By Dan Parry
The Oxford Dictionary defines a hermit as ‘a person living in solitude as a religious discipline’.
For almost forty years Amadeo Labarta Rey and his family lived inside a small flat above the ticket offices in El Campo Municipal de Atotxa -the former home ground of Real Sociedad- whilst he performed his duties as caretaker.
It would be a stretch to label Amadeo Labarta a true hermit; he didn’t live inside the Atotxa for religious reasons as such and residing in a ground that would entertain almost 25,000 people every other weekend ensured he was never alone all too often. But his lifetime of service to his club, not only as a caretaker but also as a player and coach, does evoke images of those famous recluses.
Amadeo Labarta Rey was born in Pasai Antxo -a small town not far west from Donostia- in 1905, and his relationship with Real Sociedad began as a player. In 1925, the central midfielder was signed from his local town club, Español de Pasajes. He was convinced to sign the deal when Real Sociedad said they would match the 10 pesetas a day he was earning whilst working in a foundry.
Over the course of the next three years Amadeo established himself as an integral part of the side. One of his defining, and favourite career moments, came in 1928 when Real Sociedad took part in a 3-game Campeonato de España (Copa del Rey) final against Barcelona.
It was in a time before penalties were invented where the only way to gain a victory was to win a match outright. In the first two games Real Sociedad held the Catalan side to two 1-1 draws. The deciding match was played more than a month later and Barcelona won it 3-1.
Amadeo’s achievements with La Real led to him being selected to compete for the Spanish national side in the 1928 Olympic games. It was here that he would make his 3 international appearances, one against Mexico and the other two against Italy.
In the 28/29 season, Real Sociedad became one of the founding sides of La Liga. Amadeo continued to be a midfield stalwart until 1935 when the club – renamed Donostia FC in 1932 due to the newly elected Republican government banning public references to the monarchy- were relegated.
All in all, Amadeo had made 257 appearances for the txuri-urdin whilst scoring 4 goals. In addition to being an Olympian and reaching the final of the Copa, he also managed to win the Campeonato de Guipuzkoa 3 times.
After leaving La Real, Amadeo took up employment in the cod fishing industry. Whilst he perhaps would have liked to continue playing in some capacity he stated that his new ‘job absorbed so much of his time that he was unable to continue performing as a footballer‘.
The outbreak of civil war in 1936 and the nationalist invasion of The Basque Country saw Amadeo take up arms in defence. According to his sister Balbina, Amadeo was heavily involved in the fighting that took place during the Battle of Bilbao.
He was entrenched outside the town of Larrabetzu, presumably forming part of the ‘Cinturón de Hierro’ (Iron Ring) -a system of trenches, bunkers and tunnels that was supposed to encircle and defend Bilbao, but was eventually overrun by the better equipped nationalist forces.
Amadeo lost an eye in battle before being captured and detained. His sister seems to suggest that he was incarcerated in a temporary concentration camp and later moved on to Ondarreta prison in Donostia where he saw out the rest of the war.
The injuries Amadeo sustained in the fighting ensured his career had truly come to an end. As well as losing his eye, he had damaged his hands to such an extent that he was unable to tie up his own shoe laces. Therefore, at the age of 34, Amadeo called time on his playing career.
Once the war was over Amadeo returned to football again, but this time in a non-playing role. In 1942, he became the manager of Tercera División side Burgos CF before moving on to take the top job at CA Osasuna in 1946, where he stayed for two seasons.
In 1952, he took over as groundsman and caretaker of Atotxa. It was a position which gained him much notoriety. In Mi Abuela y Diez Más, author Ander Izagirre writes about the flower pots full of geraniums that could be seen dangling from the windows of Amadeo’s flat and how during the week it would not be unusual to see Amadeo’s mother hanging out the laundry on a line tied between two grandstands.
During an interview with Diario Vasco to celebrate Real Sociedad’s centenary, the legendary Alfredo Di Stefano was asked about his favourite memories of the club. Even he wasted no time in bringing up ‘el tuerto’ (The one-eyed man).
He made reference to how Amadeo ‘would flood the pitch in the parts where he felt it would hamper us most, the centre and the wings, so that we would be stranded in the mud.’
Amadeo may not have been a hermit, but he did live in his church and he did devote his life to Real Sociedad. It was a show of loyalty and dedication that is actually quite common behind the scenes in football but all too often goes unnoticed.
The old proverb says ‘home is where the heart is’. From 1925 until his death in 1989, Amadeo Labarta Rey’s home was a unique one but it was definitely where his heart belonged.
Photo courtesy of Paco Marín.