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  • Writer's pictureAngel Gracia

Soccer and Swimming

How many people know or remember that the World Cup was played in Spain in 1982 and that part of the games were in Zaragoza?

I just enjoyed the FIFA World Cup with my family and we were remembering my days as a player for the Atletico Universitario de Zaragoza, subsidiary to Real Zaragoza. I was set to move on to play for Real Zaragoza, but I had to leave due to my studies to become a veterinarian at the University of Zaragoza. So the University transferred me to a team with a funny name: Alesves de Villa Franca de Navarra.

Veterinary Faculty at the university

But getting to this stage was not easy. As kids, we were so poor that we played with a ball made of wadded-up newspapers tied together with a string. Now it seems like a joke. We considered ourselves to be privileged to have newspaper at all because even that was rare. My father would find them on trains or in the station because people tossed them on the ground. Of course, the newspaper had perhaps two pages, not at all like the ones today. Every so often we would break a window. Housewives hated us. Our ‘ball’ would last about a day and then it was time to make another one. A little later I began to play with real balls. In Spain we called them ‘balones’. I played for two teams, one invented and funded by us and the other by the priests. Ours was called San Jose and my brother and I were the bosses. It became a sort of league between villages. The other was from the La Salle school, where I was a student. The priests were the only ones that had good balls, but honestly, our street team was a lot more fun because after our games we played chess and organized dances with the village band. From Sunday to Sunday we, 15 or 16 members of the team, went on ‘tour’ to play against another village. We traveled by bus to a stop where the hosts of the place picked us up in a cart pulled by a horse. Rather, they picked up our basket where we were transporting the uniforms and we walked to the “court”. I say “court” because there was no lawn at all—only dirt. Of course, there was nowhere to shower and after the game we arrived at the dance covered in sweat and dust, but nobody cared.

When we returned home, we went straight to the newspaper (El Heraldo de Aragon) to give them our result of the match to be published. We never lost. If we won, we would tell the truth, but if we lost we would say a lie. That was our tactic. We had substitute players, like all teams. We called that group the San Jose B. If we lost, we told the newspaper that San Jose B was the team that had lost.

I was also a swimming champion at Club Helios, in Zaragoza. The Swimming Federation named me "Swimmer of the Year" throughout Aragon. We had a pool of 33 meters and naturally, the 50-meter pool belonged to the priests. Either way, it was too far away so I wouldn't be interested. Catholic Action, as the group was called, built two pools; one for men and one for women. What discrimination!

At first, I learned to swim freestyle by watching and imitating others. I started in the 14 and under group. We only swam during the 3 months of summer and we trained with a military coach. They called him Comandante La Figuera. Franco's regime was still strong and the military was everywhere. You would see them at the cinema to protect us and they would sit and watch the movie.

The commander arrived at the pool with his riding boots. I do not remember him as too strict, thank goodness. You simply did what you were told and that was that. In the pool I did not have to be disciplined because I liked it.

We had a great time at Helios because we were champions and they let us do what we wanted. I played Basque pelota with stolen balls and rowed in stolen boats. In the river there was a competition called The Crossing of the Ebro River as part of the festivities of the Hispanic Heritage week and the Virgin of the Pillar. Although there wasn't much to eat, we had a lot of fun. In the winter we also played basketball.

The photographer of the Real Zaragoza Club took pictures of us when we swam and we appeared in the newspapers. It gave us prestige.

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