If you were to pay a visit to the Saniat R’mel Stadium in the Moroccan City of Tetouan on match day, you would be forgiven for thinking you were watching a lower league Spanish side.
The venue is actually home to Maghreb Athletic Tetouan of the Botola League, but there is a distinctly Spanish theme present amongst the club’s fanatical supporters. From the banners honouring “Los Matadores” (the matadors) and the passionately-waved Spanish flags, to the replica shirts of Athletic Bilbao and Athletico Madrid that echo the red and white colours of the home team, the tributes are commonplace on the terraces.
This blatant nod to the league of their neighbours across the Mediterranean Sea is by no means a simplistic show of admiration. It is in fact a nostalgic evocation of a unique and proud past – a past which saw the team nicknamed “The White Doves” become the only foreign club ever to play in La Liga.
This remarkable fairytale became a reality in the 1951/1952 season. And although Tetouan only got to rub shoulders with the best teams in Spain for one season, the event remains a proud and enduring moment in the club’s history, as well as a badge of honour for their fans.
The origins of the club can be traced back to 1918 when a merger of three local teams saw the formation of Athletic Club, but it wasn’t until 1922 that the foundation of the club was officially recognised. The Spanish influence was evident even back in those early days; the clubs colours are said to be inspired by Atletico Madrid’s kit, while their shield is reportedly a re-working of Athletic Bilbao’s. This inspiration was an obvious by-product of the Spanish Protectorate of North Morocco that existed at the time. And the club’s founders took full advantage of this by signing footballers who were conscripted in Tetouan at the time. One of the original directors, Fernando Villavicencio, had in fact played for Atletico Madrid.
By 1933, the club became known as Atletico Tetouan and played in the North Moroccan League, winning the title in only their second season – a feat they equalled in 1936 with a line-up consisting of Guash, Fernandez, Otilio, Rojas, Cuenca, Andrew Matthew, Maquinay, Granados, Paco Mateo, Trinchart and Puente. This success in the North Moroccan League gave them the opportunity to play in the Spanish Cup and face the mighty teams from the peninsula for the very first time.
During the Civil War, football was suspended and by the time it was over, many players were lost or did not return to the club. However, after a couple of seasons of re-building, they soon returned to winning ways and by 1942, they were once again crowned champions of North Morocco. It was during the same season that the Spanish league was re-structured, giving Atletico the chance to earn a place in the third tier of Spanish Football – a feat they achieved in 1944 through a play-off system. This promotion marked the beginning of a brief but memorable odyssey that would take them all the way to the top flight of Spanish Football.
During that first season in Spain they faced Hercules, Cadiz, Malaga, Coria, Algeciras, Linares, ONUB, Cordoba, Jaen and Olympic Linense Balompedica, and finished in a commendable fifth place. In the following season they found things much tougher and were eventually relegated after finishing bottom. Despite this setback, it did not take them long to return and after beating Cadiz in another play-off, they were back in the Third Division.
Three years later, the ascension continued as they gained promotion to the Second Division where they faced Albacete, Alcoyano, Balompedica Linense, Cartagena, Castellon, Cordoba, Elche, Granada, Hercules, Levante, Mallorca, Mestalla, Murcia, Ultra Plus and Salamanca. Despite being newcomers, they pushed for their ultimate dream of promotion to La Liga but ultimately fell short, finishing in a respectable fifth place. The team from that season consisted of Pachon, Larosi, Humanes, Cabello, Ramoní, Sevilla, Antonito, Solano, Bozambo, Pepin and Mancheno.
It was in the following season (1950/1951) that they finally achieved their dream and were promoted to La Liga as champions of the second division. What had once seemed so far-fetched and improbable had now been achieved, as they took their well-earned place amongst the elite of Spanish football. Older fans of Atletico, still remember the names of Hurtado, Pachon, Castillo, Humanes, Seisdedos, Alarcon, Jaco, Solano, Marti-Gimeno, Sevilla, Vivet, Patricio, Manolin, Moreno, Chicha, Julian and Antonito as the heroes of 1951.
Life in La Liga was never going to be easy for Atletico and after an opening day home defeat to Real Zaragoza, it soon became apparent that survival was going to be a struggle. Their biggest problem came away from home where they lost all but one of their games.
However, the one game that stood out that season was the home tie against the mighty Real Madrid. On a beautiful January afternoon in front of the Jalifa and the High Commissioner, Solano (Captain of Atletico) proudly presented a pennant to Real Madrid legend Miguel Munoz. The atmosphere was electric (in what was then known as Estadio Varela) and the Atletico players were clearly inspired by the occasion. They dominated the first half, much to the delight of the crowd, and reached the break with a 3-1 advantage. There was now a genuine belief that they could go on and win the game. But inevitably, Real Madrid fought back, and despite the valiant efforts of Atletico, the superior fitness and technical ability of Los Blancos eventually paid off and the game finished 3-3.
Atletico finished the season bottom of the league and were duly relegated. They continued to perform well in the Second Division for a couple of seasons until the independence of Morocco brought an end to their Spanish adventure, both on and off the pitch. Suddenly the dream was a fading memory and the club was split in two. One half merged with SD Cueta to form Club Atletico Cueta, who continued to play in the Spanish League until their later demise. Meanwhile, Atletico Tetouan went back to the Moroccan League and eventually became known as Maghreb Athletic Tetouan, the name they still use to this day.
Fifty years on from that glorious season, there are still a few souls who remember making those epic journeys across land and sea to watch their beloved team play in the famous stadiums of Spain. There are also a new generation of supporters who take great pride in reminding anyone who may have forgotten that this is a club with a truly unique past.