David Owen ©ITG

One hundred years ago on Saturday  - September 5 1920 - Spain’s new national football team secured the silver medals in the first international tournament they had contested, the Antwerp 1920 Olympic Games.

The story of how they showed up in war-ravaged northern Europe and pulled off this notable feat is both as colourful and as full of twists and turns as their famous World Cup victory, sealed by Andrés Iniesta’s delightful goal, in South Africa 90 years later.

But with the passage of time, it is naturally not nearly as well-known.

Nowadays, of course, silver medallists receive their prize still smarting from the sting of defeat. As we shall see, one of the peculiarities of this tale is that those long-ago Spanish footballers secured their medals after probably their easiest win of a gruelling competition.

That this should have been so may be laid at the door of a largely forgotten Swedish water polo player called Erik Bergvall.

Besides many other accomplishments - he won a bronze medal at the 1908 Olympic Games in London and was chief editor and compiler of the Stockholm 1912 Official Report - Bergvall devised a system for determining the prize-winners in sports tournaments in what was - allegedly - a fairer way than the potentially rough justice meted out by a straight knockout format.

Under this system, which was adopted to some degree for a number of Olympic tournaments in the early 20th century, the gold medal was decided via knockout in the familiar way.

A later image of legendary goalkeeper Ricardo Zamora ©Getty Images
A later image of legendary goalkeeper Ricardo Zamora ©Getty Images

This would then trigger a separate mini-tournament for the silver medal contested by all of those whom the gold medallist had defeated at some point en route to their triumph.

Finally, competitors vanquished by the eventual silver medallist would vie with one another for bronze in similar vein.

The main quirk of the straight knockout template that the Bergvall system was designed to address was the possibility that the second-best competitor might be eliminated early on if they happened to be drawn against the best.  

But, of course, to a modern eye, Bergvall’s blueprint is almost absurdly convoluted. Plus, it destroys the natural cadence of the sudden-death knockout whereby everything builds towards the climactic anointment of the tournament winner. It could also lead to a fairly wide variation in the number of fixtures that different competitors were required to fulfil - itself a form of unfairness.

Seeding has turned out to be a much simpler solution to the problem Bergvall identified.

Interpreting the events of the Antwerp 1920 football tournament from our 21st-century vantage-point is rendered still more problematic because, as we shall see, organisers appear to have adopted a variant of the classic Bergvall model, making the competition structure still harder to fathom without delving into the background.

To begin at the beginning then, Spain got their inaugural international tournament off to the best possible start by beating Denmark 1-0 in Brussels in their very first international fixture.

Such a result would be expected today, Spain being one of the chief powers of the world’s biggest sport. A hundred years ago, however, it was portrayed as a great shock. Spain after all were newbies and Denmark silver medallists in the two previous Olympic football competitions in 1908 and 1912.

Andrés Iniesta celebrates the winning goal in the 2010 FIFA World Cup final ©Getty Images
Andrés Iniesta celebrates the winning goal in the 2010 FIFA World Cup final ©Getty Images

Danish star Nils Middelboe was particularly well-known, having gone to play for Chelsea. He it was who had had the distinction of scoring his country’s first goal in an official Olympic tournament - in 1908, in the 10th minute of a 9-0 drubbing of France B at London’s White City Stadium.

Ricardo Zamora, the great Spanish goalkeeper who was just 19 at the time, yet had as impressive and eventful a tournament as anyone, described Denmark, along with Britain, as favourites for the gold medal, in remarks cited by Félix Martialay in his book, Antwerp - that is where the Spanish Fury was Born.

Even before this first victory - courtesy of Patricio Arabolaza’s second-half strike - however, it was plain that Spain were no mugs. Club football was well-established, with the Copa del Rey dating from 1903.

If the Birmingham Daily Gazette is to be believed, moreover, the sport was continuing to strengthen its grip in the country.

About a month before Antwerp 1920, the newspaper reported: "Under the influence of the King of Spain, youth is taking to football and Seville, known as the city of bullfights, has this year had its first football cup-tie.

"Sometime before that event", it continued, "King Alfonso issued a Royal decree announcing that regimental football clubs were to be formed in all branches of the armed forces."

Upset or not, while Spain were getting the better of Denmark in Brussels, back in Antwerp, the Norwegians were inflicting a famous defeat on Britain, the reigning Olympic champions.

This left the tournament wide open. As an aside, it also meant that a handsome trophy donated by the Football Association for presentation to the winners and featuring two footballers and the winged Goddess Victory would not be returning to England.

Barely 24 hours after their Danish exploit, the Spanish team found themselves lining up against hosts Belgium in the Olympic Stadium in front of a partisan crowd of around 18,000.

The visitors did get to wear their red shirts against opponents who would one day come to be known as the Red Devils. They were otherwise right up against it.

The Antwerp 1920 Opening Ceremony - the first to feature an athlete taking the Olympic Oath ©Getty Images
The Antwerp 1920 Opening Ceremony - the first to feature an athlete taking the Olympic Oath ©Getty Images

For one thing, the team was significantly weakened having been forced into four changes. The most damaging of these was the loss of captain José María Belauste.

A giant of a man, Belauste had established himself already as the team’s pivot and inspiration. A proud Basque - his full name was José María Belausteguigoitia Landaluce - he went on to live much of his life outside Spain.

While Belauste and his team mates had been earning their hard-fought victory, Belgium had had an unexpected bye, owing to the non-arrival in Antwerp of the Polish squad.

Unsurprisingly in these circumstances, the hosts worked their way to a 3-1 win. All their goals were scored by their talisman Robert Coppée.

Were this an orthodox knockout competition, that would of course have been that for the plucky Spaniards. As things turned out, they were still less than halfway through their arduous and ultimately successful campaign.

Four days and a match and a bit later, Coppée and his team mates were crowned Olympic champions.

Had the dreaded Bergvall system been followed to the letter, it was then that the Spaniards would have known they had a second bite at the cherry, their earlier defeat entitling them to enter the silver-medal tournament.

At some point, however, someone seems to have decided to introduce a variation whereby the four losing quarter-finalists would play off, with the winners of the initial match-ups then going head-to-head for one coveted spot in the silver-medal competition.

That decisive clash, moreover, would take place in the Olympic Stadium on the day of the final; in effect, a curtain-raiser for the main event.

It was in these playoff matches that this remarkable new Spanish team really came into its own.

Spain went one better at Barcelona 1992, winning men's Olympic football gold as hosts ©Getty Images
Spain went one better at Barcelona 1992, winning men's Olympic football gold as hosts ©Getty Images

A three-day break since the defeat to Belgium had seen Belauste recuperate sufficiently to take his place for the next match against Sweden, a physically imposing side who had been unlucky to lose 5-4 in their quarter-final against The Netherlands.

Belauste it would be who would seize the moment, scoring the equaliser after his side had trailed 1-0 at the interval – a score described by Martialay as both "savage" and "the most famous goal in Spanish football history".

As legend now has it, it was his shouted instruction to a team mate in the build-up to the goal - "Pass it to me, Sabino. I’ll crush them all", or words to that effect - which led to the national team being nicknamed the Furia Roja, or Red Fury. 

The goal proved a turning-point, and Spain ran out 2-1 winners, qualifying to meet Italy in the curtain-raiser for the gold-medal match the following day. 

Once again, the unremitting schedule led to several enforced personnel changes. Belauste was missing again, leading to full-back Pedro Vallana being appointed Spain’s third captain of the tournament. Arabolaza, the regular centre-forward, in Martialay’s words "could hardly walk" and was also omitted.

Injury took a further toll in the first half when forward Francisco Pagaza had to leave the field with a problem with his right knee, reducing the Spaniards to 10 men.

It was at this point that the team’s quicksilver inside-forwards joined the Olympic party. In the 43rd minute, one of them, Pichichi, the five-foot-one son of a Mayor of Bilbao, directed a pinpoint pass to the other, Barcelona’s Félix Sesúmaga, filling in at centre-forward, who smashed it home. He scored again halfway through the second half.

With the crowd swelling in anticipation of the gold-medal match that was set to follow, this second goal was to prove valuable insurance in light of the match’s dramatic conclusion.

With about 10 minutes to go, Zamora punched one of the Italian forwards, apparently in retaliation, and was immediately sent off. Not only did this reduce his team to nine players, it led to left-winger Silverio Izaguirre having to fill in as goalkeeper during the fraught final stages.

Lionel Messi poses with the Pichichi Trophy, awarded to La Liga's top scorer ©Getty Images
Lionel Messi poses with the Pichichi Trophy, awarded to La Liga's top scorer ©Getty Images

In the event, he succeeded in preserving his team’s clean sheet, perhaps aided by the close-range coaching he received from Zamora, who had been allowed to remain close to the goal on the sidelines.

If this, the appetiser, was packed with incident, the main course which followed - the gold-medal match between Belgium and Czechoslovakia – provoked a sensation.

Trailing 2-0 after half an hour, the East European team stormed off the field a little later, having had a man dismissed, in protest at the refereeing. They were subsequently disqualified from the tournament. 

This had major consequences for the Spaniards, as they licked their wounds, since it reduced the silver-medal competition to a straight fight between them and the Dutch, Belgium’s defeated semi-final opponents - and also, coincidentally, the team Spain beat in that World Cup final in 2010.

After a three-day interval, they returned to the Olympic Stadium and got the better of their orange-shirted adversaries by the score of 3-1 in probably their most comfortable win of the entire tournament.

The on-form Sesúmaga notched another brace, while Pichichi finished things off after their opponents had halved the arrears. It has to go down as one of the most satisfying ways in which any team or individual has clinched a silver medal in the whole of Olympic history.

To put the achievement in context, this was only the third Olympic medal Spain had won.

In 1900, José de Amézola and Francisco Villota had won gold in the archetypically Basque sport of pelota. Then, a few weeks before the football tournament, a Spanish polo team consisting of the Marquess of Villabraguima, the Duke of Peñaranda, the Count of La Maza and the Duke of Alba won the silver medals for polo at the Wellington Hippodrome in Ostend.

Sadly neither Pichichi nor Sesúmaga lived to enjoy their Olympic exploits for very long. Pichichi died of typhus in 1922; Sesúmaga of tuberculosis three years later.

Pichichi has attained an immortality of sorts in the form of the Pichichi Trophy, awarded each year to the top scorer in La Liga. Lionel Messi has so far won it seven times.