One way of understanding what Franco and franquismo were is to look at the reaction to his death, 45 years ago to the date. The review that begins here is not intended to be critical, only testimonial. It would be advantageous to point out at people and the media. Certainly, much of the praise given to the dictator was forced. It is difficult to estimate, nowadays, the fear and great concern in the face of the uncertain period that was opening up, and the repression exercised for 36 years left long-lasting consequences; it was difficult to assume that Franco would not raise his head on the third day or in the third year. So it’s not a question of judging, but of flying over November 20th, 1975, through the newspapers of the day (mostly sports newspapers), just as we were.
Within the competition of hyperbole that sanctified the Caudillo, the most forced praise was written on the cover of Marca. In a (rather delirious) attempt to link the Generalissimo —a big-bellied, stubborn man— to sport, the editorial was entitled «An exemplary sportsman». Next to a photo of Franco on the back of a white horse, we can read: «A style, an authentic sporting style dressed his whole existence. With sporty talant, he knew how to lead Spain through difficult years, he knew how to be the Head of State of the long and fortunate peace. Sportingly, Francisco Franco made possible the reality of this Spain open to the best hopes for the future. That style, that spirit, that mood of Francisco Franco has been the result of a whole attitude to life in which sport has been alive and well. The image of Franco, Head of the Spanish State, as an active sportsman and keen practitioner is familiar to all Spaniards. A good rider, he made riding an extension of his military life; golf polished his pulse and his dexterity, and fishing trained and encouraged patient waiting, firmness, accuracy in the right moment, and the healthy harmony of all the virtues offered by these tasks that call for the greatness of natural settings, inland or at sea. Francisco Franco was, in his heart and his work, an upright sportsman, and Sport, which tempered his body, was projected in his conduct as a man and as a statesman».
At Diario AS they were not so imaginative… or maybe they were. The fact is that they concentrated on the political side of things. «From the Spain of 18 July 1936 to the Spain of 1975, there is a gap between a country in the throes of anarchy and decomposition and a prosperous and solidly ordered country that already occupies a place among the developed nations of Europe. This has been the result of 35 years of peace presided over by a superior political intelligence. But now, the end of such an extraordinary existence has come. And as we say goodbye, with deep emotion, to Franco, we know that his work remains and that his historical figure will grow even greater with time. And this farewell carries in it a great hope: HRH the Prince of Spain will wear the crown of his elders and will lead his country, with the unanimous consensus of the people, towards the ambitious goals that the Caudillo’s leading figure painfully, but happily opened up».
Barcelona’s Mundo Deportivo insisted on the idea and the rhetoric that is almost comical in its bombastic nature. «Franco took up a homeland that was broken up into opposing sides, subjected to indiscipline, rebellion, defeatism, indolence, and disintegration; a homeland in which launching a ¡Viva España! was considered a subversive cry and the ¡Mueras a España! («Death to Spain») were chanted and applauded. The death of the Driver of Men who feels his life being extinguished with serene conformity because he knows that although he had the heavy task of rebuilding and saving the body of Spain, step by step to his last breath, winning the lands and his men inch by inch and drop by drop, he also knows very well that after his physical disappearance everything will be so tightly tied up that the inheritance he leaves to the Spanish people cannot be lost in the future».
«For the first time in his eventful life,» continues El Mundo Deportivo, «Francisco Franco has capitulated. The great volcano in his heart has stopped beating. But his capitulation has been that inevitable defeat that no human being is capable of avoiding and that even has the air of tragedy when it comes to fulfilling the mission that Providence has entrusted to every human being».
Among the most outstanding exaggerations, we should mention the magazine Lecturas, which was entitled: «Adiós a España» (Goodbye Spain). It is impossible not to mention the outstanding declaration of the Construction Union: «Goodbye to the first builder».The Spanish press reported the Dictator’s death along these lines, without anyone, at least aloud, making any criticism.
The newspapers of the day also reflected the consternation of the sports world. And in this case, what is most striking is Santiago Bernabéu’s dispassionate condolences in comparison with the heartbroken condolences of other sports personalities. While Agustín Montal, President of Barcelona, stressed that the Club was joining «the national pain at the irreparable loss of the Head of State», the President of Real Madrid simply said: «Under his mandate, there has been peace in Spain and today peace is what is most important in the world». That is all.
Bernabeu did nothing else than being consistent with his (monarchical) way of thinking and with the disagreements he had had with different Francoists, from Millán Astray, founder of the Legion, to Rafael Cavestany, Minister of Agriculture. It is said that in those years in Spain only Don Santiago could be called a dictator, and although the accusation irritated him, nothing bothered him more than being told that Real Madrid was the team of the Regime: «When the war ended they put half the team in prison and the directors of Atletico were all colonels».
The other great president of the time, Vicente Calderón (Atletico), was slightly more loquacious: «His dedication to the service of Spain and the shaping of the country’s future will remain an unforgettable example». Very modest praise in comparison with Juan Antonio Samaranch, five years later president of the International Olympic Committee: «With Franco, the most important chapter in our history closes. Let us remember or learn what Spain was like forty years ago to appreciate his masterful work of government. He leaves us a united, socially balanced, economically prosperous country that is the absolute master of its destiny. In this hour we must, more firmly than ever, align ourselves with the one that will soon be king of all Spaniards.
Among the sportsmen, few felt them as much as Mariano Haro, eleven times Spanish cross country champion: «The first time I saw him my heart stopped. My admiration for him knows no bounds. He overflowed with his simplicity and kindness». Bahamontes, 1959 Tour de France winner, added a new facet to his many virtues, sporting erudition. «He received me on 18 July, after the Tour, and said to me: ‘Men like this, with your caste, we should have many because they would leave the country’s flag high’. He then engaged me in a sporting conversation that I could not follow. He seemed to know everything. Something similar was said by the Caudillo del Deporte to Paquito Fernández Ochoa (a gold medalist at the 1972 Sapporo Olympics): «Spain needs more men like you».
The Dictator’s snaps were a recurring anecdote. The legendary goalkeeper Ricardo Zamora, who was imprisoned by the Republicans and the Nationalists, stated on 20 November: «It is a terrible loss for Spain. A wise, skillful, and good man who has led the country through a very long period of tranquillity and peace is disappearing. I remember that on 16 November, when he received me in El Pardo, he joked with me, saying: «Hello, Zamora, we don’t stop any more, do we? Addressing Real Madrid left winger Paco Gento, he made the joke up: «One day he said to me: ‘What do you do to run so much?
Manolo Santana’s words are particularly significant, as he avoids any political commentary: «In the sporting aspect, Franco has meant everything. The reception he offered me after my Wimbledon victory is one of the most pleasant and exciting memories of my life». Supermanolo was referring to the exhibition match he played at El Pardo in 1966, shortly after winning Wimbledon. Once the match with José Luis Arilla was over, both players were invited to have a snack with Franco, who made the following comment to Santana: «In wars, sometimes, the fair pay for sinner and that could have been the case with your father». As far as we can see, the dictator not only memorised the sports results but also the prison sentences. Santana’s father had spent six years in prison as a Republican. He was not the only one. But not a single newspaper spoke to any of the prisoners on November 20th.