“The famous Spanish goalkeeper Zamora has lost his life as a victim of the civil war in Spain,” said the Fifa president Jules Rimet, as he asked all present to stand “in memory of the deceased sportsman, who was not only a remarkable player, but also a great representative of our sport and of his country.”

Delegates from 36 countries present at the 1936 Fifa Congress in Berlin automatically rose from their seats to show their respect for Zamora, who had been Spain’s keeper from the 1920 Olympics through to the World Cup in Italy just two years earlier. Most would also have recalled seeing just a few months before the globally circulated photo of El Divino’s miraculous last-minute save that ensured Real Madrid beat his former club Barcelona in the final of the 1936 Copa del Presidente de la República. And now he had died aged just 35, according to reports in the German press the previous day. It was shocking news, but also not a huge surprise given the many casualties of the early turbulent weeks of the conflict in Spain.

The possibility of the real world of politics and war impacting directly on sport would not have been difficult to imagine for those attending the congress, which was being held alongside the Olympic Games in Berlin that August 13-14, at the invitation of Germany’s Nazi government. Reports of Zamora’s possible death had been circulating for weeks. On July 20, the Spanish newspaper ABC published an eye-witness account claiming his body had been seen in a ditch in the Madrid barrio of Moncloa, after he had been “assassinated” by “communists”.

Confirmation appeared to come during an August 20 radio broadcast from Seville, when the unhinged fascist military leader Queipo de Llano named “the nation’s goalkeeper” alongside the writer Jacinto Benavente and the painter Ignacio Zuloaga as the latest illustrious Spanish victims at the hands of the “barbarous marxists” (neither Benavente nor Zuloaga died in 1936 either).

A funeral mass for the eternal repose of Zamora’s soul was held at the Church of Santiago in rebel-held Valladolid. The idea of one of Spain’s favourite sons being killed by the godless reds was propaganda gold for those trying to convince the masses of the righteousness of General Franco’s rebellion against the democratically elected Popular Front government. The interest was international. In France, L’Auto sports daily interviewed his former Barca teammate István Plattkó. “Zamora was shot in Madrid by the communists for his relationship with the monarchists,” said Plattkó.

A twist came when Belgium’s Vie Sportive claimed on October 2 that Zamora had in fact escaped to Mexico, where he had already accepted a “lucrative offer” from an unnamed club to continue his playing career.

Ten days later Catalonia’s Mundo Deportivo had a further update on its front page – squeezed between a match report of Badalona 4-2 Barcelona, and the latest war news from the front at Huesca. “We have been told that Ricardo Zamora is neither dead nor abroad,” the story read. “He stayed in Madrid, but in hiding, for fear that his role as editor at the Catholic church newspaper Ya could attract anger amid the general indignation provoked by the fascist-military uprising. The rumour continues that Zamora was arrested a few days ago at the behest of a 'People’s Court' investigating the international goalkeeper's complicity with the fascist movement. But we cannot confirm this, nor the previous rumours, without any official word.”

This report did turn out to be true. Once war broke out, Zamora knew he might be in trouble, due to his reputation as a ‘señorito who rubbed shoulders with the city’s conservative class. He spent some nights at friends’ houses and made plans to leave the city. But not quickly enough. After a call went out for his arrest, a band of irregulars picked him up.

“They came to our house and took away trophies and medals,” recalled Ricardo Zamora Junior, who later had his own a long career as a goalkeeper in La Liga. “They also took our car.”

Going into hiding was an understandable move by Zamora. He was Spain’s most famous sportsperson, and quite possibly the country’s biggest celebrity. An extraordinary mix of sporting talent, charisma and ambition had propelled him forward during the previous decades, as Spanish society went through tumultuous changes, and football evolved from a gentlemanly amateur pursuit into a mass entertainment industry.

For some he was a hero of Spain’s new collective national pride; for others he symbolised a conservative elite which had to be cleared away by any means necessary. At such a moment of polarisation, this ambiguity was doubly dangerous.

Ricardo Zamora Martínez was born on 21 January 1901 in Barcelona’s central Eixample neighbourhood, to parents who had been attracted from elsewhere in Spain by the city's opportunities. By the age of 13, Ricardo was playing for the men’s team of the city’s university, despite having had two toes amputated due to gangrene picked up in muddy goalmouths. At 15, he was called up by Español when their regular keeper could not travel to [not yet Real] Madrid Football Club – and kept a clean sheet against a forward line including a peak Santiago Bernabéu.

By 1917-18, Zamora was the star of a Catalan championship-winning Español side. He then gave up the game for a short spell to study medicine, under pressure from his socially ambitious father, but in 1919 he was persuaded to join Barcelona. And the following season kept goal while a team managed by Jack Greenwell beat Athletic of Bilbao 2-0 in the Copa del Rey final.

That earned Zamora the goalkeeper’s jersey for Spain’s national team at the 1920 Olympics, where winning a silver medal projected both him and La Furia Española onto a whole new level of national fame and significance. “Today you defend something more than a piece of ground for your team, you do it for the strength of your country,” Zamora himself later remembered being told by a Spain supporter in Antwerp. “You are the defender of a heroic spirit that for many years has been missing from your blood, and my blood, and that of our parents.”

Spain’s football-mad King Alfonso XIII held an official welcome home for Zamora and colleagues including his Barça teammate Josep Samitier and Rafael ‘Pichichi’ Moreno. Even in Barcelona, where Catalan national feeling was growing, their achievement on behalf of all Spaniards was cheered. Zamora enjoyed the acclaim, and quickly saw the possibilities for his own personal advancement.

Before the Olympics he had received a token match fee of 25 pesetas. On his return from the Olympics an extra 50 a month was agreed with Barca president Hans Gamper, a hold out against professionalisation of the game. An offer in 1922 to rejoin Español, which included a 25,000 peseta signing bonus and 2,000 a month salary, was more in keeping with Zamora’s idea of his own worth.

Gamper appealed to the Real Federación Española de Fútbol (RFEF), which suspended the player for breaking the game’s amateur code. Español organised exhibition matches – taking advantage of the demand from paying customers eager to see Zamora in the flesh by charging up to 5,000 pesetas to visit clubs throughout Spain. The RFEF quickly relented as it was inconceivable he could miss La Furia Española’s next international.

Meanwhile, Zamora was building his own personal brand. He always kept goal proudly dressed in a white ‘English-style’ wool jersey, complete with a high collar, and wore his trademark tweed peaked cap. He perfected his 'zamorana patented move – faking to catch a ball, but then doubling his arm, flexing his elbow and propelling the ball far out of the penalty area with surprising power to start a counter-attack. Fans loved it, and opposition forwards had to accept they had been beaten by the better man. 'Uno cero y Zamora de portero', was the decade's most popular terrace chant.

Off the pitch, he became a spokesperson for various companies – fronting products such as the alcoholic drink ‘Anís Zamora’. Producers in Spain’s nascent film industry also realised the attractiveness of his blue eyes and fair hair to even non-football fans. 1927’s Zamora Gets Married At Last was a box-office smash.

Middle-class Zamora and his fellow social climber Samitier were invited into high society in the Catalan capital – becoming firm friends with the football fan and tango king Carlos Gardel. Together the trio cruised the streets in a convertible gifted by Español’s aristocratic owner Genaro de la Riva i Ruiz, who was delighted after a fundraising tour of Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Peru and Cuba raised 250,000 pesetas.

Things were going nicely on the pitch too. Español won both the Copa Catalunya and a first Copa de España in 1928-29, earning a place among the 10 founder members of La Liga the following year. May 1929 also saw Zamora between the posts as Spain became the first continental European team to beat England in a full international. That 4-3 victory at the Estadio Metropolitano in Madrid was welcomed as a sign of Spain’s maturity on the international stage and cemented his own position as a national hero.

But Zamora still had itchy feet – and he did not complain when Español accepted a Spanish record bid of 150,000 pesetas from Madrid. A reported 100,000-peseta igning bonus and a monthly salary of 3,000 pesetas helped too. When his salary was later upped to 5,000 a month, it made Zamora easily Spain’s best paid sportsperson. He was just as far removed from an ordinary fan as Gareth Bale is today even though just a few years earlier, his predecessor as Spain's favourite player, Pichichi, had spent his entire career as an amateur.  

Spanish culture and politics were also undergoing rapid upheaval. A democracy when Zamora made his international debut in 1920, the country then lived under the decade-long dictatorship of Miguel Primo de Rivera. Alfonso XIII was ushered into exile in April 1931, allowing for the ‘Second Republic’ in 1932, with Niceto Alcalá-Zamora as its first president. “Ah, the keeper,” Josef Stalin is said to have responded when told that a Zamora was now Spain's top politician. 

The move from Catalonia to Castile also helped Zamora settle into the centre of Spanish culture. Marriage and the arrival of a son Ricardo born in 1933 did not hinder his enjoyment of Madrid’s swirling social life. He was known for expensively tailored suits, reputedly smoked three boxes of cigarettes a day and liking a brandy in the evening. His 'El Divino' nickname came from a supposed likeness in looks and style to Hollywood's Greta Garbo, who was known as 'La Divina' in the Latin world. 

His Barcelona past was not a problem at Madrid CF, who were a remarkably ideologically pliable outfit. In 1931 the ‘Real’ part was dropped from the official club name, and they identified firmly as a ‘republican’ team. The majority of the club's directors during this period, including the president Rafael Sanchez Guerra, were associated with left-wing politics.

Supposed ideals of solidarity did not stop the club, where Bernabéu had become responsible for transfers, from spending big on the best available talent. A side including fellow Spain stars Jacinto Quincoces, Ciriaco Errasti and Luis Regueiro won La Liga in 31-32, while Samitier had joined his friend by the time they retained the title in 32-33, then won the 1934 Copa del Presidente de la República. 

Politics was never that far away, as Zamora learned again when Spain met Italy in the 1934 World Cup quarter-finals. With Benito Mussolini among the crowd at Florence’s Stadio Giovanni Berta, the Belgian referee Louis Baert looked the other way as the hosts’ aggressive approach helped them get a 1-1 draw despite being completely outplayed.

Six Spain players, including Zamora, then missed the replay the following day because of injury, and Italy squeaked through 1-0. Zamora was nonetheless voted the tournament’s best goalkeeper, and the squad were greeted as heroes on their return by boat to Barcelona, with republican flags flying at a reception at the city’s Jardines de la Exposición. A tribute game for Zamora was organised between the Spain and Hungary national teams at his club’s Chamartín stadium that December, before which he was awarded the Order of the Republic by his namesake the president for service to the democratic state. 

The republican side were also impressed by Zamora’s reaction when Spain played Germany at Barcelona’s Montjuïc stadium in February 1936, just as new elections returned a left-leaning Popular Front to power. After the German XI all performed a Nazi salute during their anthem, Zamora was photographed holding up his left fist as his country’s anthem played. This was happily interpreted by some as defiance of the fascists and all they stood for.

Things got more complicated at that year’s Copa final, between Madrid and a Patrick O'Connell-coached Barcelona on June 21 at Mestalla. Los Blancos were 2-1 ahead with time almost up when Josep Escolà seemed to have equalised from close range, only for Zamora to pull off the most famous save of his career. A photo of the 'immortal' stop, with his body and arms stretched to reach the ball hidden by dust in the goalmouth, circulated widely in both the Spanish and world football media.

Later that evening came a less universally celebrated moment. Zamora finished his speech at the official supper by cheering “Viva Valencia, el Madrid y España!”. A journalist present added ‘Viva la República’, but instead of repeating the toast as expected, Zamora remained silent.

That incident did not seem overly important when Madrid’s players were acclaimed in the capital on their return home. But it was still fresh in many memories less than a month later when the Civil War began. Being all things to all men had been a huge benefit for both his career and personal wealth, but this was a moment where everybody had to pick sides. And not fitting neatly into either camp as Spain divided was a huge problem.

Zamora’s political unreliability for many on the left was confirmed by his association with Ya. Starting out as a reporter on games he also played in, from 1935 he oversaw its entire sports section. The editorial line elsewhere in the paper was firmly against the republic and for the restoration of traditional conservative values. This was a serious issue when battle lines were drawn, especially for those charged with security in Madrid and looking for potential 'fifth columnists'.

“A militia-man came every day and read out various names,” Ricardo Zamora Junior later recalled. “They were those who were being taken and not returned to their cells. My father’s name appeared various times on the lists. Every time his name was read out there was a tremendous fright. But it happened because they all just wanted to meet him and talk about football.”

Madrid’s Modelo prison was a squalid jail for common criminals built the previous century. When war broke out it was requisitioned by anarchist militias to hold political prisoners. In the weeks before Zamora’s arrival in October 1936, those who spent time there before being shot included Fernando Primo de Rivera, whose father had been dictator and whose brother founded the Falange movement which provided some intellectual backing for Franco’s rebels.

It was not a comfortable spot, but Zamora got better treatment than most other inmates, including extra food and cigarette rations from football fans among the guards. He also acquired a football so the prisoners could play games in the yard, where his former Madrid and Spain teammate Monchín Triana joined in. Still, nobody knew if the day might come when they would be taken out and shot.

That fear was also shared by many outside the prison, including Zamora’s former teammates and opponents. On October 18, during a game between sides representing Valencia and Catalonia at Barcelona’s Les Corts stadium, the captains Martí Vantolrà and Carlos Iturraspe approached the Catalan president Lluís Companys on their colleague’s behalf. “We ask in the name of all the players that you become involved for our compañero Ricardo Zamora who has been imprisoned in Madrid,” Vantolrà publicly asked. “We know he is not a fascist, and is one of the sportsmen who has lifted our national football to its high place with his efforts.”

Companys said he would do what he could, which does not seem to have been very much. Other players both Spanish and international appealed to Rimet to intervene – but Fifa were reluctant to get involved. Someone who did take a risk was the Andalusian poet and writer Pedro Luis de Gálvez, whose bohemian nature and anarchist ideology brought respect from the militias. Gálvez enjoyed visiting the Modelo to torment politicians, writers and businessmen guilty of monarchist sympathies. But he took Zamora’s side, perhaps as their paths had previously crossed in the city’s nightclubs. “This is Ricardo Zamora, the famous international goalkeeper, and he is my friend,” Gálvez said during one visit. “Nobody touch a hair on his head, I order it, he should not be here.”

Days later, in mid-November, Zamora was released, aided by a crucial intervention by the Argentinian diplomat Edgardo Pérez Quesada. His house having been ransacked, Zamora took refuge with his wife and son at the Argentinian embassy before escaping the city, wearing a fake beard, to Valencia where he set sail for Marseille aboard the Argentina-flagged torpedo boat Tucumán. From there they went on to Paris to reunite with Samitier, who had also had his own narrow escape following arrest.

Their former teammate Triana, who came from a well-known wealthy Madrid family, was not so fortunate. On November 7, he had been taken to the infamous killing-grounds at Paracuellos north of Madrid, and shot along with two of his brothers.

“I’ve always been a straight person,” Zamora told Paris Soir in early 1937. “A Spaniard 100 percent. I’ve served my homeland with love and enthusiasm. I believed that at the end of a glorious career I had the right to respect from my fellow countrymen. I’ve not been shot, I’m happy, feel young and strong. I love this sport more than ever and have not thought about leaving it.”

In Paris, Zamora had also met the former Real Madrid forward Luis Regueiro, who suggested they join his mostly Basque team which was playing exhibition games around Europe to raise money for the republican side. A more attractive offer came from another former Madrid teammate, Joaquín Valle, whose father had been a republican member of the Spanish parliament, and who was by then playing for Nice. The Riviera was as good a place as any to see out the war, Zamora and Samitier both decided, and they took up player-coach roles at the Ligue 2 club.

Spain’s most recent national captain enjoying his life and football in another part of the Mediterranean, while his fellow countrymen suffered at home, was not well received. Franco's nationalists insisted he put his talents at the service of their ‘Movement’. Zamora even received an official public invitation to Burgos, where the fascists were then headquartered. 

“I will never go to Burgos,” Zamora told the French paper Sport in April 1937, the same month Guernica was bombed. “I’ve always just been a sportsman, but if I were to be a politician, I would act on behalf of the people, the pueblo. Tell them in Spain that I am not a fascist, my only desire is to come home and do my job, with full security.”

The war continued, and Franco’s victory began to look inevitable. Many other republican-leaning footballers, including Regueiro and Vantolrà, went into a more permanent exile in Latin America. Zamora’s 1934 World Cup teammate Gorostiza, a prolific goalscorer as Athletic of Bilbao won four of the first six La Liga titles, instead crossed the lines. He was welcomed into a Carlist requeté militia as a “true Spaniard” and given a gun (the Carlists were a traditionalist group who wanted to restore the Bourbon monarchy). Zamora's wish to remain neutral, just a footballer who did not get involved in politics, continued to be criticised.

“There are Spaniards who in these decisive moments consider themselves completely on the margin of these decisive hours for the nation,” said a March 1938 article in La Voz de Guipúzcoa. “We are hurt by seeing Ricardo Zamora praised by sportswriters in France. We say that to remain the great Zamora of other times, he must show he is worthy of the glory won in this Spain which he no longer seems to remember. Without that Ricardo is, simply, a football player sold to the highest bidder.”

Such words must have stung, perhaps because they contained some truth. In early December 1938, he crossed the border to play an exhibition game in San Sebastián alongside former Madrid teammates Ciriaco and Quincoces, who had remained in Spain throughout the conflict. The team jerseys featured a fascist yoke and arrows symbol. Zamora had finally chosen his side.

“Aviación had the good fortune to find itself with some of the top players,” the club president General Francisco Vives Camino later recalled. “Among the officials of the club were some great football fans, including Comandante Bosmediano and Teniente Salamanca. They dedicated themselves to getting a team together and organising the first games for patriotic and fundraising reasons.”

Formed in 1937 at Salamanca’s Matacán air base, Club Aviación Nacional had a good war. The initial scratch team was quickly strengthened by recruits from elsewhere within the armed forces. By 1939 they were capable of eliminating Real Betis on the way to the recently renamed Copa del Generalísimo quarter-finals.

Aviación's generals wanted direct entry to La Liga, which was about to restart, without having to climb through the lower divisions. They found a route through Athletic de Madrid, who had been in financial trouble before the war, then ripped apart by the conflict. One of Athletic's biggest pre-war stars, Ángel Arocha, had died in action on the fascist side in Catalonia in 1938, while several former players were put on trial for fighting for the republicans. A shotgun-merger was agreed in October 1939 and Zamora hired to manage the new entity called Athletic Aviación de Madrid. The following month the quickly-assembled team beat Osasuna at a packed Mestalla in Valencia to claim a spot in the 1939-40 Primera Division.

By then 39, Zamora’s gloves were hung up, but he could still spot an opportunity. His squad included the pick of the winning side’s soldiers, and there were also handy desk-jobs available to attract players from clubs more severely affected by the war The use of military transport to get to and from games was also a plus.

Aviación were mid-table at the season's halfway point, but picked up form and a title race with Sevilla went down to the final day. The Andalusians drew 3-3 at Hércules de Alicante, while Zamora’s side beat Valencia 2-0 at their Estadio de Vallecas temporary home to take the trophy by a single point. A tight defence had been key – just 29 goals conceded over the 22-game season.

Zamora did not have much time to celebrate his first title as a manager. Just a few days later, in May 1940, he was arrested and sent to Madrid’s Porlier prison. Bringing immediate glory to the air force team had not fully compensated for his complicated past. Those interviews when in France, and the tardiness in returning to Spain, were still held against him by some in the new regime. Another source of suspicion was Zamora having represented the Catalan national team during the 1920s. His 1934 medal from the republic, and closeness to outspoken critics of the regime including Regueiro, was also problematic.

The Porlier prison had been a school before the war and its conditions were not as hellish as the Modelo. But it was still a very dangerous place to be. Just weeks before Zamora arrived, the anarchist poet Gálvez, his key ally of three years previously, had been taken from a cell there and shot.

Footballing fame – and political malleability – helped Zamora again. The Porlier guards were on the other side of the political divide, but just as keen to know him, talk to him and play with or against him. He was released within a few days, the authorities deciding that a scare was enough, along with a six-month ban from football.

The Spanish press had quietly announced that Zamora was no longer Aviación coach, with Ramón Lafuente taking over. His return to the bench soon after the 1940-41 season began was just as low profile. And the team repeated their title win, with young forward Pruden hitting 30 goals in 22 games.

By April 1942, Zamora was sufficiently rehabilitated to be invited to coach a Spain national side which visited Berlin to honour the División Azul – Spanish volunteers then fighting alongside their fellow fascists on the Eastern Front in Russia. Among the 90,000 spectators at a 1-1 draw at the Olympic Stadium was the Nazi sports minister Hans von Tschammer und Osten – who in the same city six years previously had been the German delegate joining Fifa president Rimet to mark Zamora's supposed death.

“Samitier and Luisito Regueiro, with whom I just recently spent some unforgettable time in Mexico,” replied Zamora when asked in a 1967 ABC interview who had been the biggest stars of his time as a player. The 66-year-old was speaking as the RFEF had organised a testimonial game in his honour, with a Spain side including José Ángel Iribar, José Ufarte and Marcelino taking on a world selection overseen by Helenio Herrera. Mentioning Regueiro, whose widely known leftist and Basque nationalist political beliefs were still not at all welcome in Franco’s Spain, seems typical of Zamora’s stubborn individualism. There was no real need, but he just could not help himself.

The Spanish players were whistled off by unhappy fans at the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu, after the Rest of the World team won 3-0, with goals from Sandro Mazzola, Eusebio and Fernand Goyvaerts. Zamora himself was happy enough with the gate receipts of two and a half million pesetas. He was not in full-time work, with his managerial career having fizzled out. 

As Spain’s other teams regained strength in the post-Civil War period, Aviación’s competitive advantage had run out. They were third in 1941-42 and never really challenged again. Zamora stayed until 1946, the year before the link with the air force ended, and the club settled on its current name of Atlético de Madrid. Not very successful spells in charge of Celta Vigo (twice) and Málaga followed, before his final job as head coach was back to his first club Español from 1960 to 1962 – when they were relegated for the first time in their history.

There were also two games in charge of the Spain national team in seven days in June 1952, a 6-0 victory against Ireland and 0-0 draw with Turkey in Istanbul. That October he characteristically resigned to take up a better offer from Venezuela, although that did not last long either.

Coaching mediocrity did not really harm his reputation. In 1950 he was awarded the Gran Cruz de la Orden de Cisneros, a generally military honour, by Franco’s regime. Further recognition as Spain's best ever goalkeeper came in 1959 when the RFEF instigated the Trofeo Zamora for the goalkeeper who conceded the fewest goals per game in la Liga each season. His former Madrid colleague Bernabéu, who had been decorated for action on the fascist side during the war, also helped out with an official homage in a 1963 La Liga game between Madrid and Osasuna.

Zamora settled finally at home in Barcelona and represented Español in an ambassadorial role until his death in 1978 from bronchitis, with Spain’s post-Franco transition back to democracy well under way. Regueiro joined former teammates who had never made it back to Spain at another mass said in their old friend's memory in Mexico. And this time he really was gone.

The acclaim was more muffled at the Bernabéu and Camp Nou. Despite being so feted while keeping goal for Madrid and Barcelona, Zamora was notably never asked to coach either team. In the long-run it was fitting he ended up back at Español, probably the club whose ability to straddle both Catalan and Spanish identities most matched his own difficult position. 

Zamora was an incredible goalkeeper, and an even more impressive survivor. Few Spaniards were officially recognised for their service to both the country's republican and fascist governments or lived through being imprisoned by the two sides of the bloody civil war. Everyone wanted a piece of El Divino, so why should he not take advantage? 

The last word goes to José Iborra, the Barca goalkeeper in the 1936 Copa del Rey final when Zamora made his 'immortal' save. Iborra leaned left himself and went into permanent exile in Mexico, but did not hold anything against his old colleague.

“I’d bet that Zamora never read a full political speech,” said Iborra. “When he opened a newspaper, he went straight to the sports section. He was a footballer before everything else.”