Barça’s three years with Messi, Suárez and Neymar, a front three that had by name MSN, were truly magical. A trip down memory lane wouldn’t hurt for culés.
Once upon a time in Barcelona, three magicians were united to show their tricks every time they had an outting. It feels like Barcelona has always been a city of sheer attacking brilliance and magic. The city is an absolute theatre on its own and lives from its football as if it was its lungs. Football has never been more brilliant than when Johan Cruyff or Pep Guardiola have guided their teams to success with their bold principles and their positivity towards the game. Intensity, pressing, ball circulation and Juego de Posición, all is there to play a mesmerising brand of football, which shall not be named tiki-taka as the great Pep once suggested. Tiki-taka is useless ball circulation with no purpose and forward thinking behind it.
“I loathe all that passing for the sake of it, all that tiki-taka. It’s so much rubbish and has no purpose. You have to pass the ball with a clear intention, with the aim of making it into the opposition’s goal. It’s not about passing for the sake of it”
–– Pep Guardiola
The style of play that is played by those geniuses is an attacking masterpiece that requires incredible talent and above average ability. Indeed, one of the biggest reasons Guardiola struggled a bit in his first season at the Etihad is that he didn’t have technically gifted attackers as Raheem Sterling, Leroy Sané and Gabriel Jesus weren’t as mature as they are nowadays and his team suffered a lot offensively in the process. At his boyhood club, Pep played with a 4–3–3 consisting of three superb forwards that had the technical ability to dribble 6 players and score like Leo Messi did against Getafe in 2007. The trend of having an illustrious front three continued throughout the years and, ever since the tactical approach became more pragmatic under Valverde, the attackers seem to rely too much on their talisman Leo Messi.
Together, the MSN conquered all of Spain and Europe
However, in the 2014/15 term, Luis Enrique opted with a top heavy 4–3–3 and it worked for him. Lionel Messi, Luis Suárez and Neymar Júnior were the three aliens in the squad and carried their team even though they were helped by their outstanding supporting cast. In fairness, MSN wouldn’t be the same had Iniesta not run the whole length of the pitch to assist Neymar against PSG in the Champions League quarter-final, or if Pedro Rodríguez never scored in his last ever game in blaugrana. However, the South Americans were Barça’s main focus for almost three years and developed a friendship that never stopped growing after that game against Atlético de Madrid in January of 2015.
For years, the squad relied on those three and they rarely failed to deliver. The opposition were petrified every time they had to go against a front line that scored 365 from Luis Suárez’s hard debut against Madrid that ended in a 3–1 defeat, to their last display against Alavés in the Copa del Rey before Neymar decided to pack his bags for Paris. 365 goals in 3 campaigns. A baffling and terrifying stat that made the side win a lot against any rival.
Their first iconic game is surely that night against Atlético in January of 2015 in La Liga. It’s fair to say that the three of them didn’t have much chemistry in their first few months in Catalonia together. Their first game together was absolutely abysmal despite, in the first minutes of the game, the culés saw glimpses of what they were capable with Neymar scoring his first Clásico goal in 4 minutes in October of 2014. That was 4 months after Suárez’ bite on Chiellini, which got him suspended from any involvement in football for the next months, and he had a baptism of fire in a heavy defeat that didn’t matter in the end for the azulgranas.
The first stellar display from the MSN was the 3–1 to Atlético de Madrid at the Camp Nou on 11 January 2015
In the Champions League group stages, they struggled but got through as winners and were drawn against Manchester City in the round of 16. After that disastrous afternoon against Real Sociedad at Anoeta that started in shambolic fashion with a Jordi Alba own goal and ended in a goalless loss for Barcelona, Luis Enrique’s seat wasn’t as comfortable as it seemed and Lucho had to get through it and find solutions, quickly. The three up top began to take matters into their own hands and scored goals left, right and centre and no one could ever catch them.
In the Clásico that followed, Suárez scored the winner at Camp Nou and the league looked like a walk in the park. In the second half of the campaign, they were a truly unstoppable force. And they carried from their treble-winning season, in which they outscored the best of the best in Manchester City, PSG, Bayern Munich and Juventus, like a storm scoring lots of goals and looking as if they were going to win the treble again. However, Atleti was in the way again and their own Cholo‘s game plan worked and stopped the MSN. Domestically, nonetheless, they played a superb brand of football and were once again crowned La Liga champions with Suárez winning the Golden Boot. That course, the absolute best striker in the world was Uruguayan and had a fine eye for goal. Suárez destroyed sides on his own and there were even some games where he scored 4 and assisted 3, as if it was normal. He reached 59 goals and 40 of them came in the league, an absolute mythological beast.
“The friendship that we had was something very beautiful. What I miss from Barcelona and about Barcelona is these two, due to the joy we had on a daily basis”
–– Neymar, on Messi and Suárez
It all started to fall apart a year later, though. Although the MSN scored lots once again, the lack of balance in the team was clear. But the MSN had one final sensational game. Losing 4–0 at the Parc Des Princes and being pocketed by a defence composed of the likes of Thomas Meunier and Presnel Kimpembe was hard to digest for the Catalans and they had plans to overturn that first leg defeat and win the tie on aggregate. Like Luis Enrique said it, “if they can score 4, we can score 6” and Neymar wasn’t inclined to accept defeat either and had “99% faith” even if there was “1% chance”.
Neymar was the driving force of 2017’s Remontada against PSG, the club he would then join to put an end to the MSN
The Brazilian took matters into his own hands and absolutely destroyed his future side with a performance that ensured tension for the final minutes. On minute 88, with the score being 3–1, Neymar scored a superb free-kick to make it 4–1 and his transformed penalty accompanied by his assist to the hero of the night Sergio Roberto were the reasons why Barça qualified to the quarter-finals, only to lose to a better Juventus side. After Neymar departed, nothing was ever the same and the blaugranas are still searching for his successor in vain. All in all, MSN’s superb displays in three years made them enter the club’s hall of fame and arguably made them the best trio to ever play football, let alone for Barça. Their trophy cabinet is now littered with achievements and records that seem unbreakable. Football was truly spectacular with them in the same team.
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.