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Jan 12, 2012

Ricardo Zamora: Divine intervention

When football began to emerge as a rival attraction to bullfighting in 1920s Spain, Ricardo Zamora was the sport's number one icon. In a career spent at Espanyol, Barcelona, Real Madrid and Nice, he held celebrity status in his homeland and became the highest-paid player on the continent. Many still consider him the finest goalkeeper the country has produced.

Despite controversy on and off the field, he broke through the barriers of sport, starring in advertisements and even two films, while his trademark cloth cap and white polo neck helped cement an iconic image. As author Jimmy Burns put it in Barca: A People's Passion, he "adopted a dress code that marked him out as one of the great eccentrics" and "made him look like an Argentinian on his way to play polo in an English winter". He was a showman in his play, too, patenting the Zamorana save, in which he would deflect the ball with his forearm or elbow. More significantly, his incredible reflexes and bravery marked him out as one of a kind.

Born in Barcelona in 1901, his parents had shown little enthusiasm for football as the young Ricardo would return home with torn clothes and injuries, and they were particularly unkeen when one wound threatened to turn gangrenous. At 13, he was persuaded to pursue a medical career, but he became a goalkeeper for the local team, Universitary, at 14 and made the acquaintance of Josep Samitier, the future star of Barcelona, Madrid and Nice. His parents persisted in their attempts to make their son focus on his studies, but Barcelona founder Joan Gamper eventually convinced him that he should continue with football. (Besides, as a man who smoked three packs of cigarettes a day and had a notable fondness for Cognac, he was no poster boy for the medical profession.)

Despite Gamper's words, it was with local rivals Espanyol that he began his senior career, making his debut as a 16-year-old, and there he helped the club to win the Campionat de Catalunya in 1918. After falling out with one of the club's directors, though, he made the move to Barcelona in late summer 1919, and he was soon to become a superstar after he was included in the newly-formed national side for the 1920 Olympic Games.

He made his debut in the country's first full international, a 1-0 victory over Denmark in Brussels in the first round of the Olympics, and his performance was sufficiently impressive to prompt the creation of a new rhyme: "Uno-cero y Zamora de portero" ("1-0 and Zamora in goal"). Spain would go on to claim a silver medal, and Zamora was considered the revelation of the tournament in the eyes of the influential French press - though he would be disgraced when sent off for punching an opponent in the in 79th minute of a consolation match victory over Italy. There were to be further problems when departing the tournament, too, as Phil Ball writes in Morbo: "When the train reached the Belgian border, Zamora was arrested by the authorities for smuggling out a case of cigars and the whole squad were detained at Feignes police station while they were searched."

Despite such incidents, Zamora was to become firmly established as one of Spanish football's leading stars, earning the nickname El Divino as he helped Barcelona, then led by Englishman Jack Greenwell, to two Copa del Rey victories and three Campionats de Catalunya. However, he lasted just three years at Barca. Rumours appeared in the Spanish press in June 1922 suggesting Zamora had told Barcelona they would have to pay him 50,000 pesetas if he was to continue with the club in the coming season, and a transfer soap opera played itself out over the following weeks. By August, Zamora had resolved to return to Espanyol, with his former club offering a signing-on fee of 20,000 pesetas and a further 1,000 pesetas a month.

To many Barcelona fans, his desire to move was seen as a great betrayal, with the club's strong Catalan identity not shared by their local rivals, and when he featured for Espanyol at Barca's Les Corts ground in November that year, he was not made welcome. The report in El Mundo Deportivo, whose sympathies at that time lay with Espanyol, read: "A sizeable proportion of the Barcelona public, despite being ordered not to do so by the [Catalan] champion club, greeted the sight of the great national team goalkeeper with hisses and whistles."

Zamora's political leanings were to become the subject of great debate. He viewed himself as Spanish rather than Catalan and, though he was given the Order of the Republic two years before the outbreak of the Civil War, his leaving of Barcelona was later exploited by General Franco for the Nationalist cause and, in the 1950s, he was awarded the Great Cross of the Order of Cisneros.

In any case, Barcelona were to have their revenge against Zamora and Espanyol: they refused to consent to the transfer, leading to disciplinary proceedings against the goalkeeper. "I am not going to concern myself with this too much because I'm not about to lose my head over fabrications and contradictions," he told El Mundo Deportivo in November 1922. "My desire was to play for the club that I chose to join. I was told it was possible." When the verdict came in, he was banned for a year.

He remained at Espanyol until 1930, taking part in the first edition of La Liga in 1929 as his side finished seventh in a ten-team league and Barca took the title. Even so, Espanyol - led by Jack Greenwell - clinched the Copa del Rey for the first time that year, beating both Barca and Madrid along the way.

That year also saw Zamora take part in the Spanish national team's famous victory over England. Spain won 4-3 in front of a record crowd of over 30,000 fans at the Estadio Metropolitano de Madrid to become the first side from outside the British Isles to defeat England. Zamora's performance was poor - he was culpable for England's first two goals - and the crowd were derisive, but his performance took on an air of the heroic when it emerged he had played much of the game with a broken sternum. "I've had some bad luck, as always seems to be the case when I play in Madrid, but I've also had to play with an injury," he told ABC afterwards.

His bad luck in the capital did nothing to deter Real Madrid from signing him in the summer of 1930 for the then astronomical fee of 150,000 pesetas - 100,000 for Espanyol and the rest going to Zamora - and he also became the highest paid player in Europe. He had the misfortune to suffer serious injury to his collarbone and shoulder blade on only his second appearance for Madrid, but he was back for the following La Liga season, which began in November 1931.

It was against this backdrop that Zamora came to England with the national team in December 1931 looking to inflict another upset. The Spanish side were rated highly, but no one seriously expected them to win again, and reports right across the English press seemed incredulous that Zamora was earning such high wages from football. According to information provided by the Spanish football federation, he was also acting as a merchant in his spare time to boost those earnings.

Even so, few doubted his quality, and though Zamora said he and his team-mates were in England to "learn and pick up as many tips as possible", there were high expectations in Spain after their victory of 1929 - interest in the outcome was so intense that voting of the Constitution of the Republic was delayed by an hour to allow deputies to follow the match. What transpired was a massacre, England running out 7-1 winners in a result described in Spain as a "national calamity". The Daily Mirror was singularly unimpressed: "Whoever persuaded the British public that the Spaniards were footballers of international class as we know it was guilty of a deliberate leg-pull. And the person who described Zamora as a great goalkeeper has done worse. He gave away four or five goals that most keepers playing in a junior team would have saved."

Zamora, as the most prominent player on the team, was forced to provide an explanation for the crestfallen fans back home, and emphasised that the players had not let them down as injuries and the poor quality of the Highbury pitch contributed to the performance, though he added: "I have never seen anything like your British players. They were wonderful."

If doubts had been raised as to Zamora's true quality, he helped banish them with his performances for his club, which had by that stage reverted to the name Madrid FC. Having recovered from injury, he was a mainstay of the team for the 1931-32 La Liga campaign as they went unbeaten to win their first league title, conceding only 15 goals in their 18 games. In the 1932-33 season, they retained the title, this time conceding only 17 goals across the campaign.

His legend grew when he made his World Cup bow at the 1934 tournament in Italy. Spain had declined to enter the first World Cup due to the costs of travelling to Uruguay, but they made a positive start in the tournament's second edition as they beat Brazil 3-1. Though the great Leonidas pulled a goal back for Brazil after they had gone 3-0 down inside the first half hour, his team-mate Waldemar de Brito spurned the chance to spark a comeback: he became the first player to miss a penalty at a World Cup when Zamora saved his spot-kick.

The victory took Spain through to the quarter-finals, where they faced the hosts. The Italians had seemingly been under great pressure from Benito Mussolini to ensure World Cup glory on home turf, and they had boosted their chances by including a number of South Americans, or Oriundo, in the squad. The desperate need for victory had converted the hosts into one of the sport's most ferocious sides, and Zamora was fouled as Italy scored an equaliser in the 44th minute. The match ended 1-1 after extra-time, with ABC's match report saying the "increasingly violent" behaviour of the Italians was "at times alarming". Zamora's heroic display preserved his reputation as the finest goalkeeper on the continent, but he sustained some heavy blows throughout the encounter and was ruled out of the replay the following day. Spain lost 1-0, and exited the tournament.

On the domestic front, Madrid were to finish second in the league in 1933-34, 1934-35 and 1935-36, but there were further triumphs to come. The club won the Copa del Presidente de la República - as the Copa del Rey was known - in 1934 and again in 1936. The 1936 final was to be Zamora's final game for Madrid, and the last official game in Spain before Civil War brought a three-year suspension of normal service; it was also to provide the defining moment of the great goalkeeper's career.

Madrid, after demolishing Hercules 8-2 in the semi-finals, had set up a final with Barcelona at the Mestalla, and the streets of Valencia thronged with supporters of both clubs. Madrid had threatened to run away with it after scoring two early goals, but Barca battled back to 2-1 with a Josep Escola goal and, with their opponents down to ten men, looked to be taking control of the match. In the dying moments, Escola unleashed a powerful strike that looked destined to creep inside the post, but Zamora made a save that ABC could only describe as "inexplicable". In the view of L'Instant, the save was "more luck than skill", but for most it was the crowning glory in the career of the country's greatest talent, and he was given a rapturous standing ovation at the final whistle.

With such hero status comes the opportunity for exploitation and, as the war games ramped up the following month, Madrid-based ABC claimed that Zamora had been shot dead, while Seville's new military governor added that the Republicans were responsible. However, as author Jimmy Burns writes: "Zamora was alive and well, so alive that as soon as rumours of his alleged 'execution' began to spread, a group of militia-men went to where they knew they could find him, arrested him, and took him to Madrid's infamous Modelo prison."

Zamora wrote in his memoirs that his football celebrity ensured he escaped the usual harsh treatment from the prison guards, and he was released when the Argentinian embassy intervened before setting sail - apparently while wearing a disguise - for France. There, he played for Nice alongside his old colleague Samitier in the French second division.

Zamora, seeing that General Franco's Nationalists were taking control in Spain, decided to nail his colours to the mast. He returned to his homeland in December 1938, and took part in a benefit match for Nationalist soldiers, featuring for the representative Spain side against Real Sociedad. The official advertisement for the encounter noted that it was first Zamora's first match since the "glorious uprising".

In 1939, he embarked on a managerial career with Atletico Madrid - known as Athletic Aviacion at the time - and led the club to the La Liga title in 1940 and 1941. He would go on to manage Spain for two games in 1952, and called time on his managerial career in 1961, but it appears coaching was never a source of genuine enjoyment for Zamora. As ABC reported: "He did it because his vocation was football and he knew football better than anyone, but he disliked the work of preparation."

His death in 1978 was met with the kind of response afforded to the true greats. El Pais spoke of the "deep grief for the famous international goalkeeper". El Mundo Deportivo, which dedicated over a quarter of its coverage the following day to Zamora, began its coverage with the words 'Simplement El Divino'. The Efe news agency emphasised the outpouring of grief outside Spain, particularly in Mexico. "From the Olympic Games in Antwerp until 1936, he was the greatest figure in Spanish football," ABC wrote.

In his 46 appearances for Spain, he had conceded just 42 goals, and since 1958 MARCA has awarded the Trofeo Ricardo Zamora to the goalkeeper with the lowest goals-to-games ratio. In the words of the popular saying: "There are only two goalkeepers: Ricardo Zamora on Earth and St Peter in heaven."

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