Death of a President: The tragic story of Josep Sunyol

There is a wind-swept spot high up on the road out of Madrid that serves as a bleak reminder to Spain’s turbulent history and the complex relationship football has with its bloody political past. Through the small town of Guadarrama and leading up to the peaks that dominate the capital’s north-western horizon, sits a small monument to the 28th president of Futbol Club Barcelona Josep Sunyol, a man murdered in the opening weeks of a civil war that tore the nation apart for almost three years.

Born into a wealthy and well-respected Catalan nationalist family, Josep Sunyol i Garriga’s association with FC Barcelona began during the dictatorship of Miguel Primo de Rivera in 1925, a period that brought significant suppression to the previously semi-autonomous regions such as Catalunya. All displays of regional nationalism were banned by the Andalusian-born de Rivera, including the use of the Catalan language and the flying of the region’s flag, the senyera.

Under these conditions, Barcelona’s stadium at Les Corts became a focal point for disenchantment and the club attracted a significant number of politically-minded supporters into its ranks. Faced with increased resistance, de Rivera eventually closed Les Corts for six months in 1924 after locals jeered throughout the Spanish national anthem prior to a game. The incident later saw the club’s founding father, Joan Gamper expelled from the country.

It was during this difficult period that Sunyol became a full member of FC Barcelona, no doubt viewing the move as the next logical step on his political path. Already well versed in Catalan radicalism, Sunyol had been heavily involved in the region’s left-wing nationalist group, Acció Catalana, before joining Barça in 1925 and was well respected in the city’s political circles.

By 1928, Sunyol was appointed to the role of club director and had also become a very high-profile critic of the de Rivera regime which was beginning to lose any credibility it may once have held. Sunyol also established a left-wing newspaper called La Rambla which gave a voice to the Catalan people, many of who were tired of the previous conservative-form of nationalism the region had traditionally seen.

The publication was fairly groundbreaking for its time, giving a prominent role to football alongside the more-traditional hard news of politics. In 1929, the dictatorship collapsed in the wake of the Wall Street crash, and the Second Spanish Republic was proclaimed in April 1931 promising a new start for Spain and those regions seeking autonomy.

Sunyol, who by this stage had become head of the Federació Catalana de Futbol, was elected deputy of the Madrid-based cortes, representing the newly formed Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya. He combined both roles with his ongoing responsibilities at Futbol Club Barcelona.

In truth however, it was a difficult time for Sunyol. Barça were in a dire financial situation, mainly due to the US stock market crash, and in June 1930, Joan Gamper committed suicide. The 33-year-old Sunyol now faced division within the club he had aspirations to become president of, with many opposing his political views despite  being pro-Catalan themselves.

Trouble was also brewing on the streets of Barcelona itself where, despite being granted part devolution from Madrid, tension was turning the city into a powder keg ready to ignite. And ignite it did, albeit briefly when Lluis Companys proclaimed a short-lived Catalan republic in 1933. Central power was soon restored however and in 1935, Sunyol won the presidency of Futbol Club Barcelona.

Despite this, the political situation had become all-consuming as the country lurched towards its impending doom, and few people had interest in football. Crowds were low at Les Corts and a number of players had been released due to the club’s financial constraints; most notably fan-favourite, Pep Samitier who had joined bitter-rivals, Real Madrid in 1932.

It was under these circumstances that Sunyol began his presidency, soon consolidating left-wing support around him, something which firmly placing the club on a political course that was to have almost catastrophic circumstances over the next 40 years. By January 1936, Spain was well on the road to civil conflict as a Socialist/Communist coalition swept to victory in that years elections, and on 18 July the coup began. As military rebellion flared in major cities across Spain, the people fought back.

In Barcelona, anarcho-syndicalists fought alongside loyal Guardia Civil to defeat nationalist rebels who had taken over the telephone exchange in the Plaça Catalunya. After a brief but bloody battle, the city was saved. The explosion of violence had caught many at FC Barcelona by surprise, with many of the team still abroad after a gruelling domestic season – the club’s Irish manager, Patrick O’Connell, was in Belfast, while a number of his players were in South America.

Sunyol and the board recognised this was a critical time for the future of the club, not least because it had made no secret as to its political persuasion and Catalan nationalism. Ironically the club also came under threat from the Anarchist workers movement, the CNT-FAI, who sought to take the club for the revolutionaries who were now in control of the city.

The board acted swiftly to save Barça and announced they had now become a ‘workers committee’, something which fell in line with the spirit of the social revolution sweeping through the streets of the Catalan capital. Elsewhere in Spain, Franco’s troops had control of many key cities, including Bilbao, Sevilla and Zaragoza, and were pressing hard on the capital of Madrid itself.

It was quickly decided however, that football needed to continue in some manner and the new ‘committee’ announced Barça would participate in a Catalan league. To reduce any unnecessary financial burden, many of the clubs overseas stars were taken of the books and the club went about the daily business of football as best they could.

It was immediately after these meetings in late July 1936 that Josep Sunyol left the city of Barcelona for the last time, traveling first to Valencia, then on to Madrid. There has been some uncertainty as to why the journey was made but it seems likely it was politically motivated in order to meet with other members of the cortes in the besieged capital.

Early on 5 August, Sunyol made his way out of Madrid in his chauffeur-driven car, flying the Catalan senyera, and travelled along the Corunna road towards the town of Guadarrama. The hills overlooking the town had become a focal point for the Francoist troops’ push on the Spanish capital and there was a confusing line of outposts and checkpoints scattered in the wooded valleys and crests.

It has been claimed that Sunyol believed he was still within Republican lines as his car made its way up the mountain road, however their folly would soon become apparent as the car was stopped at a checkpoint manned by Falangist troops in the afternoon of 6 August 1936. Josep Sunyol was instantly recognised and was executed by his captors soon after.

Rumours of Sunyol’s death reached the Barcelona two days later but, in a period of great confusion, the details were never corroborated and his tragic fate was almost forgotten as the blood-letting engulfed the country. Franco’s troops finally marched into Barcelona 26 January 1939 and the war ended soon after. There followed the most brutal of reprisals for the regions that had held out against the nationalists.

A general amnesia spread through Spain in the decades that followed, as the country attempted to get on with their lives, and the thousands of victims of the war and its aftermath with consigned to history, including the fate of Sunyol. Franco died in 1975 and Spain began the slow transition to democracy, despite the attempts of some of the dictators staunchest allies.

The Civil War was seldom mentioned and the fiftieth anniversary of Sunyol’s death in 1986 was ignored by the club and it’s then-president, Josep Lluis Nuñez. There were growing calls for action however, and ten years later, following a huge campaign, numerous newspapers article and extensive research, club officials attended a ceremony near to the spot were Josep Sunyol was executed.

Nonetheless, Barça were still criticised by groups such as Els Amics de Josep Sunyol, who claimed there should have been something more befitting of a man who had played such an important role in the history of the football club. There was also some consternation when the stone monument erected near Guadarrama bore the Castilian spelling of Sunyol’s name, Josep Suñol.

Almost 73 years have now passed since the Civil War, however, it is only now that many in Spain can begin to readdress the events that brought so much blood shed to its villages, towns and cities during the conflict and the subsequent dictatorship. FC Barcelona are no different in that respect, with the memories of those dark days forgotten for so long. However, there should also be some sense of shame for those officials involved in the repeated refusal to acknowledge the memory of Josep Sunyol.

Ultimately, football and politics should never mix, but they all too often do in this complicated country. For proof of that, you only need to take a trip up to that windy spot just outside the town of Guadarrama.


For further information on the history of FC Barcelona and the death of Josep Sunyol, read the excellent Barça – A people’s passion by Jimmy Burns.

Also recommended are Ghosts of Spain by Giles Tremlett, iGuerra! by Jason Webster and The Spanish Civil War by Paul Preston.

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