AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL is inviting football clubs across Britain to mark the 80th anniversary of the first refugees to play football in the country. The “Football Welcomes” initiative will take place on the weekend of April 22/23.

The youngsters arrived from Spain, following the bombing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War, which took place on April 26, 1937. The bombing, which was carried out at the behest of the Spanish nationalist government by its allies, the German Luftwaffe, was one of the first examples of a civilian population coming under attack from the air. It set the scene for the conflict that was to follow between 1939-45.

In mid-May, 1937, a total of 4,000 young people were evacuated from the region, travelling to England on the Habana cruise liner, which was equipped to carry just 800 passengers and was normally used around Cuba. They docked at Southampton. When they arrived, thousands lined the dockside at Southampton to welcome them and provide help. The refugees were initially housed in a camp in Eastleigh and then they were dispersed around the country.

Among the youngsters was one José Bilbao, who played for Hitchin Town in the 1940s. Bilbao, a Basque, was described as a “flashing young Spaniard” by the local media. Others who played football in England included Emilio Aldecoa, Sabin Barinaga, Raimundo Pérez Lezama, and brothers José and Antonio Gallego. They were known as “children of the Habana”.

Most had returned to Spain by the time world war two started, but Jose Bilbao stayed in England and made an impact wherever he played with his Latin looks and unorthodox style of play. He also played for Coventry City (pictured above front row, far right) and Luton Town during the second world war. He played five times for Hitchin Town between 1945 and 1946.