Following the World Cup, Real Madrid will make their sixteenth appearance in the United States in the second edition of the Guinness International Champions Cup satiating many American’s hunger to witness their favourite club. Real’s feat of selling out 100,000-plus seat Michigan Stadium – home of the University of Michigan Football team – against Manchester United during this year’s Guinness International Champions Cup attests to their popularity.
What many fans fail to realise is that Real Madrid first visited the United States long before they were an attraction within Spain, let alone the Galacticos that have dominated world football.
In an effort to ‘promote Spanish football’ in North and South America, the Castilian club first visited the United States during the ‘golden age’ of American Soccer in September 1927. Despite interest from around the country to host the Spaniards, Real only featured in one game in the United States. Originally scheduled to meet the American Soccer League’s Brooklyn Wanderers, Real eventually sparred with an unlikely challenger in fellow Spanish compatriots Galicia FC (GFC), a New York City amateur club with lofty ambitions.
In 1927, soccer was at the peak of its popularity in the United States despite growing tensions between the United States Football Association (USFA) and the American Soccer League (ASL). Though the nucleus of the game was still the Northeast, the game flourished in city leagues throughout the country, with the cities of Chicago and St. Louis at the fore.
Highlighting the popularity of the game, the city of New York had a copious amount of clubs at various levels from amateur sides to professional clubs, including three in the ASL: the New York Giants, Indiana Flooring, and the Brooklyn Wanderers. Within its legion of clubs, New York was home to many ethnic clubs that competed in the city’s International Soccer League (ISL), chief among them the Spanish club Galicia FC.
In addition to the growing amount of clubs and leagues within the country, the United States was also a budding destination for foreign clubs during their offseason. In 1927 four clubs in addition to Real – Hakoah Vienna (Czechoslovakia), Maccabi Tel Aviv (Palestine), Nacional (Uruguay), and Worchester (England) – visited America in 1927 playing in games from New York to Chicago.
Though most of the visiting clubs tended to play ASL clubs or city all-star teams, a few amateur clubs, like GFC, also made it on the visitors’ schedules. Galicia’s meeting with Real Madrid came down to the decision of one man, Nathan “Nat” Agar, the ASL’s Brooklyn Wanderers owner.
Nat Agar was quite a force with American soccer circles in 1927. In addition to owning the Wanderers, he was an official in the New York State Football Association, and the President of the ISL.
The Brooklyn Eagle liked to refer to Agar as one of the games magnates. After all, Agar helped catapult the sport into national consciousness when he brought Hakoah Vienna of Czechoslovakia to the United States for a series of games in 1926 – they drew 46,000 fans to their fourth game of their tour setting a record for soccer attendance in the US that would not be broken for fifty years when Pele joined the New York Cosmos.
In addition to convincing Hakoah to return in 1927, Agar was instrumental in bringing over Club Nacional of Uruguay, Maccabi FC of Tel Aviv, Palestine, and Real Madrid, spending a hefty sum in the process.
Of the teams Agar brought to the United States in 1927, Real Madrid’s visit was the least exciting from a public relations perspective, which is understandable due to Real’s relative anonymity outside of Spain at the time – the creation of La Liga, Spain’s professional league, was still two years away.
The media extensively covered each club’s visit, save for Real’s, but the visiting Uruguayans really stood out amongst the visitors for two reasons. First, the press erroneously referred to Nacional as the Uruguayan Olympic team throughout their visit because Nacional consisted of many members of Uruguay’s 1924 gold medal winning Olympic team.
The erroneous reports bolstered Nacional’s profile considerably throughout their stay making them the club that set the standard for the visiting clubs that followed. Second, among Nacional’s Olympians was defensive midfielder Jose Leandro Andrade the first black footballer to play in the Olympics. By competing against ASL clubs, Andrade became one of the first black soccer players to compete at the professional level in the United States.
Between April 30 and May 30, Andrade and Nacional eventually played thirteen games in the US with three games taking place at Ebbet’s Field in New York against Agar’s Wanderers. The three games against the Wanderers drew over 35,000 fans collectively, which may have spurred Agar’s interest in staging games between touring clubs and Brooklyn clubs to attract more fans, and ultimately make more money off his investment.
After all, Agar was the man bringing the foreign clubs to the US, and in the end, GFC benefitted from Agar’s position as ISL President and from his inclusion of non-ASL clubs on touring calendars.
Concrete origins of Galicia FC are hard to come by. Galicians founded Galicia Sporting Club (GSC) in 1922 or 1923, and fielded a soccer team upon the club’s formation.
Given the popularity of the game within America’s ethnic communities, GFC formed the backbone of the club almost immediately after GSC’s inception. The club lost in the final of the first edition of the Everlast Cup – a soccer tournament limited to Spanish teams within New York City – in 1923, which proved to be the nadir of the clubs fortunes, as GFC soon became a powerhouse within New York City’s amateur leagues.
They won the Everlast Cup the following year, entered the US Open Cup tournament, and captured the Southern New York State Football Association Cup in the spring of 1926. Adding to the list of the club’s growing accomplishments, GFC also went undefeated within New York City’s (ISL) during the 1925-26 season. Needless to say, the club earned the right to face more challenging competition by the fall of 1926.
GFC finally gained an opportunity to compete against better competition on November 1, 1926 when they met reigning Czechoslovakian champions AC Sparta Praha at David’s Stadium Field in Newark, NJ.
The game was the last of a two-month long, sixteen game tour for the Bohemian club that produced many fights and the suspension of club captain Antonin Perner by the USFA.
Whether Sparta’s loss of their captain or the length or their tour affected them cannot be known, but Galicia FC was able to earn a 1-1 draw against the Czechoslovak champions. Sparta’s tally was due to a Galicia FC own goal.
The positive result heavily contributed to the Spanish club’s future fixtures and eventually helped net the club a meeting with Real Madrid.
With their sudden ascent from newly formed Spanish club to their draw with AC Sparta Praha, Galicia FC became a known quantity amongst New York’s soccer leagues and a viable opponent for Nat Agar’s Brooklyn Wanderers.
Just weeks after the Galicians drew Sparta; Agar pitted the Wanderers against GFC on December 5, 1926. Soon after, Agar started sending the Wanderers second team to play against GFC. Agar even suited up against GFC in a July 1927 exhibition contest. By the time, Agar faced GFC; the Spaniards had already cemented their place within New York’s soccer circles, and proved their ambition after the Galicia Sporting Club announced they would host a dinner to honour Club Nacional.
GFC’s success on the field and their growing ambition – GSC reserved chartered a French steamship for a GFC tour of Spain during the summer of 1928 with a $10,000 (roughly $135,800 today) deposit in August of 1927 – must have endeared the club to Agar as the club soon found itself competing against the Wanderers on an active basis, and squaring off against the likes of Maccabi FC and Real Madrid.
Led by club President Luis de Urquijo and their recently retired striker Santiago Bernabeu, Real Madrid embarked on an extensive tour of the Americas during the summer of 1927 (though it is unclear whether Santiago made the trip, he certainly supported expanding Real’s influence).
At the time, Real was transitioning from an amateur to a professional club – again the formation of the professional Spanish league, La Liga, was a couple of years away. The common stated goal of the tour was to promote Spanish soccer within the Americas, but aficionados within the United States, led by Spanish expatriates undoubtedly, were well aware of Spanish clubs at least two years prior to their New York visit.
In fact, people within the USFA were interested in bringing over a professional Spanish club as early as January 1926. The problem was that at the time there were not any professional clubs within Spain and the Spanish Football Association were apprehensive in sending over any clubs. Real Madrid’s visit, though incredibly brief, undoubtedly satisfied some people within American soccer’s desire to compete against a premier Spanish team.
Prior to arriving in New York in late September 1927, Real Madrid played several games against clubs from Buenos Aires, Havana, Lima, and Mexico City. Sources differ on the amount of games played by Real prior to their arrival in New York, but all sources agree that they won more games during their American tour than they drew or lost.
In addition to a game in New York, the press reported that Real would meet with multiple clubs throughout the US as far west as Chicago.
ASL clubs in New York and Boston sought games with the Spaniards, but in the end, Real scheduled two games in the US upon their departure from Mexico on September 17; Nat Agar’s Brooklyn Wanderers and ISL champion Galicia FC – who were unquestionably included on Real’s schedule due to Nat Agar.
The reasons for Real’s lack of games within the US was not documented, but the USFA’s and Spanish Football Association’s inability to agree on the sanctioning of competitions against the United States professional clubs and Spain’s amateur clubs may have played a role in Real’s two scheduled fixtures in New York.
Prior to leaving Mexico, the Castilian club requested the USFA’s permission to compete against several other clubs including Chicago’s AC Sparta, and the ASL’s Indian Flooring, in addition to the Brooklyn Wanderers. Eventually Real’s two scheduled fixtures in New York dwindled to one as the club left Mexico. Real was scheduled to meet Agar’s Wanderers, but that too would soon change.
Unsurprisingly, Nat Agar was in charge of Real Madrid’s US visit. He was the one who sponsored and scheduled every foreign club’s visit to that point, and his stature within the American soccer scene undoubtedly contributed in his ability to schedule his Wanderers against Real in late September.
Though the reasons for the constant changes in Real’s US schedule are not entirely clear, it is apparent that Agar was determined to bring the Spanish club to New York. In a surprisingly gallant gesture, Agar conceded the Wanderers meeting with Real Madrid to the growing Spanish club GFC while Real were in route to New York.
The Galicia Sporting Club met the gesture with much appreciation and an honorary dinner held at the Hotel Pennsylvania in honour of their visiting royal guests. Interest in the game was high even though Real remained a relative unknown quantity just days before the matchup. The only indication of Real’s talent appeared in The New York Times just days before the game against GFC when the newspaper noted that Real had eight internationals competing with the club.
Unbeknownst to Americans at the time, the Castilians brought several players from different Spanish club for their American tour and one would score a goal during their stop in New York City. Despite the anonymity of the club and the constant uncertainty surrounding their visit, the matchup between Real and GFC proved to be a popular affair as a crowd of up to 10,000 fans was expected at Hawthorn Field for the all-Spanish fixture.
After weeks of speculation, Real Madrid finally debuted on American soil meeting Galicia FC on September 24 in Brooklyn, New York.
In front of just around 5000 fans, including the Spanish Consul of New York, Spanish international Patricio Escobal and future Real legend Jose Maria Pena paced Madrid against the amateur GFC eleven. Perhaps exhausted due to the length and uncertainty of their tour, Madrid found themselves on the receiving end of GFC’s attack early in the first half.
Galicia’s constant pressure resulted in a goal in the fourteenth minute by inside-right Vega. GFC’s form held true for the remainder of the first half, but the visiting Castilians finally found their form and equalized seventeen minutes after the start of the second half on a goal from guest player Travieso of Atletico Bilbao.
The game finished a 1-1 draw as GFC once again held their own against superior competition. The star of the game, according to the New York newspapers, was Madrid winger Felix Perez Marcos whose skill on the ball “frequently caused the crowd to burst forth into enthusiastic applause.”
In the end the game was a small affair compared to the other foreign teams that invaded America in 1927 and was soon swallowed up by the action taking place within the ASL in New York’s newspapers.
In the end, Real’s short visit allowed little time for the club to make a lasting impression on the American public as Real sailed for Spain the day after their encounter with GFC. Madrid did not to return to the United States for another thirty-two years.
Despite Real’s mediocre first US visit, the American tour proved to be the first stroke of genius by Santiago Bernabeu who would propel the club to unparalleled success after the Spanish Civil War as President of the club until his death in 1978.
In his lifetime, Bernabeu would witness Real go from a small amateur team to European powerhouse. A club that can claim millions of American fans today.
Meanwhile, Nat Agar would continue to be a significant fixture in American soccer for another year until he disappeared from the game following his suspension by the USFA in 1928 during the country’s “Soccer War.”
Following their meeting with Real Madrid, GFC continued to grow. The Galician club’s ambition knew no bounds following their royal encounter. By the end of 1927, Galicia Sporting Club spent well over $100,000 (over $1.3 Million today) on a building at 109-111 East Fifteenth Street in Manhattan to serve as a clubhouse for the burgeoning Galician organization. GFC would continue to compete in New York’s amateur leagues for another twenty years before combining with Brookhattan FC to compete in the second edition of the ASL.
By Grant Czubinski
This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona