When the man who could organise anything nearly met his match: Raimundo Saporta and the 1982 World Cup


He was the man who could organise anything. The man on top of every little detail. That’s why they put him in charge of this.

He was the man who changed the course of Spanish football history by signing Alfredo Di Stéfano for Real Madrid from under the noses of Barcelona. The man who then helped add Paco Gento, Raymond Kopa, José Santamaría and Ferenc Puskás to the squad. 

He was the man who, not satisfied with creating the greatest Real Madrid side of all time, then helped launch the competition that later defined them — the European Cup.

He was the man that revolutionised basketball in Spain and then Europe, creating the Spanish League and then the European Cup. Then, of course, revitalised Real Madrid’s basketball team so successfully that they came to dominate both competitions. 

He was the man so implicitly trusted by Real Madrid president Santiago Bernabéu that he was eventually left to run the club almost by himself.

That’s why they’d given him this job, and he’d been only too happy to take it. After all, this was a man used to creating competitions from scratch — how hard could organising a football tournament be?

But here, just weeks before the tournament was due to start, Raimundo Saporta was feeling the strain. So overwhelming were the demands that the phone in his apartment seemed to ring non-stop, with the answering machine long since filled to capacity. 

Newspapers speculated upon his state of health, reporting regular stays in Switzerland where he undertook medical checks accompanied by his mother. El Pais noted behavioural changes in Saporta — “a man so usually discreet who has begun to make the front pages with strident statements and continuous mentions that his only boss is the King. Those close to him claim that he has been prescribed medication that relaxes him but sometimes gives him an unusual euphoria. Drowsiness at certain public events seems to confirm these symptoms.”

But Saporta persevered with the task, admitting to extreme fatigue but otherwise dismissive of what was being printed by the newspapers — “The press has been very difficult to deal with.”

There was, though, one thing they could all agree on: the 1982 World Cup was proving way more challenging to organise than anyone had anticipated.

It was in London in the summer of 1966 when FIFA confirmed their plans for three future tournaments. Spain stood aside for West Germany to host the 1974 edition, which meant they were automatically selected when the competition returned to European soil eight years later.

In the mid-1960s, the notion of hosting a World Cup seemed almost quaint. The cosy 16-team tournament lasted less than three weeks, was broadcast in sleepy black and white, and its 32 matches were mainly attended by curious locals.

By the time 1982 came around, the tournament was well on its way to becoming a modern-day global technicolour jamboree. FIFA had eagerly expanded the competition meaning Spain would host the biggest tournament yet — a 24-team, month-long extravaganza requiring more host cities and accommodating more fans than ever before.

If the World Cup had evolved in those intervening years, Spain had changed immeasurably. Franco’s death in 1975 led to a period of rapid but fragile transition. A new Spain aspired to become a modern democracy, but the process was complex and hindered by distrust between competing interests on either side of the political spectrum.

On the periphery of the process, political violence reached alarming levels. Terrorist atrocities and incidents formed a depressingly regular part of the news cycle. ETA, in particular, became more malevolent than ever, and their spectre hung heavily over the World Cup. Just weeks before the start of the tournament, the Basque separatist group attempted to wipe out the telecommunications of an entire city, blowing up the eight-storey headquarters of Telefónica in central Madrid, taking 20,000 lines and 700,000 telephones off the network in the capital.

An act during the tournament seemed almost inevitable, particularly when a Guardia Civil officer was murdered by ETA in Gipuzkoa on the day of the opening ceremony.

The political upheaval seemed to entirely distract from a troubling economic picture. An economy heavily reliant on foreign oil was reeling from successive oil shocks, sending prices spiralling upwards. Organisers now found themselves trying to organise a World Cup in an environment that saw inflation constantly in double digits.

Unemployment soon rocketed, leaving a fledgling government floundering, unable to take any meaningful action while budgetary deficits swelled to dangerous levels and foreign exchange reserves depleted rapidly.

Financing a World Cup became a nightmare. As well as the usual stadium and local infrastructure upgrades, there was the unwelcome discovery that Spain’s entire television network would have to be upgraded to broadcast the tournament at a cost of 17.5 billion pesetas (€105 million).

As if there was not enough to worry for organisers about, the outbreak of the Falklands War brought four of the qualified teams into conflict with each other. A 2014 release of United Kingdom government archives revealed anxious deliberations over whether to withdraw England, Scotland and Northern Ireland from a tournament that featured Argentina as holders and was hosted by a country where the public opinion was overwhelmingly against the UK’s claim to the Falkland Islands, given Spain’s position on Gibraltar.

The government decided the three teams should travel to Spain as planned, but only after myriad discussions that included the bizarre highlight of Environment Secretary Michael Heseltine calculating the various permutations of the rather complex World Cup draw — “Scotland could play Argentina in the second round, but Northern Ireland and England can only meet them in the final,” he concluded.

That draw had been a shambles that did little to settle the host’s jitters. Taking place shortly after Christmas in Madrid’s Palacio de Congresos, the creative minds amongst the organising committee decided to theme the draw along the lines of Spain’s Christmas lottery, using both the distinctive golden cages used to draw the numbers and the purple-sashed pupils of the San Ildefonso school who famously sang the results.

The event quickly descended into farce, with the presiding FIFA delegates apparently forgetting their own fairly basic stipulations, drawing Belgium and then Scotland into the wrong groups. “Quite extraordinary,” exclaimed Barry Davies in typical fashion on the BBC’s coverage of the draw, “They went to great lengths to explain the procedure, but when it’s come to the draw, they’ve not adopted their own plans.”

Even after correcting the errors, the draw dragged on interminably. FIFA officials grew increasingly impatient with the amount of time it was taking the schoolchildren to extract the balls and deliver them to their table. Matters got even worse when the miniature two-piece Adidas Tango balls containing the teams’ names began to break apart inside the cages. This led to the unedifying spectacle of fingers being poked into the machinery in an attempt to get them moving.

When the draw finally ended, it was left to those on the organising committee to take the positives. “Spain have a good chance to qualify for the second round. After that, we’ll see. I think the tournament is guaranteed to be a financial success. On the field, we’ll have to see, but whatever the outcome, we’ll support the players,” was the upbeat verdict of the president of the Royal Organising Committee, Raimundo Saporta, who’d been appointed the most important job any Spanish football administrator had ever been given.  

Not a bad achievement for someone given their chance in football mainly because he knew precisely nothing at all about it.

Saporta’s journey to the heights of Spanish football was an unusual one. Indeed, there is mystery surrounding where it even began with his place of birth the subject of debate among Spain’s most eminent football historians. Most official documents stated Saporta was born in Paris in December of 1926, but a detailed investigation by the football history association, CIHEFE, concluded it was more likely he was actually born in Constantinople (now Istanbul).

What’s for sure is that Saporta was born to Sephardic Jewish parents who were both born in the Ottoman Empire. By the early 1940s, the family had long been settled in Paris, with Raimundo happily studying at the prestigious Lycée Carnot. But when German boots reached Parisian streets in the early part of the Second World War, the city became a precarious place for anyone even suspected of being Jewish, with families regularly taking measures to conceal their ethnicity. CIHEFE found evidence that Saporta’s school records had been edited to remove any reference to Constantinople, quite probably as part of the family’s attempts to avoid Nazi scrutiny.

Taking advantage of the Spanish citizenship they held — in 1924, Spain had made citizenship automatically available to Sephardic Jews — the family secured safe passage to a new life in Madrid. Tragically, soon after the family settled in the city, Raimundo’s father Jaime was struck fatally by a tram. 

Heartbroken, the family continued on in their alien surroundings, although they afforded themselves some familiarity by enrolling both sons in the Lycée Français de Madrid. The French school had a lively basketball scene that Saporta very much enjoyed. Realising his physical talents would never guarantee him a place on a squad, he began helping out in administrative roles and was soon named the team’s official delegate.

Saporta’s exceptional organisational talent soon turned heads at the Spanish Basketball Federation. The governing body’s president, Colonel Jesús Querejeta Pavón, was so taken by Saporta that he immediately sought to add him to the board but was frustrated by the Federation’s own rules, which stated directors must be at least 21 years old. Saporta continued to work in an unofficial role until being installed as vice-president upon reaching the required age in 1947.

Saporta set about improving and restructuring Spanish basketball and was held in such regard that when, in 1952, Santiago Bernabéu began looking for someone to organise a basketball tournament as part of Real Madrid’s 50th-anniversary celebrations, he received exactly the same answer from whoever he asked: Raimundo Saporta.

With minimal fuss, Saporta arranged an impressive four-team tournament, including international opposition in the form of Racing Club of Paris, the Puerto Rican national team and a talented team of Suffolk-based American serviceman named the Lakenheath Pirates. In the final, Real Madrid rallied from a huge deficit to beat an excellent Puerto Rican team, who ABC described as: “possibly the finest team to have ever played basketball in the city of Madrid.” 

Delighted by the tournament, Bernabéu immediately recruited Saporta to his board. Saporta pointed out that he knew absolutely nothing about football, “That’s good,” countered Bernabéu, “There are far too many around that think they do.”

Saporta’s creative problem-solving and attention to detail saw him implicitly trusted with some of the most important matters of the club. When Bernabéu observed the impasse in Barcelona’s attempt to sign Alfredo Di Stefano, it was Saporta he dispatched to Colombia to convince Millionarios that dealing with Madrid would be far simpler and more lucrative than talking to Barcelona.

Eventually, Real Madrid won the day. Even by the time Di Stefano made his Madrid debut, Saporta had been at the club barely a year.

Saporta became Bernabéu’s right-hand man, and the pair worked closely together for a quarter of a century, each complementing the other’s character. Where Bernabéu was authoritarian, impulsive and prone to fits of rage, Saporta was collegiate, assiduous and avuncular. 

Bernabéu had the grand visions, but it was Saporta who could get things done. That was something that L’Equipe came to learn when attempting to launch their idea of the European Cup. The newspaper had been frustrated in their attempts to get the project off the ground until someone suggested a phone call to Saporta might get things moving. Sure enough, the idea had become a reality within a few days as Saporta worked his magic.

Saporta took care of some of the tiniest details. As Justo Tejada, who won two league titles with both Barcelona and Real Madrid, remembered to Panenka magazine: “Barça will always be the club of my heart, but at Madrid, they looked after every little detail. You couldn’t even forget your wife’s birthday as a bouquet would show up for her with a card that said: ‘From the office of Raimundo Saporta’ ”.

Remarkably, Saporta combined the football club’s vice-presidency with the basketball operation’s presidency. There he helped create a basketball version of the European Cup and established the Spanish basketball league as one of Europe’s most successful. 

The tournament that started it all in 1952 even lived on, eventually morphing into the Torneo de Navidad, a four-team tournament that attracted top international teams and some of America’s most storied basketball colleges and became a staple of Spanish Christmas TV viewing for decades.

By the time of Santiago Bernabéu’s death in 1978, Real Madrid had won six European Cups in both football and basketball. Most assumed the vice-president who had done so much to deliver that success would replace Bernabéu, but the man himself had other ideas.

“Don Santiago always told me not to accept the presidency if he died. And that’s what I’m doing. Firstly, because of a lack of personal ambition, and secondly, because he told me I would suffer a lot in the role.” With that, he walked away from the club he’d worked at for some 26 years. 

But just months later, the Spanish Federation, shocked by the announcement by FIFA of an expanded World Cup, suddenly realised the committee they had assembled was not up to the task. There was only one person to call. Within days, Royal Decree number 2346/78 declared Raimundo Saporta as the president of the Real Comité Organizador de la Copa del Mundo, reporting directly to the King. It was as prestigious a title and role as could be, but one that really would make him suffer.

As Italy’s Dino Zoff held the World Cup aloft, just a few feet away in the stadium that bore his old boss’ name, Saporta could finally afford to let out a sigh of relief. It had been a success.

It had certainly not been easy, and the stresses on Saporta as the cornerstone of it all had been enormous. At one stage, a row with the host cities escalated to such an extent that Saporta offered his resignation, causing an almighty panic in the government, the Spanish Federation and FIFA and front-page headlines that Spain was on the verge of giving up the World Cup. His resignation was refused, and the cities were swiftly brought into line.

The off-the-field factors that Saporta had so feared miraculously subsided. ETA’s guns fell silent, and the Falklands War concluded early in the competition, with none of the teams crossing each other’s paths.

Financially, the tournament even technically reported a profit with the infrastructure debt either covered by lottery funding or creatively kicked down the road by accountants.

On the field, it would prove to be a World Cup that lived in the memory, serving up a combination of compelling football and skullduggery in equal measure in matches attended by over two million spectators. The only thing missing was a strong showing from the hosts, who were desperately disappointing and eliminated after winning just one of their five matches.

Saporta was widely commended for his work. In their review of the year, ABC called the World Cup the biggest success of 1982, lauding Saporta as the “mastermind behind the event.”

Saporta though, would publicly acknowledge the adverse effects that the World Cup had on his health — “It did me harm” — and a heart attack in 1987 took a further toll. He died in 1997, still involved in basketball, helping plan the European Cup’s revamp to the Euroliga.

At his funeral, the Real Madrid president, Lorenzo Sanz, lamented the loss of a man “only behind Santiago Bernabéu as the most important person in the history of Real Madrid.”

Remarkably, in the forty years since that 1982 World Cup and despite the country’s standing in world football, Spain has never since hosted a major tournament. Perhaps maybe, because they’ve never found anyone else quite like Raimundo Saporta.


Fernando Arrechea and Victor Martínez Patón’s superb investigation into the country of Saporta’s birth helped with this article

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