Over 100 years ago, Philippine-born Paulino Alcántara burst onto the scene with his creative genius and sparked FC Barcelona’s golden era. His contribution to the game was truly spectacular!
In August 1896 the Philippine Revolution broke out upon the discovery of anti-colonial secret organisations by the Spanish authorities. The Philipinnes was in the midst of armed military conflict between such organisations and the Spanish colonial authorities, in the struggle for independence. Many Spanish-governed provinces experienced uprisings, and although hostilities fluctuated in their intensity, they never completely stopped.
During this tempestuous period, Paulino Alcántara Riestrá was born in the Philippine city of Iloilo on the 7th October 1896 to a Spanish military officer father and a mother from the region. When Paulino was only 3 years old his family moved to Spain, and it became a positive life-altering decision for their son. It also coincided with the year in which Joan Gamper formed one of the world greatest football clubs in the history of the game – FC Barcelona. Unbeknown to Paulino at the time, he was to take the voyage of a lifetime…
Instability Countered by Initiative
By 1910, at the age of 14, Alcántara joined FC Galeno. It was there where he was discovered by Gamper, who had been FC Barcelona president since 1908, and was an ex-player at the club. Interestingly, Gamper still holds a club record for netting 9 goals in 3 different matches!
Gamper’s presidency concurred with a highly turbulent time for the Barcelona club, which was on the verge of crumpling – numerous players had departed and had not been replaced; the team’s performances were below par; and the club hadn’t attained any silverware since 1905 when they won the Campionat de Catalunya (Catalan Football Championship).
Gamper made drastic and enlightened decisions, which would help steer the club into one of its most successful eras. He firstly acquired FC Barcelona its own stadium. By March 1909, the club moved to the Carrer de la Indústria football grounds, which had an eventual 6,000-fan capacity (once the first one-of-a-kind two-tier stand was erected). 1910 was also an important year for FC Barcelona as their new coat of arms was designed, reflecting the club’s identity.
Soon after discovering Alcántara in 1910, Gamper ensured that this child prodigy was signed and made to play in the youth team. Not long thereafter, thanks to the youngster’s advanced skills and goalscoring ingenuity, Alcántara made his first team début in 1912. Alcántara had just taken his rightful place in this team, becoming its nucleus in the club’s historical period, which was to last for years to come.
Prior to this teen sensation’s arrival at Barça, there had never before been an Asian-born player represented in a European club. Furthermore, in making his first team début on the 25th February 1912, Alcántara became the youngest player (at 15 years, 4 months and 18 days) and youngest goalscorer in an official match. It was in Barça’s Campionat de Catalunya match against Catalá SC that Alcántara scored his hat-trick at the Carrer de la Indústria stadium. In front of approximately one hundred fans, Alcántara stunned everyone with his display in Barcelona’s 9-0 thrashing of their opponents. Hints of greater things to come were becoming evident for the club as the striker and his team took flight…
Although Alcántara was small in stature, he had a lethal strike packed with some serious punch, and driven by his electric speed, allowed him to add to his fast-increasing goal tally. It is said that ‘dynamite comes in small packages’! Alcántara’s break-through season (1912-’13) proved to be a fruitful one with the team winning the double: the Campionat de Catalunya and the Copa del Rey (Spanish Cup).
After a second Campionat de Catalunya title in 1916, Alcántara was forced to leave Spain as his family chose to return to the Philippines. Upon his return, the 20-year-old found his homeland in a state of transition, as the country was in the process of moving towards eventual independence. Alcántara, although passionate about football, had another passion…medicine. During his football career, he continued with his studies to become a doctor, and managed to find a happy equilibrium between the two.
Alcántara now had the opportunity of joining Bohemian Sporting Club in 1916, and with them won 2 Philippine Championships (’17 and ’18). He also had the honour of representing his country’s national football team in 1917 in the Far Eastern Championship Games, held in Tokyo. A historic win resulted, defeating Japan 15-2 – this remains one of the Philippines’s greatest international football victories. Alcántara was also an avid table tennis player and represented his country in various international competitions.
Meanwhile in Spain, Alcántara’s absence was severely felt by Barça, who was experiencing a silverware drought and only managed to finish 3rd in 2 consecutive league seasons. The club approached his parents, and tried everything in its power to lure the youngster back to Barcelona.
In the 1900s, the general health of the Philippine population was in shambles. The country was reeling from serious infectious diseases like typhoid fever, tuberculosis, cholera and malaria that were eventually classified as commonplace as they had been around for some time.
It was in 1917 that Alcántara contracted malaria. In using this to his benefit, he gave his parents an ultimatum – they either gave him permission to return to Spain, or he would not take his medication. Leaving his parents no choice, Alcántara returned to Barcelona!
Back Where He Belongs
In July 1917, ex- Barça player Jack Greenwell was appointed team manager. With Alcántara’s return the following year, and surrounded by a team swarming with talent such as Sagibarba, Platko, Zamora and Samitier, they continued to build and shape Barcelona’s golden period.
An unexpected and quite irrational idea of Greenwell’s was to experiment with Alcántara in a new position on the pitch – and put him in defence! After witnessing such a dreadful decision, the Barça club members (‘Los Socios’) immediately called for Alcántara to be re-instated to his natural position upfront – with Greenwell having to endure cries for his resignation.
All Fired Up!
One of many cherished memories came on the 13th April 1919 in a match against Real Sociedad, where Alcántara scored his famous goal. It just so happened that as Alcántara’s surgingly powerful shot was on its projected path to goal, it was met with a policeman, who unfortunately was in the way. Needless to say, both the policeman and the ball ended up in the net! No wonder it became known as the ‘police goal’!
As time went on, Alcántara was proving to be a match winner and played crucial roles in many a victory. Memorable triumphs ensued with Campionat de Catalunya and Copa del Rey title doubles in 1920, ’22, ’25 and ’26. Interestingly, since Alcántara returned to the team, with the exception of 1923, the Campionat de Catalunya was won in every season right up until, and including, 1927.
Admiration and awe tracked this wonder spiritedly… FC Barcelona.com noted that although he was very skinny he was ‘built like a train within’ and he had astounding ways of striking the ball. The site also mentions how his look, fitted with a ‘white handkerchief always hanging out of his shorts’, made him the ‘first major media figure in FC Barcelona history.’
Sacrifices and Rewards
Alcántara was also the first Asian-born player to represent Spain at international level. He almost made his début in 1920 for La Roja, when with three of his Barça teammates, he was selected to represent Spain at the 1920 Summer Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium. These Olympic Games were the first in which: the Olympic Oath was expressed, the Olympic Flag was flown, and doves were released in symbolising peace.
There are times when sacrifices need to be made, and this was one of them. As heart-wrenching as it must have been for Alcántara, he declined the precious opportunity of going to the Olympics in order to write his medical examinations. His opportunity to make his début for La Roja did arrive the following year in a friendly against Belgium at the San Mamés Stadium, Bilbao. Once again, Alcántara scored both goals in their 2-0 conquest.
And, if you are wondering where his nickname ‘El Rompe Redes’ (‘The Net Breaker’) originates from, well that was the sparkling and defining highlight of Alcántara’s career. The Spanish national side had travelled by bus into France, to play a friendly in the Stade Sainte-Germaine, Le Bouscat, on the 30th April 1922 against the French national side. At the time, Alcántara was one of the most feared strikers in Spain and a terror for defenders to cope with. A thunderbolt shot of his fired mercilessly from 30 yards away, tore through the goalpost’s net and left the French goalkeeper for dead!
That unforgettable goal, which rendered fans flabbergasted, was made even sweeter by the fact that it was scored by Alcántara himself. “For many years after, children from Barcelona would recall that moment and would wish to do the same as the man from the Philippines,” claimed FC Barcelona.com.
With his legend growing to fabled magnitudes, the match was labelled as one of the most significant in Alcántara’s career.
Movers and Shakers
1922 saw the club’s transfer to the Camp de Les Corts (commonly referred to as Les Corts), which had an initial capacity of over 3 times that of their previous stadium. (It was later expanded to 60,000.) This was to be Barça’s new home ground until the move to Camp Nou 35 years later (1957).
Between 1912 and 1927, Alcántara won 17 trophies: 10 Campionat de Catalunya, 5 Copa del Rey and 2 Pyrenees Cups. According to FC Barcelona.com, Alcántara earned the distinction of being the club’s highest goalscorer in history with 369 goals in 357 matches (goals in official games and friendlies combined).
Although over 200 of his goals were scored in friendlies, it’s essential to note that, in those days, competitive football in Spain consisted of two major competitions: the Copa del Rey and, in Barça’s case, the Catalan League. Therefore, a greater number of friendlies were played than competitive matches, which were some of the most entertaining ones around.
Two years before the birth of La Liga, Alcántara retired from playing football in the summer of 1927. His last day in a Blaugrana shirt was celebrated with a testimonial match in his honour on July 3rd of that year. In front of a sell-out crowd, Barça beat La Roja 2-1. Although he then dedicated his years to medicine, Alcántara’s links to football were far from over, and new challenges lay ahead. After having dedicated his football career to FC Barcelona, he waved goodbye to his playing days, with much pride in his accomplishments at club level, and in representing the Philippines, Spain and Catalonia, at international level.
Alcántara returned to FC Barcelona in 1931 as a club director, and stayed until 1934. After having disappeared from the football world for over a decade, Alcántara later resurfaced in 1951 to manage Spain’s national team. La Roja was the only team Alcántara managed, and although it was for only 3 matches, they suffered no losses – a win against Switzerland and draws against Belgium and Sweden.
Upon his retirement from football, Alcántara remained in Barcelona, right up until his death on the 13th February 1964, at 67 years of age. Alcántara was buried close to Camp Nou, at the Les Corts cemetery.
Unforgettable in Every Way
A statue of Alcántara stands outside the headquarters of the Philippine Football Federation building in Manila.
FIFA named Alcántara as The Best Asian Player of All Time in 2007 and as an inspirational figure for the revival of football in the Philippines. FIFA.com said, “A century may have passed since his glorious début, but Alcántara – one of the beautiful game’s early greats – remains well worth remembering.”
In 2012, in commemorating Alcántara’s Barça début 100 years prior, a match was held at the Camp Nou against Sporting Gijón, with Alcántara’s granddaughters in attendance that day. Alcántara’s boots remain on show in FC Barcelona’s museum.
Through Space and Time…
Alcántara made a difference in the world…from delighting crowds in sharing his wonderous gift on the pitch to saving lives off it. Through these channels he became, and continues to be, an inspirational role model for many who wish to follow in his footsteps.
As mentioned in an article pulished by The Guardian (theguardian.com), Jamaican athlete Usain Bolt said, “A lot of legends, a lot of people, have come before me. But this is my time.”
Although Alcántara’s ‘time’ was over a century ago, he had an enduring and magnetic factor about him – and not just because of his awe-inspiring records which still hover overhead, almost challenging others to break them, or the fact that he was unique in his ‘look’. Alcántara had a magical element, the intrigue of someone who lived in another time and place, who did things his way, who remained true to his dreams and ambitions, and who through football, made himself timeless…