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Recreativo Huelva's anniversary celebration has British and Irish roots

Barcelona helped to commemorate Recreativo Huelva's 125th anniversary in the summer.

Editor's note: This article has been adapted from a speech about the origins of football in Spain, given by the writer in Spanish on July 18, 2014.

Like any good story, this one starts in the pub. Football was born officially in the Freemason's Arms, near Covent Garden in London, in October 1863. It was there that "The Rules and Regulations of the Game" were written and from there that football took over the world, Spain included. They call bullfighting the "fiesta nacional," but Spain's true fiesta is football.

The father of Carlos and Juan Padros, a pair of Catalan brothers working out of the backroom in a textile shop on the Calle Alcala, brought a copy of those rules of the game over from England. They founded Real Madrid, and among the club's first members were Britons. The first time they ever played Barcelona, at the city's Hippodrome -- the players having first been given tetanus jabs -- Arthur Johnson was among the goal scorers.

Johnson was, one of his teammates said, "The only one who knows what he is doing ... a man who takes football very seriously. So much so that he got married on a Saturday and came to play the following morning." Johnson laid down the law, too. His instructions, published in the newspaper Heraldo del Sport, demanded that players were quicker to get the ball back when it went out of play. Otherwise, too much time was spent "chatting and smoking."

The article opened with a note: it is worth listening to Johnson. He's British, he knows. Football was their thing. The British influence spread across Spain as it did elsewhere; it is uneven and not always recognised but it remains. And when it comes to the origins, it is inescapable.

The Witty family helped to found Barcelona, and Athletic Club de Bilbao got their kit from Blackburn Rovers and then Southampton. Note that their name is Athletic Club, not Atletico. There's Sporting Gijon, too, and the game is called "futbol," nothing more than a transliteration of foot-ball, for a reason.

Before all of them, though, came a Scotsman: William Alexander Mackay. A Presbyterian and a doctor, McKay arrived in Huelva, down in Spain's southwest, aged 23. He worked at the copper mines of the Rio Tinto, where the British had begun arriving in 1873, but on Thursdays tended to the poor for free. The British exploited the mines and brought football, too.

Mackay stayed in the Hotel Colon in the centre of the city -- a place that would become the cradle of Spanish football. It was there that, in 1889, the Recreation Club was founded. It is still there now, elegant and symbolic. Spain had its first football team: Recreativo de Huelva. The president was Carlos Adam. Carlos? Charles. Charles was the director of the Huelva Gas Company Limited, which handily meant the team had somewhere to play. Something had started.

Ask about the most important lineup in Spanish football history, and it would be hard to look beyond the starters in the 2010 World Cup final. But the XI of Alcock, Yates, Wakelin, Duclos, Coto, Kirk, Daniels, Curtis, Gibbon and Smith was pretty important, too. Those men headed out to Seville one morning in 1890: The game they played was not the first but it might be the first full lineup we have, the first record of a big away day.

Duclos and Coto weren't the first Spaniards to play, either. The first was probably Ildefonso Martinez. Mackay wrote to him to invite him to play football and cricket in 1888, against the crew from the boat Jane Dory that had just arrived in port. Cricket didn't catch on, but football did. The British tend -- or tended, at least -- to see themselves as the owners of football, but Mackay opened it to everyone. Soon, it became Spanish, too.

The British influence in Spain declined, of course. After the Spanish Civil War, the new regime obliged all clubs to "Spanishify" their names. Language was nationalised, too; from corner to saque de esquina, offside to fuera de juego, referi to arbitro. And when Spain beat England at the 1950 World Cup, the president of the Spanish Football Federation, Armando Munoz Calero, famously told General Franco: "Excellency, we have beaten Perfidious Albion."

A Spanish telegram banning foreign players from 1953.

Borders were closed not long after, and the British, who had already largely disappeared from teams, became virtually forgotten. Foreigners were banned amid the tug-of-war between Barcelona and Real Madrid over Alfredo Di Stefano in 1953 (he eventually signed for the latter and was exempt from the ruling). Only oriundos -- players with Spanish roots -- could be signed. The system was abused -- of 60 oriundos that arrived, 46 had falsified their status -- and eventually, it was dropped. Dutchman Johan Cruyff was the first foreigner to arrive, in 1973, when he signed for Barcelona from Ajax.

The British took a little longer, and their impact was uneven. And yet, the founding role will always remain, even if the modern era has led one paper to declare recently: "British players have left no mark."

When Gareth Bale arrived at Real Madrid in 2013, there were doubts, precisely because he was British. A year on, Bale is a European champion. Besides, no mark, no legacy? Hardly.

Laurie Cunningham's spell in Spain between 1979-89, at Madrid, Sporting Gijon and Rayo Vallecano, ended with a tragic car crash that claimed his life, and it is true that he didn't quite live up to expectations. He had, after all, been the most expensive player in Real Madrid's history up until then. But he did win the league, play in a European Cup final and get a standing ovation from the Camp Nou. The memory remains fond.

Bale (2014) and Steve McManaman (2000 and 2002) also won European Cups with Real Madrid, while Steve Archibald arrived at Barcelona in 1984 arguing with Bernd Schuster over who was not going to wear the No.10 shirt Diego Maradona left behind. Archibald lost, but in his first game, he beat Madrid and finished the season as his club's top scorer. In 1986, Gary Lineker joined the same club and subsequently scored a hat trick in the clasico.

Gareth Bale's late first half header proved to be the match-winner for Real.
Gareth Bale has been successful at Real Madrid, but, historically, few British and Irish players have moved to Spain.

And if, up in Gijon, they're counting the Irishman, Kevin Moran, who played for the club in the 1980s, we can bend the rules a bit to include Patrick O'Connell. O'Connell was the Irish manager and former Manchester United player who led Real Betis to their only ever league title in 1934-35 and travelled to America with Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War, helping to save the club in times of crisis, and started a dynasty at the club, persuading Angel Mur to become the physio. Mur's son followed him; between them, they were defenders of the cule faith for more than 60 years. Without O'Connell, they would never have been there; who knows, without O'Connell, there may never have been a "there" to be at.

Further back, Fred Pentland, known as El Bombin -- the "Bowler Hat" -- changed Spanish football forever. Manager at Racing, Atletico and Oviedo, in Bilbao, where he won two league titles and five cups between 1923 and 1933 and changed the approach to the game permanently installing a passing game, he is everything. After every victory, they would pull off his bowler hat and gleefully jump on it. He got through a lot of them.

In the very beginning, though, came William Mackay. His legacy is extraordinary; even if Britons had never had any impact ever again, there would be gratitude for what he did.

When Recreativo de Huelva, supported by the city council, joined by FC Barcelona, presented their traditional summer tournament back in July, they chose to mark the occasion with an explicitly British theme. Here was a heritage they wished to celebrate. "Gracias, Dr Mackay." It was a celebration of the roots of the game in general across Spain, not just in Huelva, and it was there that it all started.

When football came to Spain, some bemoaned people running round in their "underwear." In Recreativo's museum is a letter, written in the swirling, inky script of the era, complaining about playing in the streets. They were the first members of Spain's first club, and they would not be stopped. They would not change their minds; society would change its mind. Soon, the city would be grateful.

Mackay's son, Alexander, died aged six months in 1896; his wife, Catherine, died two years later and another son, Juanito, died a few months after that. His daughters, Anita and Molly, died in 1902. A hereditary illness had destroyed his family. A symbol of his Scottish clan was proudly placed on the outside of his home in Huelva, and it remained his home. He stayed in Spain and continued to promote Recreativo. He was named an adopted son of the city.

"The greatest sadness of my life I have suffered in Huelva, and here I have enjoyed the greatest happiness, too," Mackay said when the honour was bestowed upon him. "God willing, I will stay here forever, in the shadow of the Cypress trees, surrounded by friends, sleeping my last sleep and awaiting the eternal dawn under the stars of Huelva's blue firmament."

Doctor William Alexander Mackay arrived in Huelva with a ball in his suitcase and founded Spain's first-ever football club. This week, with his granddaughter in attendance, Recreativo celebrated their 125th birthday.

Sid Lowe is a Spain-based columnist and journalist who writes for ESPN FC, the Guardian, FourFourTwo and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter at @sidlowe.

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