Football is proof that legends never die. Throughout history, players and managers that have entered the hall of fame always stayed in people’s minds, dead or alive. For example, Johan Cruyff passed away four years ago on the 24th of March, but his ideologies are still well and truly alive to this day. The magic Dutchman played in the 70s and managed in the 90s, but he is still relevant and regarded as the father of modern football. Johan’s Dream Team consisted of three attackers, and Barcelona are still attached to this vision of football to this day. While Hristo Stoichkov, Romário and Laudrup left long ago, other superstars have emerged and flourished in the system Barcelona employs.
One of the first systems Pep Guardiola, a disciple of Cruyff, utilised at Barça was formed by three of the game’s best legends. The first one was a young Leo Messi, still searching for consistency even though he was one of the brightest prospects in the world at the time. Messi, while impressing, had several injury problems in his early career and that correlated with his poor diet. However, when Pep coached the Argentine, he changed him entirely, and the then-youngster’s professionalism improved drastically.
The second one was Thierry Henry. After flopping at Juventus, Henry came back from the dead at Highbury and under Arsène Wenger, a man who taught him a lot while together. Henry was one of the Premier League’s top scorers, one of Arsenal’s most influential players ever and an invincible before joining the Catalans in 2008, two years after losing the Champions League final against them. Under Guardiola, Thierry adapted to the left wing spot, a position he had not played much at Arsenal, and he found success making way for the next player.
❛ When he arrived, I reminded Guardiola that he’d never been a great player. I told him in no uncertain terms that Eto’o was the one who would make him win ❜
Samuel Eto’o is one of Barcelona’s best-ever strikers. Way before the Luis Suárez’s days, the Cameroonian scored left, right and centre for the blaugranas, making every culé forget his Los Blancos past. When Pep joined, however, the two men did not get along on the slightest. In an interview for Bein Sports France, the man who won two trebles in a row was ruthless when talking about Pep, saying that the Catalan did not treat him right and even went through Samuel’s friends to talk to him, while he only approached Eto’o to speak with Yaya Touré.
❛ I did a lot for the club. Guardiola was unlucky enough to have to play me for twenty minutes against Chivas and I scored three goals. From then on, he never had the courage to say things to my face. I didn’t want to talk to him until he apologised to me ❜
In the only season the trio of Messi, Henry and Eto’o were together, they absolutely demolished every rival in front of them. While Pep’s first few two league games were winless, he could count on those three superstars to change a game when needed, and results began to show as the season went by, much like MSN and their slow start. Moreover, Eto’o’s astronomical numbers propelled Barcelona to an unprecedented treble, in which they destroyed everyone.
❛ I told him ten times, and explained it to him at length. Pep wanted to give me lessons on how to be a striker when he was a midfielder. I said to him, ‘You’re not normal, are you?’ The true story is that Pep never respected these things in the world of football ❜
The African Ballon d’Or scored 36 goals and opened the scoring in Rome against Manchester United to show the way to his teammates. The forward then found himself in Melan, being part of a swap deal for Zlatan Ibrahimović’s shambolic transfer to the Camp Nou, as Eto’o won a second consecutive treble at Inter and defied the odds to become the only player to achieve that feat to this day.
An unstoppable front three in the way to Barcelona’s first treble | Photo by PanoramiC via Imago
Messi and Henry also contributed heavily to the success of Guardiola’s first campaign. As mentioned, Thierry was in the manager’s good books thanks to his selflessness, and he was one of the focal points in that course, netting 26 times in all competitions and assisting his teammates on 11 occasions. Truly astronomical statistics from a legendary attacker. That season also meant Pedro Rodríguez broke through and the La Masía graduate was part of another trio that won a lot in 2011, with his emergence meaning that Thierry Henry would be sold in 2010.
❛ With Guardiola I learned to play football again at 30 years of age ❜
However, an essential part of the 2008/09 term was, obviously, Leo Messi, who finally fulfilled his potential. Before Pep, the number 10 didn’t have the best mentors, and while his potential was evident, as Ronaldinho and everyone that played with him said, something was missing when the golden boy was playing, as if he lacked something. When Guardiola first set foot at Camp Nou, his first decision was to make La Pulga a focal point of the team because of his undeniable ability. The then-20-year-old showed his class, outscoring Samuel Eto’o with his 38 goals, an unbelievable feat at the time, and providing 18 assists in total. Messi became the best player in the squad and finally found consistency at a vital moment of his trajectory. He won the Ballon d’Or following his header against United in Rome to double the lead in the 2009 final, or his complete performance away at the Bernabéu which saw his side humiliate Madrid by six goals to two exactly 11 years ago.
❛ The first day he entered the dressing room, I didn’t dare look at his face. I knew everything he had done in England. I had a picture of him made and suddenly we were on the same team ❜
on Thierry Henry
Pep’s first campaign as a head coach was genuinely mesmerising, and he couldn’t have done it without his front three, who always gave their all for the squad and were classy from start to finish. That trio is deeply anchored in the history of FC Barcelona because they changed the scenery for years to come. Before Pep and that trio was assembled, Juan Román Riquelme’s Villarreal finished ahead of Barça by an unbelievable margin. But then the azulgranas rose again, and their current gigantic status comes from the recent trebles that began with Messi, Henry and Eto’o, surely some of the biggest names in the Barcelona folklore.
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.