A casual glance at the La Primera’s all-time classification will throw up few surprises. Sitting proudly at the summit is Real Madrid, followed closely by Barcelona, with all the usual suspects occupying the next dozen or so positions. Look a little deeper and you will find the names of smaller clubs from the regions that lived the dream for a year or two, then dropped back down the leagues into relative obscurity. Then, one place off the bottom of the Clasificación Histórica, you will find the name of a team that few will have heard of and even fewer will have seen, Club Atlético Tetuán. The only club from mainland Africa to have played in Spain’s top division.
To understand how a team that played in modern-day Morocco ended up in La Primera, you need to know a little about Spain’s colonial past. Spain has had a presence in North West Africa since the 15th century when the enclaves of Ceuta & Melilla were established. The Reconquest saw large numbers of Muslims expelled from the south of Spain, and many found their way to the strip of land between the Mediterranean coast and the Atlas Mountains. Over the next four centuries, this land was ruled over by a succession of sultans and generally, all was well until 1912, when internal unrest and some gunboat diplomacy from Germany led to France & Spain setting up protectorates in Morocco. The Treaty of Fez effectively divided the country in two, with Spain overseeing the northern sector, making Tetuán the administrative capital of Spanish Morocco. Football had been played in the ports and larger cities of Morocco since the start of the 20th century, but the arrival of the Spanish brought added impetus. In 1917 Sporting Tetuán & Futbol Club Hispano Marroqui were founded, and a year later these clubs merged to form Athletic Club. This nod in the direction of the Bilbao’s all-conquering team was made all the more obvious by the adoption of Athletic’s club colours and a re-working of their badge.
Athletic Club was officially established in 1922 and they spent the next decade or so playing in regional leagues and regular matches against clubs from Tangier, which at the time was a free international zone. In 1931, the Campeonato Hispano-Marroquí was established, initially featuring clubs from Ceuta and Tetuán. The league was expanded a year later to include clubs from Tangier, Larache, Melilla & Rif and this was the first championship that saw the winners qualify for the preliminary rounds of the Spanish Cup. The first four titles went to clubs from Ceuta but in the competition’s fifth season, Athletic Club came into its own. The 1935-36 season saw Athletic crowned champions ahead of Español Futbol Club, a title that saw the club qualify for the Spanish Cup for the first time. On 15 March 1936, Athletic Club entertained CD Tenerife at the Campo de La Hipica (Later renamed the Estadio de Varela) winning by 2 goals to one. A week later in Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Athletic Cub beat their hosts by a goal to nil to progress to the next round, where they were paired with Club Deportivo Malacitano. This was to prove a step up in class and whilst Athletic held the Málaga-based club 2-2 in Tetuán, their cup odyssey ended a week later with a 0-3 defeat at the Campo de los Baños del Carmen. This was the club’s last competitive action for over three years as the dark clouds of the Civil War rolled in.
1939 saw the resumption of the Campeonato Hispano-Marroquí, and a year later Athletic Club became Club Atlético Tetuán, primarily due to the new nationalist government directive outlawing Anglicised names, but the choice may have been influenced by club director Fernando Fuertes de Villavicencio, a former player with Atletico Madrid. Atlético won a for-shortened Campeonato Hispano-Marroquí in 1942, but the restructuring of the Spanish Leagues in 1943 gave the club a chance to compete in the newly formed Tercera. On 26 September 1943, Atlético travelled to the northeast of Andalucia to take on Linares Deportivo in its first-ever game in the Spanish League. They lost 0-2, but over the course of the season held their own, finishing fifth out of ten with eighteen points. The following 1944-45 season proved much more difficult, with Atlético gaining just three victories on the way to a bottom-placed finish. Their relegation was a short-lived affair and after just a season in the regional leagues, Atlético returned to the Tercera thanks to a 4-1 aggregate play-off victory over Algeciras.
Atlético finished fourth in their first season back in the Tercera and whilst there was a blip in season 47-48 when the club finished eighth, Los Matadores as they had become known, won their first Tercera title a year later, pipping Cordoba on a better head-to-head record. The play-offs for promotion to La Segunda was a tortuous affair, ultimately coming down to the tenth and final match when Atlético drew 1-1 in Galicia at UD Orensena to clinch promotion to the second tier. There would have been many who would have dismissed Atlético’s chances in La Segunda, but buoyed by two recent promotions and to a lesser extent, conscripted footballers doing national service in Spanish Morocco, Los Matadores shone. The form was particularly impressive at home, where the home crowd witnessed just one defeat in 15 matches. At the end of the 1949-50 season, the club had accumulated 33 points, good enough for fifth place, but it was the following 50-51 season that saw Atlético truly excel. The season got off to a good start with a 3-0 derby win over SD Ceuta. There followed a steady first half of the season, including a 9-2 victory over Valencia Mestalla. However, it was the second half of the season that proved decisive as Atlético lost only 3 matches. Promotion to La Primera was secured on 25 March 1951 with an emphatic 5-0 victory over Albacete, all with two games to spare. Atlético got a taste of the action in advance of their debut in the top flight, when Barcelona rolled into town on 6 May 1951 for the quarter-finals of the Copa Generalisimo. The Blaugranas eased to a 3-1 victory and clocked-up another four goals in the return leg at Camp de Les Corts four days later.
Life in La Primera was never going to be easy for Atlético, but the officials at the RFEF gave them what appeared to be a favourable start to life in the top division when they were paired at home with another promoted side, Real Zaragoza. The Estadio de Varela was full to its 15,000 capacity when, on the 9 September 1951, the first top-flight game on African soil kicked-off. The match was a scrappy affair, played in intense heat in front of the Jalifa of Spanish Morocco. The game’s only moment of quality arrived seven minutes into the second half when Zaragoza’s Hernandez scored with a thunderous left-foot drive from outside the area. In fairness, Atlético had a decent home record for the rest of the season, winning six and drawing five. This included a 4-1 victory over their namesakes and reigning league champions Atlético Madrid, whilst there were creditable draws with Real Madrid & Valencia. Not surprisingly, however, it was on the road that Los Matadores struggled. Heavy defeats were incurred at Celta Vigo and Valencia, whilst Atlético Madrid gained revenge for their defeat on African soil, slamming eight past a beleaguered Tetuán defence at the Estadio Metropolitano. All but one of their away fixtures ended in defeat. The one exception occurred in Week 7 when Atlético embarked on one of its longest away journeys to Deportivo’s Estadio Riazor. The home side were two goals to the good within 20 minutes, but a blast of three goals in six minutes from Patricio, Moreno and Chicha gave Atlético the lead before half time, which for once they did not surrender. Atlético Tetuán’s top-flight odyssey finally came to an end on 13 April 1952, when newly crowned champions Barcelona won by five goals to two at the Estadio de Varela. Bottom, but not disgraced, Los Matadores returned to La Segunda.
Over the next four seasons, Atlético Tetuán made valiant attempts at a return to the top division. This included a third-place finish in 1952-53 which led to an appearance at the end of season promotion play-offs. Here they came within a point of an immediate return to La Primera but was denied promotion with a final day draw away to España Industrial, the reserve side of Barcelona. Atlético returned to the playoffs two years later after finishing runners-up to Real Murcia, but once again the final step-up proved to be elusive, as they trailed behind promoted RCD Espanyol & Real Sociedad. The 1955-56 season was played against a back-drop of Moroccan independence, and by March of 1956, Atlético club president Julio Parrés knew that the club would have to merge or disappear. Keen to preserve its heritage and ensure continuity of work for the professional staff, Parrés entered negotiations with a number of clubs including Algeciras CF & Real Balompédica Linense. However, it was the close proximity and the recent good form of SD Ceuta that proved decisive. On 22 April 1956, Atlético Tetuán played its last ever game, a 4-1 away win at Real Betis. On 2 July 1956, both Atlético Tetuán & SD Ceuta were formally wound-up and a new team, Club Atlético de Ceuta was formed, taking up the place vacated in La Segunda by Los Matadores. With the majority of the professional staff transferring to Atlético Ceuta, this left a void in Tetuán which was eventually filled in 1961, when Moghreb Athlétic de Tétouan took on the colours and the stadium of Los Matadores.
Whilst it is almost certain that football was played on the site of the Estadio de Varela from the turn of the 20th Century, the land was not formally enclosed until 1913. Situated on the north bank of the River Martil, the stadium played host to a variety of sports thanks to the inclusion of a cinder athletics track. Rudimentary bleachers were added once Atlético started to play in Campeonato Hispano-Marroquí, whilst officials could watch from a rather ornate raised, open terrace. This wedge-shaped construction was double-sided so that one could view races at the Hippodrome that stood to the west of the stadium. Atlético’s ascent to La Primera led to the stadium undergoing major redevelopment and renaming. An open stand with bench terracing was erected on the east side which was linked to semi-circular end terraces. Club office and changing rooms were built in the south-west corner and the pitch was access via an underground tunnel behind the southern goal. The stadium’s main tribuna was built on the west side, and this featured a vaulted concrete cantilevered roof. However, it was only 75 metres in length and ran from the southern touchline, before seemingly losing interest and petering out just after the halfway line. The enclosure had been called the Estadio Municipal de Deportes since 1939 but was renamed in honour of General José Varela, Franco’s High Commissioner in Morocco in 1950. With a capacity of 15,000, Varela suited Atlético just fine, and it also seemed to suit Moghreb Tétouan just fine, as little was done to the stadium for the next 50 years.
In the intervening years, the stadium was renamed the Estadio Sania Ramel (Stade Saniat Rmel) in 1952. In 2007, the parched turf was replaced with an artificial surface. Work on the original terraces saw the capacity reduced to 10,000, but then in 2011, to mark the 60th anniversary of the original club’s promotion to La Primera, the main tribuna underwent a major refurbishment. A new framework was erected at the rear of the stand to support the original, ageing concrete roof. Everything and I mean everything, was given a liberal coat of red, white & blue paint and new bucket seats were bolted to the concrete steps. To be honest, it’s all a bit gaudy and garish, but lo and behold, it seemed to do the trick. After 50 years of achieving very little, Moghreb Tétouan won its first Moroccan championship in May 2012. As the city celebrated the club’s first major honour, the Ultras paraded banners celebrating the club’s Spanish heritage. What did the banners display? Siempre Los Matadores.