There are some footballers who have gone down in the history of the game without having played many matches, scored many goals or won many titles. Sometimes a single moment of inspiration is all that is needed to achieve footballing immortality, or even, in the case of Spain’s very first national team captain, a rallying cry.
His name was Jose Maria Belausteguigoitia Laudaluce, though he was better known as Belauste, and his defining contribution to the Spanish game came at a crucial juncture of a match against Sweden at the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament Antwerp 1920, a competition in which Spain were making their international debut.
“Give me the ball, Sabino. I’ll flatten them!,” are the legendary words Belauste is said to have uttered, though that is just one of several versions. Whatever the case may be, Sabino Bilbao, the player to whom those unequivocal instructions were directed, carried them out, pumping the ball forward to his skipper.
Standing an imposing 6’4 (1.93m) tall and weighing in at over 90kgs, Belauste “burst through the opposition like a hurricane”, in the words of the journalist Manuel de Castro, alias Hándicap, who doubled up at the Antwerp Games as a referee’s assistant and was the only Spanish reporter present that distant September afternoon.
Forcing his way through the Swedish rearguard, Belauste headed the ball into the net and, unable to check his momentum, went flying in with it, taking the goalkeeper and three defenders along with him. The Basque midfielder’s goal brought Spain level in what was only their third official international match, their first having come only four days earlier against Denmark. After restoring parity, the Spanish went on to win 2-1, thanks to Domingo Gomez Acedo’s strike, taking a step closer to the silver medal that would be theirs at the end of the competition.
A physical game Belauste captained Spain for just three matches, the duration of his entire international career. Back in those days, the game was amateur, pitches were muddy and tackles were strong, to say the least, with players often trudging off the pitch looking as if they had endured 90 minutes of hand-to-hand combat. The Antwerp Games were no exception, with matters being made worse by the fact that Spain had to contest their five matches in the space of a week.
Though he never shirked a challenge and had the physique of a wrestler or a rugby player, Belauste came off the pitch so bruised and battered on occasion that doing it all over again the very next day was just not possible.
One of the games he was forced to miss in Antwerp was probably the one played after the above photo was taken. That would explain why he is wearing an eyecatching hat on his head rather than his habitual knotted handkerchief, similar to the one sported in the picture by the legendary goalscorer Pichichi, his club-mate at Athletic Bilbao.
A deceptive appearance Those three games were all it took for the Basque giant to secure his place in Spanish footballing history, however, and all because of that cry for the ball. It led to a goal and a performance that had the Belgian press dubbing Spain la furia roja (“The Red Fury”), the very name given to the Spanish troops who sacked Flanders in the 17th century, destroying everything in their path. The nickname stuck, and has been attached to the national team ever since.
Despite his appearance and big frame, the player who inspired that moniker was a man of culture. The youngest of nine children in a well-to-do family, Belauste studied law, the profession he would go into after playing his last game for Athletic in 1925, and married Dolores Zuloaga, the niece of the famous Basque painter Ignacio Zuloaga.
Aside from his interest in culture and art, Belauste was also very active on the political scene. Despite being a fiercely committed player for Spain, his ideological beliefs, linked to Basque nationalism, ultimately led to him being forced into exile after the Spanish civil war. He died of cancer in Mexico at the age of 75.
96 years on from Belauste’s legendary goal, Spain rely far more on neat possession football than they do on fury, though that Olympic silver on debut and the cry that inspired it still have an important place in the country’s footballing history.