The station master at Asua station in the province of Vizcaya, northern Spain, was handing out tickets when he heard the fireworks go off. He looked up from his desk and asked, "What was that?" Was there some kind of local fiesta going on? No, he was told, Spain had just scored against England at the World Cup, thousands of miles away in Brazil. The man who scored the goal was his son. "Ah, Telmo," the station master said and carried on what he was doing. Or so it goes. It was July 2, 1950.
On the radio, Matias Prats, the voice of Spanish football for decades, was rather more excited. The word "gol" gained an extra "o" -- or 10. "Espana" was drawn out, long and loud, with the moment immediately forming part of the collective consciousness. Telmo Zarraonandia (Zarra for short), who got the goal, remarked years later, "Sometimes, I wonder whether I scored or whether Matias Prats did." This was huge -- momentous.
Spain won 1-0, and at the end of the game, Prats cornered Armando Munoz Calero, the president of the Spanish Football Federation, and asked him whether he had a message for General Franco, who was listening to the game back home. "Yes, of course," he replied. "Excellency, we have beaten perfidious Albion." The British embassy made a formal complaint, and Munoz Calero was soon removed from his post, but it served to make the occasion all the more significant for a country slowly starting to emerge from international isolation.
When the Spanish federation commissioned the artist Andres Sanchez Garcia to paint five oil paintings of the country's greatest footballing moments a couple years ago, Zarra's goal was the first of them, equalled only by European Championships, World Cup victories and Olympic gold.
Spain had, after all, beaten the favourites and the founders of football: Stanley Matthews' England. They had reached the last four, their best finish ever until they won the tournament in 2010. England's manager, Walter Winterbottom, declared that Spain had played the best football the Maracana had seen. The FA president, Stanley Rous, described their football as "simply incredible."
"All I had to do was nudge the ball in," Zarra said. He was not far out, and the finish was an easy one. It was not the typical Zarra goal, not the kind of strike for which he made his name. He claimed to have scored with his ankle, while in a career spent with the Spanish national team and Atletico Bilbao, as they were then called, he scored more often with his head. He was known for having "the second best head in Europe, after Winston Churchill." The story has it that one time he headed a ball so hard it came back off the post and rebounded all the way to the halfway line. "My head was bleeding," he recalled.
It probably isn't true, but it became the image of him. At the end of the 1950 World Cup, a small booklet was published with pen pictures of the players in the Spain squad, which described him as "all about aggressiveness, dynamism and courage ... a symbol of our footballing resurgence," the "classic embodiment of the Furia Espanola" or Spanish fury, a notion of Spanish football rooted in ideals of virility and physicality. Fourteen years later, just after Spain won the European Championship and six years after he had retired, one Spanish football annual still called Zarra "the furia personified."
"It makes me laugh that I got a reputation for bravery, the furia espanola and all that," Zarra said long after he had left the game and opened a sports shop selling the kind of footballs he had never been fortunate enough to head pain-free.
Telmo was one of 10 children, five boys and five girls. One older brother, Domingo, played for Arenas de Getxo as a left-winger and would have been a star, but he was killed in 1938 in the Battle of the Ebro during the Spanish Civil War. Another brother, Tomas, was a goalkeeper at Real Oviedo, who played with Isidro Langara, the outstanding striker of the pre-civil war era. Every day, Telmo would wait, ball in hand, for Tomas to arrive at the station in Asua where the family lived. Then, he would fire shot after shot at him.
"Brave?" Zarra recalled. "In fact, it was the other way around. When I was 16 or 17, all I thought about was dribbling. But then I realised how much they kicked you, and I said, 'This is not for me.' I became practical. Instead of dribbling, I started shooting from everywhere, trying to escape them. I learned how to avoid my marker basically because I was scared. When I started playing [as a 19-year-old at local club Erandio in 1939-40], they took the mickey out of me because I was too scared to head it. I had no idea how to head a ball."
He learned. Zarra joined Athletic Bilbao in 1940. Every day after training, he would practice and get teammates to deliver endless crosses -- the harder the better. "I wanted bullets, not balls," he said. He became expert at escaping his marker, arriving at the right time and powering the ball into the net, and he formed part of Athletic's most famous forward line alongside Venancio, Jose Luis Panizo, Agustin Gainza and Rafael Iriondo. Together, they won a league and cup double in 1943. Four more cups followed.
There were offers to move on -- big ones, too -- but Zarra remained at Athletic until 1955 when, aged 34, he joined second-division sides Indautxu and then Barakaldo. "I never counted the goals up," he said.
Others did. Telmo Zarra scored four in a Copa final against Valladolid, three of them in extra time. He scored 20 goals in 20 internationals in an era when there were few games. He scored 38 goals in only 30 league matches in 1950-51, a record no one matched until Hugo Sanchez scored 38 in 35 games -- 39 years later. Zarra was top scorer six times. He scored more cup goals than anyone in history. With 251, no one in La Liga had ever scored as many goals as him.