Football Club Barcelona, founded in 1899 by Joan Gamper, still retains in its fans the strong ideology and socio-political beliefs that were cultivated during the origins of such institution.
There is an aphorism in Spanish, ‘A camino largo, paso corto’, which literally translates into ‘Long way, short step’. In 1899, a group of foreigners laid the foundation for the football club Barcelona. It was a small step in the long way to which it embarked an avant-garde footballing philosophy and cultivated a collective identity for the Catalan populace.
The history of FC Barcelona conferred on its duality in terms of the brand of football and the deeply rooted allegiance to Catalan nationalism. Barcelona emerged as a fortress to defend Catalan nationalism, culture, and independence. Moreover, a political adherence conspired against the aristocratic, right-wing regimes. The history that we perceive is limited to the big centres of power. The history of Catalonia and Barcelona exemplifies decades of oppression and socio-political mutiny.
Perhaps, the narratives and resilient stories of Barcelona during the Franco regiment overshadowed the past that defined both Catalonia and the club. Indeed, the Franco reign was an unprecedented period in the history of the club. However, it is important to grasp the origin and foundation of this convoluted politics.
September 11, 1794, witnessed the end of the siege of Catalonia, when Philip V annexed the province, abolished various native institutions and banned the Catalan language in schools. It was the dethroning of both Catalan nationhood and identity. After the age of French invasions and aristocratic rules, in the second third of the 19th century, Catalonia became an industrial centre, thanks to the pro-industrialization policies by the Spanish government.
Many company towns bloomed in the city, which caused a spike in the proletarian population who were employed in these companies. Barcelona had seen a multitude of uprisings during this period, collectively known as ‘bullangues’ causing serious discontents among different sectors in the Catalan society. The working-class population registered their contention against the tyrannical kingship.
FC Barcelona have always been strongly connected to the Catalan identity | Photo by Josep Lago / AFP via Getty Images
Meanwhile, Catalonia witnessed a period of ‘renaixenca’ – Renaissance – which transformed the socio-cultural outlook of the bourgeois population. This period exemplified appreciation, pleasing and obliterated absurdity, and banalities. In fact, the renaixenca influenced the predecessors of Catalan football to construct an intellectual footballing style, which decorated FC Barcelona and eventually the Spanish football itself.
On a fine evening in 1899, a 22-year-old Swiss executive Hans Kamper arrived in Barcelona, having founded a football club, FC Zurich, in his native land and looking for a new footballing enterprise in a striving Catalan bourgeois economy. Kamper introduced football to an estranged Catalan population in Barcelona who were suffocating from the oppressive regimes.
Nevertheless, Kamper was aware of the ongoing tension in the Catalan society, and he acknowledged the significance of Catalan sentiments during his endeavour to promote football in Barcelona. Kamper adopted the Catalan name Joan Gamper to further merge into the Catalan culture. After publishing a notice in Los Deportes magazine to gather fellow football enthusiasts, Gamper managed to settle on the Solé gym as the auspicious space to have the first meeting of the team.
On 29th November 1899, Joan Gamper presided over the debut meeting of the club at the Solé gym. This historical gathering consisted of a diverse group of individuals. Gamper, Walter Wild and Otto Kunzlef from Switzerland; John and William Parsons from England; Otto Maier from Germany; and Lluis de Ossó, Bartomeu Terradas, Enric Ducal, Pere Cabot, Carles Pujol and Josep Llobert from Catalonia. Walter Wilde, who was exceptional with his playing skills among the rest of the founders, became the first president of Football Club Barcelona. This assorted collective inaugurated an association that would abide the pride and expression of Catalan nationalism.
Gamper laid foundations for the club, reflecting the club’s devoir for social integrity, in which the collective duties of a democratic society were governed independently by the members. However, it was the Catalan society that influenced simultaneously in his envision and moral foundations for the club.
Barça’s ideology has always opposed to that of their local rivals Espanyol, who have historically had compliance to the central authority | Photo by Pau Barrena / AFP via Getty Images
Although Gamper’s intention was to promote football in Barcelona, he kick-started a legacy that would stun the regiments and power structures. In the early years, Barcelona lined-up foreigners living and working in the city. This situation changed as the club changed its official language from Castilian to Catalan. From the early 1910s onwards, the club aligned exclusively with Catalan nationalism and regarded it as an important socio-political symbol of Catalan identity. Participating in the club had more to do with an expression of collective identity over football.
Still, this gradual transformation of Barcelona into ‘més que un club’ – more than a club – was an upset to the tyrannical regime in Spain. In 1911, the club associated the cross of St. Jordi along with the red and yellow stripes of Catalonia in the badge. Whilst Espanyol, a rival club from the city, supported the oppressive kingship and incorporated the royal crown in their badge. This dichotomy between the two clubs remains a debate between the aristocracy and liberal-left politics.
FC Barcelona played their first-ever match against Hispania in 1900. They wore the famous blue and red colour jersey inspired by Gamper’s home team FC Basel. Even though there were different accounts for the origin of the jersey, it has always been identified with Catalan politics.
Even with such an intricate political climate in Catalonia, the club grew rapidly and the number of members increased from 201 in 1909 to more than 2,000 within a short span of time. In 1909, Gamper rescued the club from bankruptcy and took charge as the new club president. Every match the club played produced such a euphoric atmosphere among the fans. They would gather at the Passeig de Gràcia station to celebrate victories, which started ever since triumphing Real Madrid in the Spanish Championship in 1910.
FC Barcelona gained its character and philosophy during the period from 1909 to 1919. The local domination of the club in the 1908/09 campaign marked the beginning of a sophisticated footballing style that the club still possesses. By 1919, Barcelona had won five titles in the Catalan championship, including an exceptional unbeaten season in the 1909/10. Paulino Alcántara, Ricardo Zamora and Pepe Samitier were the three pivots who moulded the philosophy and led the club in its first golden age.
Paulino Alcántara was arguably the first elite figure in the club’s history. In his debut season in the 1911/12, aged just fifteen, he was an exceptional talent. He scored a staggering 369 goals from 357 appearances, becoming the club’s top scorer until the reign of Lionel Messi. Zamora was the charismatic presence between the sticks, whilst Samitier orchestrated the game and manipulated the ball up on his wish.
The mesmerizing performances by the club and its association with Catalan nationalism attracted the working-class population to the matches. On 20th May 1922, the club inaugurated a new stadium, Les Corts, which had a capacity of 22,000 and was later expanded to 60,000. Les Corts became the ‘cathedral of football’, where the sonorous hymns hailed the Catalan hegemony. Apart from the pleasing football, the collective political opportunism packed Les Corts in every single match the club played.
The political beliefs have been maintained in culés up to today, perhaps being even now more present than ever before | Photo by Eric Alonso via Getty Images
The glory days ended in 1925 as the dictator Primo de Rivera came into power. The club stumbled on the political conflicts between the Spanish nationalist forces and Catalan liberal movements. Les Corts turned out to be the space where the people would assemble and raise slogans in Catalan. More than a sporting entity, Barcelona became a political expression against dictatorial rule. As a reprisal to the public jeering of the Spanish anthem in one of the games, the government shut down the stadium for six months.
Notwithstanding, Barcelona had their most celebrated and significant Cup triumph in 1928. In the final of the Spanish Championship or Copa del Rey, Barcelona outplayed Real Sociedad in a 3–1 victory, thanks to the commemorated performance from the goalkeeper Ferenc Plattkó. Les Corts had become a warzone, as every match ended with pitch invading and military interventions. The club became a prime target of the dictatorial regime to suppress the Catalan counter forces.
Soon after the pitch shutdown, Gamper was forced to relinquish the presidency role by the regime. After falling into depression, Gamper committed suicide on 30 July 1930, having left his legacy behind the closed doors of Les Corts but inside the wide-open hearts of the Catalan people. The club entered a period of decline, evading success at a national level. It was not too long before the beginning of the Spanish civil war, which threw the club into a period of military uprisings.
The historical narratives as we know from the Spanish civil war onwards defined the club as it is now. Even so, it was the accounts that we left behind that inspired the club to survive the long period of hardships to become the harbinger of a delicate footballing philosophy and Catalan nationalism. It was the story of a club that is more than a club.
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.