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Making of More than a club: the socio-political origins of FC Barcelona



Our Guest Author: Amal Gosh

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, and is not known completely by Culés, which is seen from the results in quizzes on sports. 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.