Few footballing nations have a relationship with their goalkeepers as Spain have with theirs. Many of the national team’s most iconic and well-known characters have played between the posts for La Roja and the country has sustained a production line of world-class goalkeepers to this very day. Jimmy Burns notes that the Spanish goalkeeper inevitably has been caught up in the figure of Don Quixote – a saviour when he is playing well and someone to blame when things go wrong.
Naturally there is one man to blame and, in Quixotic fashion, he can be blamed for both inspiring a generation of Spanish goalkeepers and creating the lofty ambition so many fail to live up to. That man is El Divino himself, Ricardo Zamora.
Outside of just being a fantastic goalkeeper, Zamora was huge presence in the Spanish game throughout his playing career. With Spanish football only beginning to professionalise, Zamora was the game’s first true hero, starring in movies and advertisements and demanding unprecedented prices for his services. His story is a thrilling one, both on and off the pitch.
Zamora’s tale begins in Barcelona where the youngster grew up and learnt his trade as a goalkeeper on the streets of the Catalan city. His parents were unimpressed with their son’s hobby as he consistently returned with ripped clothes and cuts from protecting his clean sheet. His father was hopeful that his son would grow out of football and follow him into medicine. In 1913, Zamora was sent to university, where he ended up joining the local team and, at 14, he encountered Barcelona founder Joan Gamper who, encouraged the young shot-stopper to continue with football.
Despite Gamper’s words of encouragement, Barcelona weren’t Zamora’s first club. Instead it was with their cross-town rivals Español who El Divino opened his career with, making his debut as a skinny 16-year-old. In true amateur style, the usual starting goalkeeper, Pere Gibert, was busy and couldn’t make it, so the club approached Zamora to replace him. The youngster had to wear trousers on the train over to Madrid to hide his whippet legs, and when the team arrived at the hostel, Zamora asked his teammate, Armet, if he’d share his room with him because he was afraid of sleeping alone.
Nonetheless, Zamora impressed against Los Blancos – who were led by Santiago Bernabéu – and stole the starting spot off Gibert. He stayed with Español until 1919, winning the Campionat de Catalunya in 1918. After falling out with one of the club directors, he left for Barcelona. The following year he was selected to play for Spain in the Olympics, the national team’s first tournament. He made his debut in La Roja’s first full international, a 1-0 win over Denmark in the first round, and was considered the revelation of the tournament by the French press as Spain finished runners-up to hosts Belgium.
Though impressive throughout, Zamora’s Olympics were far from straightforward. He was sent off in the silver medal match against Italy for punching an opposing player and was also caught smuggling cigars across the Belgian border, getting the entire team arrested and searched before they could return to Spain.
Returning to club football, Zamora began to earn his nickname El Divino as he helped Barcelona to two Copa del Rey titles and three Campionats de Catalunya. Zamora boasted an acute sense of anticipation which saw him charge down attackers within his own box. He was tall and strong, too, making him an imposing goalkeeper for the oncoming attacker. With the ball, he used his vision to great effect launching counter-attacks well away from his goal line. One South American journalist wrote: “With Zamora in the goal, the net would shrink, and the posts would lose themselves in the distance.”
After three years at Barca, Zamora’s stint at the club came to a typically controversial ending. In June 1922, rumours appeared in the Spanish press that he had asked Barcelona for a wage of 50,000 pesetas. A back and forth carried on until August when Zamora decided to move back to Español. In revenge, Barcelona rejected the transfer and the courts agreed, banning Zamora for a year. Once returning from his ban, Zamora remained at Español until 1930, helping the club to win their first Copa del Rey title and played out their first LaLiga season in 1929, finishing seventh.
In 1930, he was in goal as Spain became the first side outside of the British Isles to beat England, at the Estadio Metropolitano de Madrid. Zamora wasn’t particularly impressive and was at fault for two of England’s three goals on the night as the Spaniards triumphed 4-3. However, he earned huge plaudits when it came to light that he had played the match with a broken sternum. The performance was enough for Madrid FC to fork out an astronomical 150,00 pesetas, 50,000 of the fee going to Zamora personally, making him the highest paid player in Europe.
After recovering from a broken collarbone in his first season at the club, Zamora linked up with Los Blancos centre-backs Ciriaco and Quincoces to form an iron-tight defence. Madrid romped to their very first league title that season, unbeaten in the ten-team table and conceding just 15 goals in 18 matches. The following season they retained the title, conceding 17 goals this time.
In 1934, Zamora travelled with the national team to Italy where Spain competed in their first World Cup. They defeated Brazil in the opening round, going up 3-0 in the first half an hour before Leonidas seemed to spark a late comeback for the Canarys. Waldemar de Brito had a chance to make it 3-2 from the penalty spot, but instead he became the first person to miss a penalty at a World Cup as Zamora denied Brazil a late revival.
They faced Italy in the next round and, despite taking an early lead, the Italians battled-both literally and figuratively to a draw, dragging the game into a replay. The ABC match report described the game as “increasingly violent” and the fierce tackling had taken its toll on Zamora. Spain’s talisman missed the replay through injury and Spain lost 1-0; a bitter disappointment for La Roja.
There was little respite on the club front for Zamora as Madrid finished the next three LaLiga seasons as runners-up. However, they were able to make up for those disappointments in 1934 and 1936 when they won the Copa del Presidente de la República, the new name for the Copa del Rey. The 1936 final was Zamora’s last official game before the Spanish Civil War and proved to be his most iconic performance.
Madrid faced Barcelona at the Mestalla and looked set for an easy afternoon as they went 2-0 up early on. Josep Escolà pegged one back for Barcelona, setting up a nail-biting finale. In the final moments of the match, Escolà let off a powerful shot that looked destined to beat Zamora only for the goalkeeper to emerge from the dust with the ball in his hands. ABC described the save as “inexplicable”.
The final whistle blew shortly after and Zamora was hoisted onto his teammates’ shoulders and treated to a standing ovation from the fans. The image of that save taken from near the far post remains the most iconic image of Zamora and perhaps the most iconic image of a goalkeeper ever.
The Civil War saw football suspended for three years in Madrid, but Zamora’s story doesn’t end there. At the outbreak of the war, he encountered a militiaman hell bent on killing him for being a right-wing extremist, as Zamora occasionally contributed to a conservative Catholic newspaper called Ya. Suddenly, Zamora’s assailant dropped his knife and embraced him, identifying himself as a Madrid fan. The two men discussed all the great saves that Zamora had made for Madrid in the preceding years and parted company the best of friends.
A few days later, Zamora was arrested and sent to Moledo Prison in Madrid. A report in Seville claimed he had been executed by the Republicans. However, Zamora managed to survive the firing squad due to his celebrity statues and the odd match that the jailors and prisoners would play in the prison yard.
An international campaign in France earned Zamora a ticket out of jail and he hid in the Madrid embassy, using disguises to get around as he awaited safe passage to France. One day he was recognised on the street, but thankfully it was by another Madrid fan so safe passage was secured and Zamora was smuggled out of Spain. In France, he met up with childhood friend and Barça teammate Josep Samitier, seeing out the rest of his career with Nice.
When it became clear the Nationalists were going to win the war, Zamora returned to Spain and took part in a benefit match for soldiers in December 1938. He started writing occasionally for the nationalist newspaper Marca, and the Order or Republic recipient was awarded the Great Cross of the Order of Cisneros for leaving Barcelona and identifying himself as a Spaniard during the 1950s.
Zamora died in 1978, leaving the entire country in mourning. In 46 appearances for his country, he conceded just 42 goals and, in 1958, Marca began to award the Trofeo Ricardo Zamora to the goalkeeper with the lowest goals-to-games ratio.
One could write endlessly eulogizing Zamora and his impact on Spanish football but thankfully one single quote, a common saying throughout Spain, aptly captures the legendary shot-stopper: “There are only two goalkeepers: Ricardo Zamora on Earth and St Peter in heaven.”
By Kristofer McCormack @K_mc06