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Kicking things off! The surprising story of how one Brit brought football to Spain


TODAY Spaniards and Scots may appear to be operating in different footballing spheres.

But did you know that a Scotsman was also the one to get the ball rolling, literally, for football in Spain?

Dr William Alexander Mackay, born the youngest of nine children in Lybster on July 10, 1860, has long been credited as the man who introduced football to Spain.

Mackay’s contribution to Spanish football is little-known in the UK but in a tiny corner of Andalucia, the man is far from a forgotten figure.

A year after graduating from Edinburgh University with a degree in medicine, Mackay was sent to the city of Huelva to work as a doctor for the Rio Tinto mining company in Minas de Riotinto.

Siestas and sangria was the favoured pastime of Mackay’s friends and colleagues but Mackay, who had himself been good enough as a footballer to represent the Edinburgh University AFC when they won the East of Scotland Shield after Hibs had pulled out of the final in 1883, set about converting them to football.

Aside from his official duties, Mackay would work for free every Thursday to treat all the sick and injured who arrived at the Spanish port. In order to keep the Rio Tinto workforce physically fit, and provide quality leisure time, Mackay organised football and cricket events.

The sports club was originally solely for Rio Tinto Company workers but soon grew into Spain’s very first amateur football club in 1889.

Today’s Spanish lineup is filled with suitably hispanic surnames but in 1890, when the club played their first away game in Seville, the XI was a fully British affair: Alcock, Yates, Wakelin, Duclos, Coto, Kirk, Daniels, Curtis, Gibbon and Smith.

Mackay, who was also helping to build a new hospital for the city, was lauded as the founder of football and locals praised him for helping to put the small port city, with a population of just 150,000, on the map.

In 1909, King Alfonso XIII of Spain bestowed the award of the Great White Cross upon Mackay for his services to medicine. Six years later, Mackay offered the king the title of Recreativo’s honorary president.

Today the club is known as RC Recreativo de Huelva and for the last 13 decades has nurtured the talents of major players including Antonio Valencia, Santi Cazorla, Antonio Núñez, Daniel Guiza and Florent Sinama Pongolle.

Mackay was an idealist who believed in the pure amateur form of sport. Unfortunately for his club, other teams in Spain were becoming professional outfits and Recreativo could not keep up with the big spenders.

But in a surprising twist of fate, Recreativo de Huelva rose far above the amateur ranks of its past to achieve one of the greatest – and most surprising – moments of football history.

In December 2006, the team crushed Real Madrid with a 3-0 win at the Bernabeu. David Beckham, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Ronaldo were part of the Madrid line-up humbled by Recreativo in the shock triumph. 

As for Mackay, he moved back to the UK just three years after Huelva city council appointed him as an Adoptive Son of the City in July 1923. In poor health at the time, Mackay chose to retire on Heathmount Farm, near Tain, where he lived until his death on July 14, 1927.

If you are ever kicking about in Huelva, you can even stay at the Hotel Colon in the centre of the city where he lived. Make sure to rummage in the mini bar and make a toast to Señor Mackay, the British Don of Spanish football.

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