On the south west coast of Spain – lies a sleepy Andalusian town by the name of Huelva. A place of such mediocrity that the ‘Rough Guide to Spain’ website refers to it as “a pretty dull part of Andalucía, laced with large areas of swamp and notorious for mosquitoes”. So what could possibly attract anyone to this modest town?
Rewind to September 1874, thirty nine years before the Spanish Football Association was founded, to when the first unofficial game of football took place in the Iberian Peninsula. The contest saw British soldiers involved in the Carlist War play against local railway labourers working for the Rio Tinto Mining Company, who at the time, were constructing the railway link to the city on the outskirts of Huelva. Encouraged by the British and returning Spanish students from the UK, it was this match in this unassuming area of Spain that would give birth to what is now a Spanish obsession.
Despite what Athletic Bilbao and Gimnastic de Tarragona (although actually formed in 1886, it wasn’t until 1914 that they became a football club) may tell you, it is Recreativo de Huelva who can lay a legitimate claim to the title of Spain’s oldest football club. Formed as Huelva Recreation Club on the 23rd of December 1889 – by the British managers of the Rio Tinto mines. The club’s formation was not really for altruistic reasons but rather to keep morale and productivity high amongst workers and impress the locals with this symbol of their own culture. Huelva’s first organised game took place just days later between Christmas and the new year against a crew of Brits who had docked in the port. For the statisticians amongst you who want to know the result, it was Huelva who ran out 3-1 winners.
Huelva soon became a hit with the locals and it wasn’t long before Spain’s first officially reported football match was to take place – in March of 1890, when they faced their Andalusian neighbours Sevilla FC (formed January 25th 1890) in an invitational game. As time passed by the club moved away from invitational games and started to compete in local tournaments against other fledgling football clubs. By the turn of the century Huelva had won three Andalusian regional cups, becoming the team to beat on the Southern Spanish football scene.
Unfortunately for Recreativo this was a good as it was going to get. Since these early successes the narrative of the club has been one of disappointment. The national football league was set up in 1929 and it wasn’t until 1940, after playing in the regional leagues in Andalucía that the club reached the Segunda Division (the second tier of Spanish football). The stay was brief, resulting in their relegation at the first time of asking, with 1957 being the next time they would play back in the Segunda. Perhaps the brightest moment in the club’s history would be promotion to Spain’s top tier in 1978 for the first time since the club’s formation. Again the experience was fleeting, resulting in their relegation after just one season.
By 1990 Recreativo once again found themselves back in the third tier for eight seasons – Spain’s grand old club back in the doldrums. After a period of stabilization, the Andalusians navigated their way back into La Liga for the 2002/03 season. Although this was once again a short lived experience, it was this season when they remarkably reached their first ever domestic cup final in the Copa Del Rey losing 3-0 to a Samuel Eto’o inspired RCD Mallorca at the Estadio Manuel Martinez Valero (home of Elche). The 2006/07 season saw Recreativo return to Spain’s top flight for a third time, reaching their highest ever league position of eighth which included an astonishing 3-0 thrashing of Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu. Their relegation back to the Segunda in 2009 remains the last time Spain’s oldest club hosted their country’s footballing aristocracy.
Despite the occasional success stories in their long history, Huelva – the old man of Spanish football – has largely gone unnoticed and uncared for, owing to its lack of sustained footballing success and geographical positioning within the borders of Spain. It is, however, clubs like Recreativo de Huelva that deserve more recognition.