There is a before and after Johan. The blaugranas weren’t always a dominant and consistent team. Barça was missing the consistency and philosophy that Johan injected. Barcelona life before Cruyff.
Johan Cruyff is the most iconic and important character in the history of Barcelona. First as a player, then as a coach. Cruyff has contributed significantly to the Catalan club to achieve the greatness it currently holds. 1973 was the year that marked the beginning of succeeding, with the arrival of the then attacker of the Dutch national team. A man who has become an icon on and off the field and who has helped instill the philosophy that has been taught to young people in La Masía for several years, it is difficult to speak about Barcelona’s history without naming him.
However, before Cruyff there were great memories in Barcelona, the difference was that there was a lack of consistency. Before, Barça was an inconsistent team. It was important in Spain but it did not have a hegemonic dominance in Europe as it has in recent years. That identity was missing that allowed us to excel and go from being an inconsistent team to being dominant. We needed Cruyff in Barcelona.
Since FC Barcelona’s foundation in 1899, there was no predetermined style of play in Barcelona. The azulgranas were one of the most influential teams in Spain but not for their technical quality, but for their fight for the culture of Catalonia, where the club played a fundamental role in the movement. But in terms of talent in the team, Barcelona, before Cruyff, was not so bad. In fact, they achieved great success.
FC Barcelona has gone a long way since its foundation in 1899
After being one of the pioneers of this sport in Spain, the culés soon had a great roster conformed of players like Joan Gamper and Carles Commala. Only in the first decade, they managed to obtain 8 trophies. Gamper, the founder of the club, spent 4 seasons as a player and in that time he managed to score the ridiculous amount of 123 goals in 54 games. An unthinkable scoring record in today’s football.
Paulino Alcántara: The first superstar
Paulino Alcantará arrived in the 1911/12 season becoming the first Asian player in the club’s history and the first superstar. Alcantará was a Philippine and played as a centre-forward. He was with the club until 1916 but returned in 1918 to play until his retirement. Paulino was one of the best players at that time and managed to dominate Catalonia. At that time the team had just built the stadium ‘El camp de la Indústria’, which lasted from 1909 to 1922. The stadium’s capacity was 6,000 people. It’s said that people went to the stadium just to watch Paulino.
The Philippine was recognized as the net-breaker. Since one of his qualities was that he had an extremely powerful shot and in one match his shot went so hard that he broke the goal net. From that day on, the goalkeepers were terrified of Paulino. He always wore a white scarf around his waist as a symbol of his elegance when playing. He was a skinny and small player, he was 1.70 meters tall. Even some of the media curiously named him La Pulga, a nickname that currently is given to Messi. He scored 134 goals but just one year after his retirement (1927) the goals in La Liga began to be officially counted. It’s said that Paulino scored more than 400 goals in the club.
The Golden Decade: 1919–1929
This is when Paulino’s influence and the success of the club attracted big names such as Samitier, Zamora, Sagi, Piera, and Sancho. This legendary team grew the fans and in 1922 caused the construction of the Les Corts field, the first stadium owned by the Club. The stadium had a capacity of 25,000 people but over the years it was expanded to reach 60,000 spectators. From there, a rivalry began that to date still stands. Catalunya’s Derby, RCD Espanyol v FC Barcelona. Les Corts was full when there was one of these Derbys.
In 1919, Ricardo Zamora debuted, the best goalkeeper at that time. He came from Espanyol and lasted just 3 seasons at the club. Later on, he returned to Espanyol. Zamora left Barça because our Board didn’t give him a salary increase that he requested. Technically, Zamora had agility and confidence under all 3 posts. His talent was so unique that there is currently an award with his name. The Zamora award that is given to the goalkeeper with the fewest goals received in a La Liga’s season.
The blaugranas back then played with a 3–4–3. With Samitier as the main reference, he could play as a winger or as a center-forward. The Spanish player arrived at the club in 1919 at the age of 17. He was Paulino’s successor and became more popular than the Philippine. Samitier was a man who was very influential on social issues with Barcelona’s culture. The club dominated the Copa Del Rey winning 5 tournaments that decade, more than any other team. The Copa del Rey was the most important championship of that time until La Liga appeared in 1929.
As a result of the great collective game, the team won the first Spanish league in history with a 2-point advantage over Real Madrid and managed to close the decade in the best way. With 8 Catalonian championships, 5 Copas del Rey and the first League. Undoubtedly, the culés began to be one of the favourite teams in Spain and the destination that every player wanted to reach. Samitier managed to score 184 official goals for the club, but he had scored more than 400 that were not counted. The culé’s star, who was one of the figures adored by fans for his support for Barcelona’s culture, left the club in 1932 to move to Real Madrid.
The Dark Decade: 1930–39
After the golden decade came a dark time for the club. This darkness began in 1930 with the death of Joan Gamper, who committed suicide for personal reasons. It was a hard blow that would mark the rest of the decade. In these years the fans lived with more passion for political presses than football games. Football became a background that no one was interested in anymore.
In this decade, the Spanish Civil War began along with the dictatorship of Francisco Franco. Where they wanted to extinguish the Catalan culture. Nonetheless, the club did its best to defend Barcelona. Les Corts become the only place where Catalans could be free to enforce their rights. In July 1935, Josep Suñol, a person with strong Catalan ideals and who was the leader of the Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya, an anti-Franco movement, became the president of the team. Suñol was the hope of the club and Catalonia until in 1936 he was murdered by Franco’s troops.
It hasn’t always been rosy for Barcelona
As a result, Barça failed to win any titles that decade. Many players left the club and nobody wanted to tarnish their image for playing in a club that was against the authorities. From the 1936/37 season, the Spanish championships were canceled due to the war. Barcelona was about to disappear since the economy was fatal and they lived under the pressure of Franco’s troops. Until a tour was organized in America, which was what saved the club. As a consequence, the blaugranas reached such a point of despair that they considered establishing themselves in America as a new franchise.
A new beginning
Cesár Rodríguez and Mariano Martín arrived at the club and became popular with the fans, especially Cesár. The arrival of the Spanish attacker helped to attract again more weapons for the club. Undoubtedly, the team had more weapons with the arrival of Estanislau Basora, one of the best wingers Barça has ever had, and Antonio Ramallets, one of the best goalkeepers in the club’s history. The team was ready for new footballing challenges and regaining its prestige from the golden decade.
In the 1944/45 season, Josep Samitier returned to the club, this time as a coach. Samitier used in that season the 3–3–4 formation and with the help of César as a reference, he managed to win La Liga after more than 10 years without winning it. César was a technical forward, noted for his speed, his ability to shoot with both feet, his lethality and for his powerful header. He’s considered one of the best in the history of the club and in the Spanish national team.
The Samitier era ended in the 1946/47 season and in the 1947/48 season would arrive his successor. The new coach was Enrique Fernández, who ended up winning two leagues consecutively. A coach who used the 4–3–3 and his tactics were very offensive and had some ideas similar to Cruyff at Barcelona. The team in 1949 won its first European tournament. The Copa Latino, which was later the European Cup. The Copa Latino was a small competition with just 4 teams participating.
The Ladislao Kubala era
In 1950, Ladislao Kubala arrived in Barcelona, a player who was a mythical figure of the club. The Hungarian player incorporated technical innovations never seen before, such as shooting with effect. The spectacular game of a team that dominated Spanish football and shone in Europe. Kubala was a revolutionary and charismatic player that no player in the last century has been as adored as him. Moreover, he was innovative, creative, fast and dynamic. Kubala was responsible for the blaugranas success in that era. In the 1951/52 season, the team won all 5 possible titles and won important titles in Kubala’s era.
While he would later move to Espanyol, the arrival of Kubala to FC Barcelona supposed a revolution for the club and fanbase
Back then, Les Corts with the capacity of 60.000 spectators was always full to watch Kubala. Neither Paulino, nor Samitier, nor even Cruyff managed to have the influence on the fans as Kubala did with Barcelona fans. To such an extent that Barça had no choice but to build the Camp Nou. Without Kubala, there is no Camp Nou. They needed a stadium big enough for all the people who were going to watch Kubala. Camp Nou’s construction began in 1955 and was completed in 1957 with a ridiculous capacity of approximately 99,000 spectators.
In 1953, Barcelona signed Alfredo Di Stéfano after an agreement with River Plate, a club that had legal rights over the player. At the same time, Real Madrid negotiated with Millonarios, the team that Di Stéfano was playing illegally at the time. As a consequence, FIFA along with Franco’s government decided that Di Stéfano would alternately play one season in each club. To favor Real Madrid, they negotiated a corrupt deal with the Argentine star. In disagreement with the verdict, Barça resigned from the player rights. Kubala’s Barça and Di Stéfano’s Madrid competed for many years for the hegemony of Spain. El Clásico became historical in politics and sports. It was the ideology of the right against the ideology of the left. The values against corruption. Kubala against Di Stefáno.
Luis Suárez Miramontes still is the only Spanish player to have ever won a Ballon d’Or
Following, in 1954, Luis Suárez arrived to be a lethal weapon in one of the best teams of the moment and to accompany Kubala. He was an exceptional player. In 1960, as a Barcelona’s player, Luis Suárez won the Ballon d’Or. Currently, the Spaniard is the only Spanish footballer to have received this distinction. Suárez was an unselfish player who played as a midfielder. He could play as a pivot, on the left or on the right. An all-rounder. He was a vital organiser for Barça.
Més que un club
The end of the 1960/61 season was the end of a dominant era. Kubala’s retirement and the transfer of Luis Suárez to Inter were proof of that. After glory in sports, Barcelona became more than a club. It was already beginning to be a team formally full of values and discipline. More than it already was. In addition, there was growth in the city of Catalunya and the TV’s Boom. The first football matches beginning to be broadcasted.
In the inauguration speech on January 17, 1968, president Carreras said: “Barcelona is more than just a football club“. The phrase became the club’s slogan and one of the best-known mottos around the world. A phrase that marked all Catalans and the history of the team to be recognized as an example to follow for many people and institutions.
‘Més que un club’ has become more than a slogan for Barcelona. It is a symbol and way of doing things
The team collectively suffered in the 1960s. There were no big names, very few stars like Carles Rexach but a player was missing who was the soul of the team and the fans. A Paulino, a Samitier, another Kubala or even a Luis Suárez was missing. Furthermore, the team didn’t have a pure goalscorer as a reference. The scoring records fell considerably and the azulgranas lost many titles.
Finally, in search of a star and the next big player, Barcelona hired Rinus Michel after he accomplished a great job with Ajax, in the early 1970s. The arrival of Michels influenced and attracted his former ward and the considered best player of the moment. Johan Cruyff. Cruyff came to Barcelona in 1973 to become the club’s next big star, and unknowingly, become the man who changed Barcelona’s history. Johan Cruyff is the turning point in the history of Barcelona.
Josep Samitier, the artist and hero of Barcelona’s first golden age
Josep Samitier was a surrealist artist on and off the pitch and a legendary midfielder that brought Barcelona its first successful era in the 1920s, as well as some controversy throughout his career.
Surrealism, a deceptive interrogation of reality that transcends the human subconscious to manipulate or alter the coherent understanding of existence. Josep Samitier Vilalta, or “L’home llagosta” (The lobster man) was the most surreal portrait in the history of FC Barcelona. He was called the ‘surrealista’, because his genius produced the illusions on the pitch that were perplexing to fathom as reality.
History is constructed up on the interdependency of figures and events. Samitier was one of those figures who created a rift in the annals of world football to produce the first reverberation of football in the streets of Barcelona. The footballing revolution in Catalonia peaked in the early 1920s, especially in Barcelona, as it was the beginning of the first golden age.
With the construction of the Les Corts stadium, the club assembled a group of talented, young players. Josep Samitier, along with Paulino Alcántara, Ricardo Zamora, Emili Sagi-Barba, Vicenç Piera and Agustín Sancho became the first generation of the club idols. Samitier, among others, was an integral part of Barcelona’s rebuilding of character and went on to become one of the most significant personalities both in terms of sporting and cultural relevance.
Samitier was born on 2nd February 1902 in a Catalan working-class family. As a young boy in the streets of Barcelona where the roads of passion and dreams lead to the grant Les Corts, ‘El Sami’ would kick the ball around waving at the passing commons.
After the club’s establishment, FC Barcelona had quite an attachment with the proletarian class. Especially at the time of industrial unrest, the institution always kept them close and the stadium was always packed with the same working-class populace. Young minds like Samitier who would grow up in the streets of Barcelona always had the ball on their feet and club in their heart.
Samitier started playing for FC Internacional before making his debut for Barcelona at the age of 17 in 1919. The club museum still preserves and cherishes his signing bonuses, a shimmering watch and a three-piece suit. By 1925, Samitier became the highest-paid player at the club and thus became the highest-earning player in the country.
The division of labour was evident in the early years of European football. Whilst the backline remained static to protect the goal, the forward line had to pick and fight the battle on their own. Samitier was among the key figures who created a paradigm shift from this prevailing ‘Basque style’, where the attackers held the sole responsibility to win the ball and navigate their own way to find a goal. Samitier was among the first players to orchestrate the game from the back. He was like a master of the opera performance where he controlled and navigated the rhythm and flow of the game.
Josep Samitier (middle), alongside teammates Emili Sagi-Barba (left) and Vicenç Piera (right) from the successful Barcelona team of the 1920s | Photo by FC Barcelona
Samitier was an exceptional player who could manipulate the ball like a wizard, and he dribbled the ball around the pitch like a ballet dancer. He was the first midfielder general in the history of Spanish football, whose role was the hybrid between a Pivote (central midfielder) and the Leñero (chopper) or sweeper. Samitier was the harbinger of the modern-day box-to-box role. Despite being positioned in a deep-lying role, Samitier was an outstanding goalscorer. It was rather unusual for a midfielder of that time to score an astonishing 184 goals for any club in Europe.
Even though Barcelona was graced with many prolific players, Samitier was the core of the magnificent Barça team of the 1920s. He would hack the ball from the opposition to carry the ball from the midfield to provide a line-breaking pass in the final third. His glorious days at Les Corts were filled with thrilling langosta (lobster) kicks which would eventually evolve into the modern ‘chilena’ or bicycle-kick. Samitier was an entertainer on the pitch. His ostentatious performance attracted the Catalans into the stadium.
His glittering thirteen years in a blaugrana shirt were decorated with 11 Catalan Championships, 5 Spanish Championships and the first Spanish league that began in 1928. Moreover, his time with Barça was embellished with title-winning goals in the Copa del Rey finals of 1922, 1925, 1926 and 1928.
Pepe Samitier’s momentous career at Barcelona transformed him from a sporting figure to a cultural icon in Catalan society. His reputation at the club produced a strong political outline for himself among the intellectuals in the society. It was an unprecedented period in the socio-cultural scenario of Europe. The entrée of subjective art and understanding by Salvador Dalí, Edvard Munch and Vincent van Gogh among other artistic prominence overtook the existing concepts of impressionism and naturalism.
Samitier aligned with surrealism, indulging the spirit of subjectivity. He reflected this both in the game and in his outside loyalties. His acquaintances mostly consist of radical artists and political figures of the time, including the tango maestro Carlos Gardel, Mauricio Chevalier, Salvador Dalí and, in contrast to his idol figure in Catalonia, he also had a close relationship with the dictator Franco.
In 1933, after a dramatic feud with the Barcelona management, an ageing El Sami dropped from the first team. Real Madrid, then called Madrid CF, took advantage of this dispute and were able to convince him to join the club. However, it was his secret allegiance with General Franco that helped Madrid to accomplish the operation.
Even though his short stint at Madrid wasn’t really celebrated, Samitier did guide them to win the La Liga title in 1932/33 and the Copa de España in 1934. But he played a significant role for Madrid, not as a player but as a super-agent in a decade-defining transfer of Alfredo Di Stéfano, whose intended destination was Barcelona. This signing was the inflexion point for Madrid in the 1960s, as Di Stéfano would go on to score 216 goals and play an important role in their European domination. Although Samitier’s allegiance with General Franco was visible, this transfer saga threw the relationship open into society.
Real Madrid’s signing of Alfredo Di Stéfano (right) changed Real Madrid’s history forever | Photo by Staff / AFP via Getty Images
Before the Spanish civil war burst out in 1936, Samitier spent a brief time in managing Atlético de Madrid, succeeding Fred Pentland in the middle of the season, but failed to keep them in the first division. Nonetheless, the season was scrapped as soon as the civil war started and Samitier, who had strong ties with the nationalist side, found himself blacklisted and arrested by the anarchist militia.
Eventually, he was released by the militia and fled to France. His exile to France was later utilized by the Franco regiment to spread the anti-communist propaganda by portraying this event in a film titled ‘The Stars Search for Peace’, where Samitier enacted himself. During his time in France, Samitier joined OGC Nice as a player, where he would unite with his old teammate Zamora. He went onto score 47 goals in 82 matches. In 1939, he retired as a footballer and briefly managed OGC Nice in 1942.
After two years and 8 months, the civil war ended and the nationalists alliance under General Franco demolished the second Spanish republic to establish the new Spanish state. Josep Samitier returned to Spain in 1944, and he took charge of Barcelona. His homecoming was celebrated as he guided Barcelona to win their second-ever La Liga title in 1945 and lifted the Copa de Oro Argentina by beating the Copa del Generalísimo winners Athletic Club de Bilbao.
Subsequently, Samitier became the chief scout of the club and his keen vision in recognising the talent resulted in the discovery and recruitment of Ladislao Kubala, a player who went on to become a legend at Barcelona. The recruitment of Kubala was the status redemption for Samitier, who had lost its shine after the Di Stéfano transfer saga.
In 1972, Samitier rested his soul and left his showmanship and sorcery to cherish in the memories of Catalans. Despite serving Madrid and his close relationship with General Franco, he was given an honourable state funeral as a Catalan hero. Samitier was the most symbolic player in the history of the club. His close affiliation with both the cultural and sporting context of Barcelona formed an irrevocable stature of him in the Catalan society.
Samitier, as a footballing visionary, is a reference to the modern-day midfielders and, on the other hand, he was an imperative cultural icon who embraced a revolutionary socio-cultural movement in his life. Samitier’s journey from being an ambitious boy in the streets of Barcelona to a footballing legend remains one of the inspiring and reviving narrative in the history of the game. Even today, walking down the Josep Samitier Street, one could still gather an enigmatic chanting celebrating the greatest artist in the history of Barcelona.