Sabino Barinaga: From war to glory

Sabino Barinaga, also known as ‘El Inglés de Durango’, was the first player to score in the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu.

Sabino is one of the most fascinating figures in the history of Basque football and led an extraordinary life, making his mark in the UK, Spain and beyond.

Born in Durango, Bizkaia on August 15, 1922, Sabino was still a child when German and Italian forces bombed his hometown at the invitation of General Franco.

On March 31, 1937, with the Spanish Civil War in full swing, Nationalist forces led by General Emilio Mola, in conjunction with their German and Italian allies, began their offensive against Bizkaia with a bombing raid on Durango.

The entire town was razed. Two churches were hit during mass, leading to the deaths of 14 nuns and one priest and 250 other residents were also killed. 

The event had a profound impact on Sabino. In the book, From Guernica to Guardiola: How the Spanish Conquered English Football, writer Adam Crafton speaks with Sabino’s daughter Almudena, who recounts how Sabino witnessed the horrific death of a young girl during the bombing.

A little less than one month later, on April 26, 1937, the same forces obliterated the nearby town of Gernika, a place of symbolic and spiritual importance for Basques.

As a result of the war reaching Bizkaia, in May 1937, Barinaga and his two brothers, along with 4,000 other Basque refugee children, made the journey to Southampton aboard the SS Habana. They would become known as Los Niños de la Guerra – The Children of War.

Sabino was one of a number of young boys who found solace in the form of football. It didn’t take long for Southampton FC to spot Barinaga and fellow refugee, goalkeeper Raimundo Pérez Lezama -who went on to play for Athletic Club.

Both players were integrated into the club’s youth system and Barinaga in particular turned heads. Whilst playing for a Southampton ‘B’ side, Barinaga scored 62 goals in 18 games. Even more remarkably, several sources state the young Basque had never played football before arriving in Southampton.

Manager at the time, Tom Parker, described Sabino Barinaga as one of “the most brilliant youngsters” he had ever seen. The club actually wanted to keep hold of both players, but many Basque refugees were forced to go home after the end of the Spanish Civil War and the onset of the Second World War. Barinaga returned to the Basque Country in March 1940.

Whilst living in England, Sabino had little contact with his family and feared they might have died. Fortunately, they found each other again at his old family home and he discovered they had escaped to Barcelona during the invasion of Bizkaia.

Clubs in Spain were aware of Sabino’s record at Southampton and many invited him for trials. He came close to signing for his boyhood team, Athletic Club, but rejected them when Real Madrid and Santiago Bernabéu made him an offer he couldn’t refuse: 60,000 pesetas a year on top of 600 per month.

Over the course of 11 seasons at Real Madrid, Barinaga became a stalwart of the side. His power, versatility, ability to play with both feet and an eye for a goal made him an essential figure in the squad. 

Sabino’s versatility meant he could play in almost any position, and the word ‘todoterreno’ -all the pitch- is used to describe him quite often. But playing upfront was his true speciality.

Barinaga was also the first player to score in the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu. The goal came in a 3-1 friendly defeat of Os Belenenses in the stadium’s inaugural match in 1947.

His other Real Madrid highlights include scoring four times in their infamous 11-1 victory over Barcelona, winning two Copas del Generalísimo and one Copa Eva Duarte. By the time he departed in 1950, he had scored 91 goals in 182 games.

After leaving Madrid he headed back to the Basque Country where he signed for Real Sociedad. After three seasons in Donostia, Real Sociedad agreed to release Barinaga from his contract.

Only an offer from the ambitious Real Betis in the Tercera División convinced him not to retire. But in 1955, Barinaga hung up his boots for good and began his coaching career at Betis.

From here, he led a nomadic twenty-year-long managerial career in which he took charge of important teams all over Spain, spent a year in Mexico with Club America and had spells managing in international football with Nigeria and Morocco.

Aside from the astonishing human story, Barinaga’s feats as a footballer and a manager are not spoken about enough, but his record speaks for itself.