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Out of Africa – When La Liga welcomed its only non European Club
- Updated: 13 August, 2012
A casual glance at the La Primera’s all-time classification will throw up few surprises. Sitting proudly at the summit is Real Madrid, followed closely by Barcelona, with all the usual suspects occupying the next dozen or so positions. However, one place off the bottom of the Clasificación Historica, you will find the name of a team that few will have heard of and even fewer will have seen. Club Atletico Tetuan, the only club from mainland Africa to have played in Spain’s top division.
To understand how a team that played in modern day Morocco ended up in La Primera, you need to know a little about Spain’s colonial past. Spain has had a presence in North West Africa since the 15th century when the enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla were established. The Reconquest saw large numbers of Muslims expelled from the south of Spain, and many found their way to the strip of land between the Mediterranean coast and the Atlas Mountains.
Over the next four centuries, this land was ruled over by a succession of sultans and generally all was well until 1912, when internal unrest and some gunboat diplomacy from Germany led to France and Spain setting up protectorates in Morocco. The country was effectively divided into two, with Spain overseeing the northern sector, making Tetuan the capital of Spanish Morocco.
Football had been played in the ports and larger cities of Morocco since the start of the 20th century, but the arrival of the Spanish brought added impetuous. In 1917 Sporting Tetuán and Futbol Club Hispano Marroqui were founded, and a year later these clubs merged to form Athletic Club.
Athletic Club was officially established in 1922 and they spent the next decade or so playing in regional leagues. In 1931, the Campeonato Hispano-Marroquí was established and the first four titles went to clubs from Ceuta. However, in the competition’s fifth season, Athletic Club came into its own.
The 1935-36 season saw Athletic crowned champions ahead of Espanol Futbol Club, a title that saw the club qualify for the Spanish Cup for the first time. On 15 March 1936, Athletic Club entertained Tenerife at the Estadio de Varela, winning by 2 goals to one. A one goal victory a week later in Santa Cruz de Tenerife, saw Athletic Cub progress to the next round, where they were paired with Club Deportivo Malacitano. This was to prove a step up in class and whilst Athletic drew the home leg 2-2, their cup odyssey ended a week later with a 0-3 defeat in Malaga. This was the club’s last competitive action for over three years as the dark clouds of the Civil War rolled in.
1939 saw the resumption of the Campeonato Hispano-Marroquí, and a year later Athletic Club became Club Atletico Tetuan, thanks to the government’s directive outlawing the use of non-Spanish-names. Restructuring of the Spanish Leagues in 1943 gave the club a chance to compete in the newly formed Tercera. On 26 September 1943, Atletico travelled to Linares Deportivo in its first ever game in the Spanish League. They lost 0-2, but over the course of the season held their own, finishing fifth out of ten with eighteen points.
The club spent the next few years trying to establish themselves in the Tercera and eventually in 1948-49, Los Matadores as they had become known, won their first Tercera title, edging out Cordoba on a better head-to-head record. The play-offs for promotion to La Segunda were a tortuous affair, ultimately coming down to the tenth and final match, when Atletico drew 1-1 in Galicia at UD Orensena to clinch promotion to the second tier.
There would have been many who would have dismissed Atletico’s chances in La Segunda, but buoyed by two recent promotions and to a lesser extent, conscripted footballers doing national service in Spanish Morocco, Los Matadores shone. Form was particularly impressive at the Estadio de Varela, where the home crowd witnessed just one defeat in 15 matches. At the end of the 1949-50 season, the club had accumulated 33 points, good enough for fifth place, but it was the following 50-51 season that saw Atletico truly excel.
The season got off to a good start with a 3-0 derby win over SD Cueta. There followed a steady first half of the season, including a 9-2 victory over Valencia Mestalla. However, it was the second half of the season that proved decisive as Atlético lost only 3 matches. Promotion to La Primera was secured on 25 March 1951 with an emphatic 5-0 victory over Albacete, all with two games to spare.
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