarterfinal. Some 17 years later, he was tragically killed in a car accident. The crash occurred following a Real Madrid match Guruceta had just officiated; he was driving a BMW. Many hardened Barcelona fans felt justice had finally arrived. On the other hand, there would never be a confession to soothe the blaugrana heart.
Just when the entire debacle was finally put to rest, new evidence was brought against Guruceta. In the mid 90s, Belgian officials discovered that Guruceta had taken a bribe of one million Belgian francs in 1984 to assist Anderlecht in overturning a 2–0 UEFA Cup semifinal deficit against Nottingham Forest. Anderlecht claimed the second leg 3–0, but by the time the scandal emerged the culprit was nowhere to be found. No one could punish a dead man.
As far as Barcelona were concerned, this was the final nail in the coffin. It wouldn’t change the past but this had to justify their case, right?
Actually, many of the facts we’re left with don’t support Barcelona’s argument. Though the penalty decision could have been incorrect, the dismissal of Eladio seems by all accounts to be justified. According to some, Eladio called Guruceta a madridista, accusing him of cheating. Attacking the referee’s integrity and applauding sarcastically is, by modern standards, an offense that warrants dismissal.
So what about the BMW? According to celebrated Spanish soccer expert Phil Ball, Guruceta came from an established middle class upbringing where BMWs aren’t all that extraordinary.
It’s unlikely, too, that a Basque referee would agree to such a bribe. The Basque Country was also under tyrannical repression while Franco was at large. Barcelona supporters might argue that’s the whole point. Who would suspect a Basque?
By some cataclysmic planetary alignment, Ball had a chance run-in with one of Guruceta’s linesmen from 1970 in a San Sebastián hotel. In a passage from Ball’s detailed book Morbo, the linesman refers to “Guru” as his friend and describes him as determined to be respected in the game. That said, the linesman confided he kept his flag down during the phantom penalty decision.
Upon leaving the assistant in peace, Mr. Ball claims to have overheard him muttering in his native language, “They fucked him over, you know? And he didn’t do anything.”
The encounter adds another milky film to the water. What really happened that hectic night at the Nou Camp might forever remain a mystery. Fittingly enough, the award given to the best referee of the season in Spain is named after Emilio Guruceta, a famous referee who will never be able to defend his own name.
Robert Mohr is a freelance journalist and youth soccer coach from Erie, Pennsylvania. He’s contributed to VAVEL, Hipster Manager, as well as his personal blog, The Late Flag. Follow him on twitter at @BobbyMohr5.