Amid the clatter of studs and the shouts of encouragement, the players of Racing Santander filed out of the home dressing room and into the tunnel to face their opponents, Elche. All of them, that was, except two.
Aitor Aguirre and Sergio Manzanera lingered behind their teammates before ducking furtively into the empty shower area. Each tied a single bootlace around the arm of the other, creating rudimentary black armbands.
Aguirre, an imposing centre forward, had led the attack for Racing for several seasons, his goals had powered their return to the top flight. Sergio, a hard-working winger, was a summer arrival from his native Valencia — where he’d won the title as a rookie under the guidance of Alfredo de Stefano. The two linked up well in the Racing forward line and had clicked off the field too.
In the now-empty changing room, they exchanged one last glance before swiftly rejoining the rest of the starting eleven, none of whom had noticed their delay.
Spain in 1975 was perched on shifting sands. Franco’s deteriorating health was encouraging those who hoped for change to escalate activity and push the boundaries of expression. The regime was increasingly isolated internationally and became ever more reactive. That August, hastily passed legislation re-established military tribunals with the authority to impose the death sentence for crimes considered ‘terrorism against the state’.
The new law was immediately and retrospectively applied to several existing cases. Over four tribunals, eleven suspects were convicted of the murders of police and civil guards and handed down death sentences — three members of ETA and eight of the Revolutionary Antifascist Patriotic Front (FRAP).
The convictions sparked an international reaction from demonstrations in cities and at countless Spanish embassies to petitioning at the very highest levels. The Swedish Prime Minister, Olof Palme, led a march in Stockholm. Mexico motioned that Spain be dismissed from the UN Security Council. Pope Paul VI publicly called for clemency and privately telephoned El Pardo — only to be told that Franco was sleeping and would not be woken.
Nicolás Franco had even appealed to his younger brother, “You are a good Christian; you will regret this later.”
However, on Friday 26th September, a Franco-led meeting of the Council of Ministers confirmed five of the death penalties. Seemingly the only concession being that in place of the regime’s hitherto preferred method of execution — the garrote — the condemned five would face firing squads the next morning.
As he awaited his fate, one of the five, José Humberto Baena, wrote a farewell letter to his parents in Vigo from his cell in Hoyo de Manzanares, Madrid.
“Mamá, Papá, They will execute me tomorrow. I want to give you encouragement. I will die, but life goes on. Papá, you told me to be brave, like a good Galician. When they shoot me tomorrow, I have asked not to be blindfolded so I can face death head-on.”
He expressed one last hope.
“Do you remember what I said at the trial? May my death be the last to be pronounced by a military tribunal. That was my wish. But I’m sure there will be many more.”
On the following morning, Saturday 27th September, over the course of an hour and a half the five men were executed. Àngel Otaegui, in Burgos at 8.30 followed by fellow ETA member Juan Paredes Manot, in Barcelona at 8.35. In Madrid, Baena faced the firing squad at 9.20, followed by Ramón Garcia Sanz at 9.40 and José Luis Sánchez Bravo at 10 o’clock.
That night at the Hotel Rhin on Santander’s seafront promenade, the Racing players gathered to spend the night in concentración before their game the following day. Aguirre and Sergio shared a room and also a worldview.
Aguirre had grown up in Sondika, just outside Bilbao, in a Basque nationalist family. As a child, he’d been told to be careful of what he spoke of outside the family home. As a teenager, he’d been unjustly shaken down by police when prohibited Basque flags mysteriously appeared when the Spanish Cycling Championship came to Vizcaya.
Sergio was from a republican family in Valencia. Due to his political persuasion, his father had been stripped of his job in the postal service. His mother, a teacher, had been an active member of FUE, a left-leaning student organisation. Sergio had developed a keen social conscience and was adamantly opposed to the death penalty.
In their room, they scoured the radio frequencies, navigating the static before finally finding the faint but recognisable signal of Radio España Independiente. Distrustful of the regime’s control over the mainstream media, the roommates preferred to take the evening news from the pirate station operated by the Spanish Communist Party. The report confirming the executions troubled them deeply and they discussed what they, as professional sportsmen, could do to demonstrate their objection.
They opted for that most simple gesture of mourning — the black armband.
Just before kick-off at El Sardinero, the pair crouched together in the front row of the obligatory team photo, the makeshift armbands visible but still unnoticed by anyone else on the field. Once the whistle had blown, the two displayed their connection once again with Sergio setting up Aguirre for the only goal of the first half.
It was business as usual. Behind the scenes, though, their gesture had been noticed and the Racing president was facing awkward questions from the government’s match delegate. As the players left the field at half time, they were greeted by a strange sight. A dozen members of the Fuerzas de Policía Armada — popularly known as los grises, were crowded in the tunnel.
“Everyone thought there had been a bomb threat.” Aguirre recalled to Informe Robinson — “But we knew why they had come.”
The police gave Aguirre and Sergio an ultimatum. They could keep the armbands on and be arrested immediately, or they could surrender them, go back out for the second half and report to the station the following day. Figuring they had made their point and keen to help the team, they untied and handed over the pair of black bootlaces and returned to the field.
Elche were proving stubborn opposition and drew level with just a quarter of an hour to play. Despite that, Aguirre shook off any lingering distraction to head an 88th-minute winner for Los Verdiblancos.
The win capped an excellent first month back in the top flight. September had yielded three wins and just a single defeat away to Real Madrid on the opening day. But life was about to become a little more complicated for Racing and especially so for Aguirre and Sergio.
Upon arrival at the police station on the Monday afternoon, the two were separated and interrogated under anti-terror laws. According to Quique Peinado’s Futbolistas de izquierdas, the police could understand Aguirre’s motivation but were less able to comprehend Sergio’s. “He’s a Basque. We get it. But you’re from Valencia, why on earth are you getting involved?”
The Racing board had suggested using the anniversary of a former club president as an explanation. The previous day, the Athletic Club board had hastily concocted a similar cover story when their entire team took to the field at Granada in black armbands. Improbably, it worked and Athletic escaped censure. Even so, Aguirre and Sergio never thought it would fly and after their interviews they were brought before a judge.
The pair were fined 100,000 pesetas each and judicial proceedings were opened with the state prosecutor asking that each serve five years and one day in prison.
Until the cases came to trial, they were free to play football and were supported fully by Racing’s president, the magnificently named José Manuel López Alonso Polvorinos, who encouraged them to train and play as usual but warned them to be careful when away from the club.
He was proved correct. Death threats arrived and their mail was tampered with. Aguirre sent his young family home to Vizcaya and Sergio moved in. For a period they slept with shotguns under their beds and were advised to check beneath their cars before taking a drive.
Despite presidential support, even life at the club was at times problematic. On the 11th October, ABC reported that a training session had to be suspended when a large number of fans barracked Aguirre after he’d objected to a bad tackle. “It seems from now on the sessions will be held behind doors.” the article concluded.
Despite the threats, the pair played on during those difficult few weeks. Perhaps it was more liberating away from Santander — at least for Aguirre, who scored at both the Camp Nou and the Vicente Calderon.
The 25th November brought more permanent relief. Franco’s death would change Spain forever. Although the country’s transition would take time, matters were resolved much more quickly for the two teammates. Proceedings were dropped, fines were returned and they were soon able to visit a cafe or bar without looking over their shoulder.
The pair played on another season together in Santander before Aguirre transferred to Athletic. Upon hanging up his boots, he ran a quintessentially Basque asador restaurant in Getxo for many years.
Sergio retired at the age of 27 due to injury. He retrained as a dentist in his home city of Valencia.
Despite the passing of time and the miles between them, the two still share a unique bond.
“I have no regrets. Nor does Aitor.” Sergio reflected in a typically thoughtful recent interview in Las Provincias — “I did my tiny part towards democracy.”
The below articles and books were helpful putting this article together as well as the episode of Informe Robinson, Brazaletes and the related Acento Robinson podcast. Both, of course, from the brilliant and sadly missed Michael Robinson.
Los cordones de luto – Raúl Gómez Sampeiro, El Diario Montañes
Dos brazaletes contra el franqusimo – Arnau Segura, Panenka
Futbolistas de izquierdas – Quique Peinado
366 historias del fútbol mundial – Alfredo Relaño
Sergio Manzanera Interview – Cayetano Ros, Las Provincias