That time an African team played in Spain’s La Liga

Moghreb Athlétic de Tétouan, circa 1952

The all-time Spanish Primera División table holds in it remarkable stories of Spanish football history. The standings unearth past epochs of preeminence and point to many of the shifts in power to occur over the course of La Liga history since the league was established in 1922. Athletic Bilbao’s fourth place position is an apt reminder of the force the Basque club was in the 1980s under Javier Clemente. Villareal, who are now considered a permanent member of the Spanish top-flight, sit in a surprising 21st place beneath five clubs currently competing in the Segunda, including ninth place Real Zaragoza. And while Atlético Madrid are currently capable of giving anyone across Europe a game, a comfortable points margin continues to distance the club from first and second place Real Madrid and Barcelona.

But there is also romance near the bottom of Spain’s all-time table. Second from last with 5,308 points separating them from Real Madrid is Atlético Tetuán, whose time in La Liga is an overlooked yet fascinating tale in Spanish football and colonial history. The club was founded in 1922 in the Moroccan Rif Mountains in the city of Tetouan by a group of Basque Atlético Madrid supporters residing in the North African colonial protectorate. Atlético Tetuán’s stint in Spanish football would be short lived, splitting in 1956 following Morocco’s independence to form AD Ceuta and Moghreb Tetouan. Today, Moghreb Tetouan remains the only African club ever to hold a spot in a top-flight European football league.

The club enjoyed a solitary season in the Primera División in 1951-52 after nearly three decades of lower division play. It was a season overshadowed by one of Barcelona’s most successful and legendary sides: the forward pair of László Kubala and  César Rodríguez Álvarez helped haul in five trophies for the Catalonian club, including the Primera title. Tetuán would lose both of their meetings with Barca 5-2 and 3-2 and suffer relegation after finishing bottom of the table with a mere 19 points. The club’s away form was utterly dreadful: Tetuán lost 14 of their 15 away trips, including an 8-0 battering to Atlético Madrid and a 7-0 loss to Celta Vigo. Tetuán would only capture away points to RC Deportivo, winning 3-2 and featuring goals by Chicha, Moreno, and Patricio.

Tetuán’s home ground in contrast proved to be a stubborn setting for mainland clubs visiting North Africa. The club avenged their loss to brother club Atlético Madrid by netting four goals to one. Real Madrid’s only visit to Tetuán would end in a 3-3 draw after the hosts led at halftime 3-1 thanks to a brace from midfielder Julian Garcia. Tetuán would concede a goal on the 89th minute mark and flounder their chance in securing a historic victory. Real Madrid star Pahiño, who would capture one of his two Zichichi trophies in the 1952 season, was however kept quiet and off the scoresheet.

The stalemate with Real Madrid continues to occupy a special place in Moghreb Tetouan lore. The Moroccan side nearly came within reach of settling the draw in last year’s Club World Cup until they were eliminated in the tournament’s playoff round. The rematch would have made for a particularly testy affair: Tetouan continues to play in red and white stripes and blue shorts, and the city still boasts a strong support for Los Colchoneros. With the club recently winning Moroccan Botola titles in 2012 and 2014 and competing in the CAF Champions League, Moghreb Tetouan continue to aim for a decisive encounter with Real Madrid to settle the longstanding deadlock.

*Note: Tetuan is the Spanish transliteration of Tetouan. The club’s name changed to Moghreb Athletic Tetouan in 1956. Use of the latter refers to the present-day Moroccan club.

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