After having asked ourselves what would have happened if Di Stéfano had joined Barcelona instead of Madrid, and if Guardiola had never coached the Catalans, we wonder what if Luís Figo had stayed at the Camp Nou.
When the name Luís Figo is said in front of Barcelona fans, words like traitor come to mind. His 62 million euro transfer to Real Madrid left a bitter taste in the mouths of culés and his visits to Camp Nou were, to say the least, unwelcome. A once fan favourite had now transferred to their biggest enemy. But what if Figo had never left for Los Blancos? What if he had continued his career at Catalonia?
Figo joined Barça in 1995 following a controversy regarding his contract in Italy. He formed great partnerships first with Ronaldo and then with Rivaldo. After Cruyff’s departure, Bobby Robson was brought in as a replacement. In the 1996/97 campaign, the league slipped through Barcelona’s hands, but they managed to bring in trophies by winning the Copa del Rey and the UEFA Cup Winner’s Cup. Despite Robson’s promising first year, changes were made at the Camp Nou with Louis Van Gaal taking the reins for the 1997/98 term.
The team did bring in success by winning two La Ligas and one Copa del Rey, but it wasn’t the same free flowing side it used to be. But Figo rose up as Barça’s main man, scoring crucial goals and leading the club to success on his path to becoming the best player in the world. In the 1999/2000 season, the club crashed down to earth domestically though it did offer competition on the European stage. Yet Figo continued to grow as a player and was a shining star amongst the club’s darkness. In the summer of 2000, both Figo and Van Gaal departed, leaving the club in a state of chaos.
❛ It was a tough and important decision because I left a city that was giving me a lot and where I was in a good position, but when you feel you are not acknowledged for what you’re doing and you receive an offer from another club, you think about it ❜
on his exit from Barcelona to Madrid
Figo was known for his creativity and ability to beat defenders, often using step overs to get past opponents. In the year 2000, Figo won the Ballon d’Or largely for his contribution to the blaugranas. His departure generated immense hatred amongst the culés for a player whom they had adored. But not only did his transfer affect Barça, as it also affected Figo’s career. At Barcelona he was their most important player, often looked to for inspiration as he was the club captain, shouldering responsibility and leading the team through the ups and downs. Nonetheless, at the Bernabéu, he was just one among many Galácticos alongside Zidane, Beckham, Ronaldo and Michael Owen – even if he was a fundamental one, of course.
❛ To play for Barcelona means to have an opportunity for a brilliant career. But to reach the top of it, you have to play for Real Madrid ❜
At Madrid, Figo did achieve success, winning the Champions League twice and La Liga once, but success escaped them for the three years after 2003. With the signing of Beckham, Luís was forced to compete for the right wing position and also had to play out of position at times. Finally he left for Inter Milan in 2005.
Had Figo stayed at Barcelona, he would have remained the club’s talisman. With his help, it would have been easier to rebuild the team and bring it back to its former glory. With Ronaldinho joining in 2003, Samuel Eto’o in 2004 and Xavi, Puyol, Iniesta and Lionel Messi coming through the academy in the years following, Figo would have laid a stronger foundation for the azulgranas to build on. He would have been in his 30s at the beginning of Barça’s golden generation and a world-class player like him, alongside other greats like Ronaldinho, would have given Barcelona a head start. With him, the club would have had a leader to guide and influence their La Masía graduates and to team up with Dinho and Eto’o. Since those would have been the twilight years of his career, he would have helped the club in transitioning to a younger generation by providing a reliable back-up if the youngsters gave a poor showing while also adding the essential experience to the side.
It was the way in which he left what made Figo be much more hated by Barcelona fans than Ronaldo Nazário | Photo by Denis Doyle via Getty Images
For Luís Figo himself, maybe the Champions League would have escaped him during his prime and it might have been won by him with Barcelona in his final few years. Furthermore, he would have been spared the hatred that his former fans gave him. He would still have a high level of respect in the eyes of us culés. Moreover, instead of being one of Real Madrid’s many superstars, he would have been a standout player beloved to his fans. Whether his presence would have guaranteed success remains a mystery we cannot know the answer to. But it would definitely have eased the transition to the newer, younger generation.
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.