On the 23rd of May 1937, just a little less than a month after the bombing and destruction of Gernika by the German Luftwaffe’s Condor Legion, Raimundo Pérez Lezama and his younger brother Luis boarded the SS Habana, an old steamship tasked with transporting Basque refugee children, who became known as Los Niños de La Guerra (The Children of War), to the safety of British shores.
Initially, the British government had refused to take in kids such as Raimundo. Most major European countries had signed a non-intervention pact (although it was ignored by almost everyone) and Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin even stated that “the climate wouldn’t suit them” (obviously he was unaware of the famously wet Basque clime). However, after the atrocities of Gernika came to light and received international coverage there was a public outcry. Many Britons protested and demanded that the government at the very least allow vulnerable children onto British soil. The government backed down and eventually granted safe passage for the refugees, but it would not consider offering financial aid. Therefore, all of the process was organised and paid for by Basque and British citizens.
Raimundo, who was a few months shy of fifteen when he set sail, was one of almost four thousand Basque children who fled to England. They arrived in the port of Southampton, where they were processed and sent to different parts of the country. Raimundo stayed in Southampton, where he lived only half a mile away from the Dell. Three years later he returned home and began about making himself an Athletic Club legend whilst revolutionising the game for Spanish goalkeepers along the way.
The decision to send Raimundo and his little brother Luis to England wasn’t made lightly. His father had been arrested in Sagunto and was being held in an internment camp, where he would spend the rest of the war. And, his mother, being left with too many mouths to feed and few options, came to the conclusion that the best option for Raimundo, Luis and her family would be for her sons to become refugees and escape war-torn Bilbao.
With his younger sibling in hand, Lezama left his home in the Bilbao surburb of Barakaldo and headed to the port of Santurtzi. Along with four thousand other children he boarded the Habana. They didn’t know much about where they were going, couldn’t have known if they would ever return, and had no idea if their homes or families would still be there if they did.
Conditions on the ship weren’t great, either. It had been refitted to hold a maximum of eight hundred passengers and although two thousand children were signed up as evacuees, a further two thousand showed up at Santurtzi on the day of departure.
Fitting four thousands kids on a steamboat aside, the first major challenge the Habana had was getting past the naval blockade put in place around the port of Bilbao by Franco’s forces; its objective to prevent aid and support getting to the besieged city. With the help of a republican destroyer, the battered steamship was escorted through the blockade until it was picked up in British waters and brought into Southampton by HMS Royal Oak and HMS Forester.
Even the most experienced and hardy of sailors will tell you that the Bay of Biscay is no sea for children, storms are frequent and the swells are some of the worst our planet’s vast expanses of water have to offer. This meant that in addition to the lack of space, many children suffered from terrible seasickness and diarrhoea. Exhausted Captain Ricardo Fernández, who had gone forty-eight hours without sleep prior to this journey due to similar ones made to France, spoke of how during the first night he found a group of six children fast asleep and huddled together in his cabin. They had managed to sneak in during their search for space and nobody had the heart to wake them up and tell them they weren’t really allowed to be there.
“Wherever they saw a door they opened it, and, of course, we would never have thought of turning them out.”
Upon arriving in Southampton forty-eight hours later, Raimundo and his shipmates were greeted by huge crowds of well wishers who had come down to the harbour to wave them in. From here, the refugees were sent to a hastily arranged super camp in North Stoneham Park where they were fed, bathed, deloused and given a medical inspection- the authorities were worried that they might have brought with them some illnesses that are typical of war zones, such as typhoid.
The kids remained in this camp for a few weeks longer, after which they were then spread out across the country to designated ‘colonies’. Places such as churches, schools, orphanages and households that had agreed to take in the Basque youngsters. Raimundo stayed in Southampton, going to Nazareth House, where he would meet another future Basque football legend, Sabino Barinaga.
During his stay at Nazareth house, Raimundo found a father-figure in the form of RAF Commander Toby Keller and he also found a great love in the form of a small round ball. His adopted father also happened to be a director at the South Coast city’s major club and would often take his charge to games as wells as trials.
It was during these trials that Southampton’s manager Tom Parker noticed that both Lezama and Barinaga possessed considerable talent. There being a surplus of outfield players, Raimundo was encouraged to train as a goalkeeper due to his height. He excelled in the position and soon enough both him and Sabino became essential members of the ‘B’ team (essentially a youth side). It is reported that during their first season with the ‘B’ team in 1938, Southampton won all of their matches except one, whilst scoring in excess of two-hundred goals and conceding just seventeen, with Barinaga scoring sixty-two times in just thirteen matches.
In September 1939, The United Kingdom joined the Second World War. Regular competitions were disbanded as many players signed up to fight overseas or joined the effort on home-shore, Lezama himself played his part by working as a driver for the RAF.
In lieu of the First Division, the authorities organised unofficial wartime leagues and a wartime cup. Due to losing forty-one players, Southampton were forced to field just two sides: a senior team which took part in the wartime league and an ‘A’ team which competed in the Hampshire League. Lezama played mostly for the ‘A’ team but did have an opportunity to make a three senior appearances for the Saints at the end of the season. Once in a 5-1 defeat to Arsenal, another a few days later against Fulham in which Southampton won 2-1, and his final one came against Charlton in a 3-1 defeat.
As the FA does not recognise these wartime matches as anything more than friendlies, none of the appearances are marked as being official. Not that this ever stopped Lezama from cherishing and giving value to his time at Southampton, as well as the Hampshire League Medal he won with the ‘A’ team that season.
The season coincided with the end of the Spanish Civil War and the government began to repatriate the Niños. Barinaga left first in March 1940, he would go on to be a legend of the Spanish game in his own right, becoming the first person to score in the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu.
Lezama, now seventeen years old, followed at the end of the season not long after his final game against Charlton. Southampton were absolutely desperate to keep hold of them and had work permit applications rejected for both. Tom Parker noted that Barinaga and Lezama were two of the most extraordinary talents he ever worked with.
When he returned home, Raimundo’s father asked him what he had learnt during his three year spell in England and what he planned on doing with his life now he was back in Bilbao. Lezama replied that he had learnt how to speak English, which of course was extremely useful, but best of all… he could play football.
Originally, however, Lezama had no intention of pursuing a career in the game. Not through a lack of desire but more down to the fact that he didn’t realise it would be possible. His plan was simply to finish school and find a normal job. This was until it was discovered that his grandfather had a connection at Arenas Club de Getxo. His grandfather got in touch with his contact and Raimundo was invited to head down for a trial. Within little time his class told and Arenas signed him up immediately. He played out the rest of the season with the Segunda División side before Basque giants Athletic Club took notice of his talents and signed him in 1941, allowing him to achieve his ‘ultimate dream’.
Thanks to the presence of legendary keeper Echevarria, he wouldn’t make his debut for a while. It finally came the following season on the 27th of September 1942 in San Mamés against Real Betis, with the match finishing 5-0 to the home side. Echevarría was forced to retire due to a severe lung infection, giving young Lezama his opportunity. He would go on to play a further twenty-seven league and cup appearances in the 42/43 season, helping his home-town side to a cup double along the way.
He is lauded, in particular, for his performance in the Copa del Generalisimo final, seen by many as the man of the match in a 1-0 victory. Lezama went on to to play a major role in one of Athletic’s most successful sides ever. They were one of the most eminent forces in the history of Spanish football. They won seven Copas and two league title between 1943-1958, and contained some of the club’s most beloved stars such as: Piru Gainza, Telmo Zarra and José Luis Panizo.
The skills and knowledge Lezama had brought back from England were unheard of in Spain at this time. He was crucial to the successes of that Athletic squad and he was an absolute pioneer, introducing Spain to the sweeper-keeper role.
He was an extremely confident goalkeeper and he became notorious for the way he played. So unique was his style that his antics, often when they resulted in a calamity, were referred to as ‘Lezamadas’.
For example, he would take up positions well outside his area ‘in order to get a better view of the game’, sprint off his line to sweep up through balls, play with the ball at his feet and initiate swift counter attacks with long throws or quick kicks.
All of this might seem quite normal to a modern viewer of the game, but in Spain in the forties this was positively revolutionary. In fact, his style was so at odds with the times that once after an earlier trial for Atletico de Aviación, fabled keeper Ricardo Zamora advised Lezama to dedicate his life to something other than football. Something which Zamora would later admit was a lapse in judgement.
It is said that at times referees would be so confused by his ventures outside his box they would order him back as they weren’t sure if it was legal. It is also well-known that he possessed great character and belief in his own abilities, sometimes to his own detriment. It is reported that in a cup game against Alcoyano he instructed his players to not bother forming a wall when they conceded a free-kick in a dangerous position, so sure was he that he would save it. Rather against script he failed to keep out the resulting shot, one of his greatest Lemazadas.
As with all radicals, Lezama didn’t change his style as a consequence of his mistakes and he stuck to his principles in spite of his detractors.
The next big step in his career came in 1947, when after several fruitful seasons at Athletic, Lezama was awarded his sole international cap in an 4-1 friendly defeat against Portugal. He managed to make quite the impression on the match’s English referee, who would go on to recall that he was thoroughly fed up with the Spain keeper swinging from the crossbar and spent most of the match unsuccessfully trying to explain his frustrations to Lezama in French and German.
After some time had passed, Lezama cheekily replied “no savvy”. The ref quite angrily instructed him, in English, to stop fooling around, to which Lezama replied in perfect English “Well, why didn’t you just say so?”
The 46/47 season is recognised as being the greatest of Lezama’s career. In twenty-three league games he conceded just twenty-nine goals and, although Athletic came second to Valencia based on head-head results after being tied for points, he was retrospectively given the Zamora Trophy for being that’s season’s best goalkeeper.
Raimundo would carry on playing for his beloved Athletic all the way until 1957, making him one of the longest serving keepers in the club’s history. Unfortunately, from the 51/52 season onwards his playing opportunities at Athletic became few and far between as another renowned keeper, Carmelo Cedrún, rose through the ranks. From 1952 until he left the club in 1957, he only participated twenty-four matches.
At the end of the 57 season, Lezama had decided to call time on his career but he was coaxed out of it by his friend Pirulo Laso who convinced him to go to Second Division side Indautxu instead. He was only supposed to play one game as a flu out-break had left the club keeperless. But in the end, he remained there for one season, playing for free as a favour to his friend -another sign of the man’s remarkable character. After this, he moved on to local rivals Sestao for a further two seasons, before completing the circle and going back to Arenas Club de Getxo where he ended his illustrious career at the age of thirty nine in 1961.
Many believe that Lezama remains criminally underappreciated, not only for his ability and for the groundbreaking way in which he played, but also for the monumental success he had. Apart from Piru Gainza, no Athletic player has won more trophies than Raimundo Pérez Lezama. His haul stands at two la ligas, six Copa del Reys (then called Copa de Generalisimo) and one Copa Eva Duarte (the old Supercopa).
In 2007, at the age of eighty-four Lezama’s life came to an end. Not long after, in recognition of his achievements and impact, and after much campaigning by his son, Manu Pérez Lezama, Athletic Club named the street which runs adjacent to the north stand of the new San Mamés “Peatonal Raimundo Pérez Lezama”. Thus making Raimundo one of only three Athletic players to have a Bilbao street named in their honour.
Rarely do players transcend the game but it can surely be said that Lezama did just that. He wasn’t just a footballer or a goalkeeper, he was more, and his story remains an inspiration.
Father, Son, Brother, Pioneer, Warrior, Winner, Refugee, Survivor, Child of War.