The fondly remembered Ricardo Zamora is an unmistakable figure even to modern-day football fans. The legendary goalkeeper, who made his name in the 1920s and '30s with a string of gravity-defying saves and heroic performances, was one of the game’s early trendsetters, taking to the pitch in a natty cap and, depending on the time of year, a turtleneck or V-neck sweater.

Dubbed El Divino on account of his divine interventions between the posts, Zamora had all the attributes great No1s possess: feline reflexes, nerves of steel, strength of character and a safe pair of hands. What also set him apart from his goalkeeping contemporaries was an unshakeable belief in his own abilities, a belief that gave rise to a save he patented as his own: La Zamorana, an unorthodox and risky stop executed with his forearm or elbow.  

Starring at a time when Spain were not exactly short of fine glovemen, Zamora gained a reputation for excellence that is reflected today by the awarding of the Trofeo Zamora to the keeper with the lowest goals-to-games ratio each season in La Liga.

He can also be considered the first Spanish player to acquire a media profile, lending his distinctive image to early advertising campaigns and products in the 1930s. These included a much sought-after collection of cards for children, which, when placed in order and turned rapidly created an animation of a flying Zamora save.

Breaking a medical promise
Zamora started to play football when the sport was still very much in its infancy in Spain. At the age of 16 he signed for Espanyol, but left for rivals Barcelona following an argument with the board in 1919. In making his way in the game he defied the wishes of his family, who wanted him to follow in his father’s footsteps by pursuing a career in medicine.

“I’d promised my parents I’d give up football and complete my studies,” Zamora later recalled. “But I kept meeting up with my friends for games, and then I had a visit from the Barça directors. It didn’t take long for them to convince me to pull my boots and gloves back on.”

Zamora would spend three seasons with Barcelona, winning his first titles with the Catalans. Espanyol then lured him back with an attractive offer, and it was with Los Periquitos that he appeared in the first two seasons of the new Spanish league, founded in 1928.

In 1930, Zamora signed for Real Madrid in what was a then-record Spanish transfer deal, Los Blancos paying 100,000 pesetas to Espanyol and 50,000 to the player, who also received a monthly salary of 3,000 pesetas (€600, €300 and €18 respectively). At the time, it was the kind of money paid only to government ministers.

Zamora played for Real for six seasons through to his retirement in 1936. In that time he won two league championships and two Copas del Rey, and would have won his eponymous trophy twice had it been in existence, conceding only 15 goals in 17 games in 1932, and two goals more in 18 matches the following season.

There are only two goalkeepers: Ricardo Zamora on Earth and St Peter in Heaven.
A popular Spanish saying

He bowed out with a truly memorable performance in his final game as a professional, the 1936 Copa del Rey final against Barcelona, played at the Mestalla in Valencia only a month before the Spanish Civil War broke out. Zamora was the hero of Real’s 2-1 win, capping his display with a barely believable save to deny Josep Escola in the closing stages and earning effusive praise in the following day’s newspaper reports: “Zamora preserved Madrid’s lead with a memorable stop, saving them from a potentially hazardous finale.” Even the Catalan press was moved to salute the peerless shotstopper, one newspaper hailing “the intuition of one of the greatest Spanish footballers of all time.”

Zamora also earned international renown, playing a fundamental part in the silver medal Spain secured when beating the Netherlands in the Consolation Final at the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament Antwerp 1920, their first major success.

At the end of La Roja’s opening game of that competition, a 1-0 victory over Denmark in which he made his international debut, Zamora was carried out of the stadium in recognition of his heroic display in goal. That performance gave rise to the famous rhyming expression, 'uno-cero y Zamora de portero' (1-0 and Zamora in goal), a reflection of his ability to keep clean sheets.

Zamora captained his country at the 1934 FIFA World Cup Italy™, where Spain fell in a quarter-final play-off against the hosts and eventual champions. The last of his 46 international appearances came in a friendly against Germany in his home town of Barcelona in February 1936, at which point his career was cut short by the Spanish Civil War. Captured after an order went out for his arrest, he was held prisoner at the Modelo jail in Barcelona before being exiled from Spain.

When he returned to his country and the sport he loved following the war’s conclusion he did so as a coach, taking charge of Atletico Aviacion for six seasons, during which time he won two league titles. Further stints in the dugout followed at Malaga, Celta Vigo and Espanyol, and he also took charge of the Spanish and Venezuelan national teams.

Zamora’s legend has endured since those distant black-and-white days and lives on in the collective imagination of the Spanish footballing family. Such were the talents of El Divino that he warranted comparison with another celestial custodian, according to a popular saying: 'There are only two goalkeepers: Ricardo Zamora on Earth and St Peter in Heaven.'

And by the time the great goalie passed away in 1978, his place in the pantheon of goalkeeping Gods had long since been secure.