Our Guest Author: Amal Gosh
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.
Ricardo Zamora: The greatest between the posts
Guest Author: Amal Ghosh
Ricardo Zamora has a rollercoaster of a footballing career, flooded with controversies. Despite that, he is said to be arguably the greatest goalkeeper of all time.
“He is alone, condemned to watch the match from afar. Never leaving the goal, his only company the two posts and the crossbar, he awaits his own execution by firing squad.” Eduardo Galeano perhaps wrote the most melancholic description of a goalkeeper’s life of solitude.
The memoir of a goalkeeper lies between the thin line of glorious feats and eternal damnation. There were not many of them in the yesteryears of world football that we still reminisce. In fact, many of those who survived the rushing cavalries of the opposition attack were shot, shun, or shaded by that one slip or misplaced dive.
At the beginning of the 1900s, when the game was a far cry from the sophisticated version of the present day, the football pitch was a grant arena to celebrate the sparring between the defence and offence. Stars and idols were born and illustrated for the knack to score goals or the flamboyant display on the pitch.
In 1916, a skinny sixteen years old from Barcelona, who had a fortuitous debut for Espanyol against Real Madrid, went on to become the first superstar in the history of Spanish football. Moreover, the first goalkeeper to make a name for his style and to become an inspiration for the generations to come. Ricardo Zamora Martinez was one of the greatest goalkeepers both in the history of FC Barcelona and La Roja. He was the first and finest of his kind and left a gargantuan legacy behind.
Born on 14th February 1901 in Barcelona, Zamora grew up and learned his craft in goalkeeping on the backstreets of the Catalan city. What started as a leisure activity in the neighborhood, it maneuvered Zamora’s interest in the game and transformed him into a guardian in between the sticks. Challenging and extreme measures to prevent the opposition from scoring often would end up in frayed clothes and bleeding elbows. His parents were unhappy about his pursuit to become a professional footballer as his father wanted him to inherit his field of medicine.
In 1913, Zamora was sent to attend university, which was a turning point in his life. Along with picking up nicotine addiction, he also joined a local team, Universitari SC, and started playing full-time football.
At the same time, the founder of Barcelona, Joan Gamper (Hans Kamper) was scouting for young and fresh talents across Catalonia to bolster the transitioning Blaugrana outfit. Gamper inadvertently encountered a young Zamora who was delivering a staggering performance in front of the goal. Enthralled by his astounding shot-stopping technique and anticipation along with the aplomb character on the pitch, Gamper encouraged him to pursue professional football. Despite acknowledging his talent, Gamper was unsure about recruiting him due to his age, which would make it difficult for him to serve as an immediate replacement at the club. However, at the age of fifteen in 1916, Zamora signed for the rivals Espanyol and made his debut at sixteen.
Pere Gibert, the starting goalkeeper for Espanyol was absent and the club approached young Zamora to accompany them on their trip to face Real Madrid. Zamora delivered an impressive performance against a Los Blancos led by Santiago Bernabeu. The match against Madrid announced the teenage sensational in the Spanish football and promised the starting spot ahead of Gibert. He safeguarded the Espanyol goal till 1919 and inspired them to lift the Campionat de Catalunya in 1918.
However, a dispute with one of the Blanquiazul directors resulted in him leaving the club and signing for the cross-town rivals Barcelona. Zamora dawned the garnet and the blue for the first time on 31st May 1919 in a friendly match against an international eleven consisting of players from the allied nations that had succeeded in the First World War (France, Belgium, and England).
The mere friendly match at the old Carrer Industria ground was in fact much more. It was a monumental instance for its symbolic representation of diplomacy and the introduction of two of the greatest players in the history of Blaugrana — Zamora and Josep Samitier. Both the players became the Blaugrana legends and defined the history of both Barcelona and Spanish football.
The 1920s witnessed the first footballing revolution in Spain. It was the dormant period for the political insurgencies in Catalonia, where the proletarian uprisings and anti-anarchist movements ceased temporarily. Instead, the populace was witnessing another revolution, the rise of the first golden generation at the Les Cortes. Moreover, it was the inception of the Spanish National Team as a major footballing power in world football. Zamora along with Samitier and Paulinho Alcantara were the three pivots responsible for the transformation of Barcelona in the 1920s. Zamora was selected to represent the Spanish national team in the 1920 Antwerp Olympics.
It was the first-ever Spanish team to compete in an international tournament. He made his debut in La Roja’s first international match with a 1-0 victory over Denmark. Though the rampant Spaniards defeated in the final against Belgium, Zamora’s performance throughout the tournament established him as the best shot-stopper in the world.
It was an eventful tournament for Zamora in some other ways as well, who also grabbed some unwanted attention on and off the pitch. He was sent off in the match against Italy for punching and breaking the jaw of an opposing player. Another time, airport customs officials caught him smuggling Havana cigars across the Belgian border which caused the entire team to get detained and searched before leaving for Spain.
At Barcelona, he earned the nickname El Divino (The Divine One) and his road to stardom surviving the assaults from opposition attacks bagged massive applause from the Culés. He possessed an immense threat in anticipation to charge down attackers in his own box and had all the physical attributes that modern-day football demands from a player. Enormous, build stature, and nonchalant character, Zamora wore the iconic high-necked polo jumper and a hard cap and stood in front of the goal to wait for the unleashing thunderbolts and storm. His style was imitated by many of his contemporaries, who could mirror all but that nerve-wracking stare at your soul.
At Barca, he moulded into one of the athletic goalkeepers of the time. His agility and quick reflexes along with the physical superiority often perplexed the attack. Zamora helped Barcelona to lift two Copa del Rey titles and three Campionats de Catalunya. He led a lavish and celebrity life; in fact, he was the first one to explore the scope of marketing the sporting stardom in Spanish football. The Spaniard spent his time with Tango singer Carlos Gardel, smoking three packs of cigarettes a day and drowning in his favorite cognac tipple. Zamora and Samitier had famous night outs in the 1920s, at the time when Barcelona was becoming one of the fashionable cities in Europe. There were poems and songs flattering his honor, cocktails were named after him. Zamora even acted in a film called ‘Zamora Weds At Last’.
Zamora’s three-year-long stint at Barcelona came to an end under some controversial circumstances. It was reported that in June 1922, Zamora allegedly asked the Barca board for a wage of 50,000 pesetas. He wanted a move back to Espanyol and Barca was reluctant to approve of the transfer. Even though he managed to convince them for the transfer; in 1922, a yearlong ban from the association for deceiving the tax authorities about the transfer fee resulted in delaying his return. Zamora stayed at Espanyol until 1930, guiding them to win their maiden Copa del Rey title, and also played the first La Liga season in 1929.
In 1930, Zamora’s performance with a broken sternum in an international friendly against England at Estadio Metropolitano de Madrid was enough for Madrid to pick him up for an astounding 150,000 pesetas, of which he personally received an enormous 40,000 pesetas, making him the highest-earning player in Europe of the time. Zamora’s eventual move to Madrid resulted in a downfall with his once admired Barça fans, who suspected him of having allegiance with anti-Catalan institutions.
At Madrid, Zamora partnered with the stopper-backs Ciriaco and Quincoces to form one of the best defenses by conceding just 15 goals from 18 matches in the league and lifted the first LaLiga title with an unbeaten record. The following season Los Blancos signed his compadre and Barca teammate Samitier and retained the league title by conceding only 17 goals. In spite of the disappointments in the league in 1934 and 1936, he guided them to lift the 1936 Copa del Rey trophy by playing a crucial role in the final against Barcelona. It was inarguably one of the best and crucial performances of his career.
The Cup final tie played at Valencia between Barcelona and Madrid was the last competitive match before the Civil war. The match was going into the final minutes with Madrid leading 2-1 and Barca was pressing high and surrounded Zamora alone in the box. After receiving the ball in the final third, an inform Jose Escola who already scored one back, fired the ball hard and low aiming for the inside post. The dry pitch was covered with blinding dust and it was obscuring the view. The crowd was already screaming and started celebrating the goal. When the dust was cleared, Zamora stood there indifferently holding the ball in his hand. A photograph that was taken near the post, the dive he pulled off seconds before the stupendous save remains one of the iconic images of a goalkeeper in the world of football. A photograph that broke the heart and soul of cules.
The Spanish Civil War broke out in July 1936. Zamora who had a sound relationship with the Franco regiment was captured by the left-wing militia and imprisoned at the Modelo prison. However ABC, a pro-nationalistic paper reported the execution of Zamora and finding his lifeless body in a canal-side in Moncloa district. Nationalistic forces used this as an opportunity to strengthen their propaganda.
Zamora hailed as a gallant victim of the radical left violence. Nationalists were able to exploit the commotion caused by the alleged death of Zamora and in 1934 he was awarded a medal of the Order of the Republic by his namesake by then president of the second Spanish republic, Niceto Zamora. Whilst all this was happening, Zamora was in fact living his life with his regular three-pack cigarettes and cognac in the town of Nice in France. He was partnered with Josep Samitier who fled the country for the same cause, for the third time to play for the local club OG Nice.
Zamora returned to his native in December 1938 to participate in a benefit match between Spain and Real Sociedad, for the Francoist militia. He was later honored by the Franco regiment by the Great Cross of the Order of Cisneros in the 1950s, an evident validation for the great services to the regime. Zamora died in 1978, leaving behind a rather complicated and memorable career. La Liga honoured his majestic contributions by naming the award (Ricardo Zamora Trophy) for the best goalkeeper in the league after him.
“As with so many figures from the dark ages of football, it is difficult to separate the truth from the misty-eyed recollections, but everyone seems to insist that Zamora was the greatest, better than Yashin, Zoff, Banks, Arconada, and any others you care to mention”.Phil Ball | Morbo: The Story of Spanish Football (2003)
He remains one of the most important figures in the history of Barcelona and in Spanish football. He might have left on bad terms, but the Blaugrana still adorns the impact and legacy that Zamora left behind. The golden generation of the 1920s was the foundation that established Barça as one of the best sporting entities in Spanish football. His magnetic presence in front of the goal not only won them trophies but inspired the generations of talents to pursue the keeping role. The times when goalkeepers were overlooked for their contributions and presence on the pitch, It was the ‘the divine one’ sent by the heavens to finally write a new testament for those who guard the goal post.