Lionel Messi has broken pretty much every record in the book during his time with Barcelona. But as JASON VENZOR explains, even his achievements can be rivalled by the club’s first great foreign import.
FC Barcelona has been known somewhat paradoxically as a club that represents two opposing ideals – that of being the ultimate expression of a specific place and region (Catalunya) while also attracting the biggest stars in the global game and supporters from all walks of life and nations.
That Barça is the kind of club that seems to be equally associated with the autonomous aspirations of Catalunya as much as their exorbitant bidding wars with Real Madrid for superstar international players (from Alfredo Di Stefano to David Beckham and Neymar Jr.) is a paradox that seems to pass with each new trophy. Indeed, if there has been a dissonance to the name of Qatar appearing on the front of their jerseys – just recently replaced by Japanese company Rakuten – the club sought to reaffirm their cultural identity by basing recent away kits on the thousand-year-old Senyera flag. As ever, when their new-model recruits sign and celebrate with the club, the refrain required of them in Catalan, no matter where they were born, remains the same: “Visca Barça, Visca Catalunya!”
Perhaps no player exemplified this duality as ideally as Johan Cruyff, who signed for the club in 1973 for a world record transfer and promptly set about immersing himself famously within Catalan culture, much to the chagrin of the Franco regime. But the tightrope of culture, nationalism, and playing the game at the highest level is a precarious one to walk. One need only look at Lionel Messi’s experience as an Argentine international; regularly pilloried in difficult moments by the extravagantly frustrated sectors of his countrymen who claim he is more a Spaniard than an Argentine.
There are no rules to straddling cultures. Only ideals to strive toward and pitfalls to avoid.
In the clamour for Messi, Neymar, and Suarez, there is a tendency to overlook the foundation that got us to this place of international superstar footballers. For though Messi is the team’s all-time leading scorer, it is important to note that he only took that title in the spring of 2014, nearly ten years after having been turned loose on La Liga. The man who’d held the club scoring record for over 87 years up to Messi’s achievement was the original international sensation at Barça, Paulino Alcántara.
Iloilo City, the Philippines in 1896 was a tumultuous place. Though the Philippine Revolution was underway, many of the local Ilonggo population had a favourable relationship with the Spanish colonisers and initially discouraged the insurgency. Iloilo City had been something of a model port with regards to not only the Spanish (who went so far as to declare it ‘The Queen’s Favoured City In The South’), but also the British, French, and particularly the German immigrants who came and ingratiated themselves through the trade of tobacco. Inter-marriage and mixed-race children were not out of the ordinary, and it was in this environment that Eduardo Alcántara – a Spanish officer stationed in Iloilo – married a Spanish-Ilongga mestiza, Victoriana Camilan Riestra. The couple would have seven children together, with Paulino being born on October 7, 1896.
The apparent harmony the Ilonggo people of the region had with the Spanish during the Filipino revolution was so strong that it extended to fighting against their fellow Filipinos in defence of the Spanish crown. Noted forces of Ilonggo military volunteers that fought for Spain against Katipunan Filipino Revolutionaries successfully in 1897 and 1898, were greeted upon their return to Iloilo City in April 1898 with some fanfare. Though after hundreds of years, Spain’s hold on the nation was diminished and the United States was poised to wrestle their colonies away. The stability that had evolved over centuries of Spanish rule was in tumult, and the complex cultural balance of Ilonggo, Mestizo, Spanish, Chinese, German and others was upended.
Football is thought to have been introduced to the Philippines in 1895 by British sailors, and then spread further by Filipino students who’d returned to the country after being exposed to it in Hong Kong, going on to form the first nascent clubs in Manila. The initial interest in the sport was tempered by scepticism at the foreign game, and then much more so by the onset of the Spanish-American War.
The short-lived flash of time between the collapse of the Spanish colonial structure, and the domination of the country by the US allowed for virtually no time of independence. The subsequent US military policy “permitting no neutrality” meant that you were either an ally and friend to the US military neo-colonisers, or an outright enemy that was treated as a rival combatant. Even compared to the colonial Spanish, this was seen as heavy-handed and callous, and the US seemed less inclined to view their Philippine subjects as entitled to the measure of human rights and respect with which their European counterparts had treated them.
The transitioning years saw tremendous instability as disease outbreaks, disrupted trade, and an unchecked military presence of Americans stomped out a path to ‘friendship’ between the US and the Philippines. Though football had only just begun its incubation in the Philippines, the US introduced basketball to their new territory and within a short time, it boomed in popularity that far surpassed football. The pool of footballing talent that was available on the islands would largely go to waste – with a notable exception.
In 1905, Eduardo Alcántara packed up his family from the Philippines and headed back to his homeland to raise his children in Barcelona. Football in Spain had yet to grip the nation, and the first exhibitions and public games were overwhelmingly comprised of Englishmen who were working abroad. Even in Catalunya, football was just beginning to take shape with the first club in the region having been founded in 1898 (said to be Palamós FC). It wouldn’t be until November 1899 that Swiss-born Joan (né Hans) Gamper founded FC Barcelona.
The early days of football in Catalunya were expectedly disorganised, with local competitions falling prey to the inconsistencies of a pastime that was still in its infancy. The need for a reliable ongoing competition would see local league cups transition rapidly in the early years of the 20th century – from the Copa Macaya, to the Copa Barcelona, until eventually the Campionat de Catalunya would be the de facto league of the region. A unified Spanish Liga would still not be formed for decades. Officiation was frequently partisan and contested, with clubs known to boycott games in objection to decisions.
In 1912, fifteen-year old Paulino Alcántara was scouted by FC Galeno – a Barcelona club that was founded by and largely made up of medical students and young doctors. The club would play their games in the courtyard of a local hospital, and counted among their founders Carles Comamala. Comamala was also an early member of FC Barcelona, and would be the successor to Joan Gamper as the head of Barça, in addition to being a practicing orthopaedist.
Before he got to make his debut for Galeno, however, Comamala’s friend and compatriot at FC Barcelona, Gamper, swooped in and signed Paulino and instantly inserted him into the attack of the Blaugrana. Football a hundred years ago bore little resemblance to the tactically organised systems of today. At FC Barcelona, the team favoured a five-man forward line of attackers with just two defenders protecting their goal. How every game didn’t end up a ten-ten draw is a mystery, but on the debut of Alcántara against Catalá SC, Alcántara scored a hat-trick to open the match, and Barça routed their rivals 9-0. Catalá SC had been founded only weeks before FC Barcelona, and they self-identified as the first club founded in the city. Within a few years of Alcántara’s debut they would be relegated from the Campionat de Catalunya. They disappeared forever in the late 1920s. Paulino, aged 15 years, four months and 18 days remains to this day the youngest person to play for Barça.
The impact of Paulino was immediate and indelible. Though Barça had performed generally well during the time leading up to Alcántara’s arrival, championships and cups were by no means a guarantee. Local rivals FC Espanya, and CD Espanyol (which would be largely comprised of the intriguingly named X SC, a club that performed well in the first decade of the 1900s before being absorbed into the current cross-town rivals of the Blaugrana), were strong competitors at the time of Paulino’s debut. Though there were still controversies within the leagues at the time, and Barça would actually withdraw from the established local cup competition for the 1912-1913 season, Paulino managed to help the team secure two Catalan championships and a Spanish Cup in a few short years.
In 1916, however, just as Paulino was beginning to enter his physical prime with his football club maintaining momentum, his family moved back to the Philippines and took him along to study medicine in Manila. True to form, he joined local football club Bohemians, who became the dominant team in the nation. Alcántara would lead them to local success, and get recruited to play for the Filipino national team at the 1917 Tokyo Far Eastern Championship Games. It was there that he played during what remains the country’s high-water achievement in football, as the Philippines destroyed Japan 15-2. Astonishingly enough, he also represented the Philippines in table tennis.
The accolades he’d accrued in Asia notwithstanding, Paulino was desperate to return to Barcelona. In late 1917, he contracted malaria and refused to take medication to remedy it until he was allowed to go back to Spain and get back on the pitch. His family acquiesced and the phenomenon was soon back in Catalunya, where he resumed the form that helped the Blaugrana lift trophies once again.
Three years later he was chosen to represent Spain in the Olympics, but instead of going with La Roja to the Antwerp games he elected to take his final medical exams instead, missing out on Spain’s silver medal finish to host nation Belgium’s gold. There was doubtless an air of ‘what if…’ as one of the great talents of the day prioritised medicine over the relative frivolity of sport. He would get his Spanish national team debut a year later, at the age of 25, and score six goals in five appearances for Spain – including a brace in a 2-0 victory over Belgium. Alcántara would go undefeated in the Spanish national team.
Without film or indeed many photos of Paulino, it is hard to truly understand what gifts he possessed on the pitch, but there remain accounts of his legendary cannon foot. It is said that a policeman guarding the pitch in a game at Real Sociedad in 1919 ventured too close to the goal, and Paulino shot with such strength that both the ball and the officer ended up in the back of the net. Cementing his legend, a 1922 game played for Spain against France saw his shot rip through the back of the net. This feat earned him the nickname “Trencaxarxes” – the net breaker.
Alcántara would figure prominently for FC Barcelona until his retirement in 1927, at the age of 31. During his Blaugrana career, he was a fundamental component of their boom into super-club status. It was during his spell at the team that the club membership exploded from a few hundred, to over 20,000. They also had to move their home from the 8,000 capacity Camp de la Indústria, to Les Cortes which fit 30,000 initially (though it would be expanded to accommodate 60,000 in the 1940s). Alcántara was an exotic talent to the Barcelona fans, and he attracted supporters with his abundant magnetism, brooding good looks, and signature white bandana that he tied to his waist. After he retired from football with at least 357 goals in all competitions, the club seemed to spiral somewhat. He would go on to be a director at the club from 1931-1934, while maintaining his practice as a urologist.
In 1930, Joan Gamper committed suicide as the club faced increasing pressure from the government for their outspoken advocacy for an independent Catalunya. Having had Les Cortes shut by the military for six months after the Barça supporters booed the Spanish national anthem, the climate in Catalunya became fraught with the repressive tension that would characterise much of the ensuing decades.
Likewise, the Franco fascist government became more draconian towards any dissent from the Catalans, and would murder FCB president Josep Sunyol in August 1936, only two days after Alcántara fled to Andorra, briefly, before returning to Spain. Much like the Americans in the Philippines, Franco had a black or white policy when it came to allies and enemies, and the costs for being a member of the opposition were brutal.
This life-or-death context, along with Paulino’s own upbringing as the son of a Spanish colonial soldier who had been received so warmly in his father’s homeland should be considered when learning of his participation in the Francoist army. Originally identifying himself as a Carlist conservative, he joined the Francoist army during the Spanish Civil War and served as a Lieutenant in the Black Arrows fascist brigade. The extent that he served medically or militarily is not totally clear, but what is apparent is that aligning with Franco on any level in Catalunya during the time was a socially precarious decision that was anything but black and white.
As the Spanish Civil war settled and the opposition to Franco was largely defeated by 1939, Alcántara settled into a kind of place of esteem in Spain. His medical practice was successful, and he still was recognised as a living legend. He married and had two sons. In 1951, he was briefly one of the Spanish national team coaches. He lived out his days in Barcelona, and passed away at the age of 67, on February 13, 1964.
What remains so mysterious about Alcántara was how he could navigate football, family, culture, and politics when the stakes were so incredibly high. Something of a stranger in all lands in which he lived, he managed to become a legend in an exceedingly dangerous time. The record of his athletic achievements still towers above all but Messi, and he was never uprooted away from his club as Alcántara was, or forced to perform under such swirling uncertainty and violent turmoil. Indeed, the fact that he broke through the nets of his opponents seems to serve as an ideal metaphor for a man who could not be contained within a single culture, political ideology, or philosophy. A complex microcosm unto himself, he remains the greatest Asian footballer ever and one of the cornerstones the legend of FC Barcelona is built on.
JASON VENZOR – @melvillesghost