LIFE BEFORE MESSI: The story of Barcelona’s Filipino phenomenon

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Updated: March 20, 2014

01-Paulino-Alcántara

Define a legend.

leg.end [lej-uh nd]

1. A non historical or unverifiable story handed down by tradition from earlier times and popularly accepted as historical.

2. The body of stories of this kind, especially as they relate to a particular person, group or clan.

Example sentence: It was here, according to legend, that the story had begun.

The word legend is spluttered far too often these days. This grossly overused saying was formerly an expression that described a hard-working man or woman, so important or infamous for his or her own achievements, that their status was comparable to mythical stories of old.

But the phrase has evolved, and to some extent, means something completely different altogether today. Maybe that says more for society today than anything else. Drinking a gallon of beer through a funnel or slamming a shot of vodka into your eyeball used to mean you were a bloody moron, not a “legend”.

The once distinguished term now finds itself ushered into a repertoire of similar throwaway and cringeworthy clichés, such as ‘celebrity’, ‘genius’ or ‘hero’.

It was a heroic slogan, which previously carried prestige, paragon and status. Often reserved, nominated and then awarded, it wasn’t banded about and most definitely never self-proclaimed.

Über hip online slang glossary, the Urban Dictionary, interprets the word ‘legend’ to mean:

1. Someone or something whose coolness extends beyond all space and time.
2. The legend is witty and nice, contrary to what they might think. The legend is also badass, though.

Example sentence: You, my son, are a complete fucking legend.

Sadly, football fans can be the worst offenders when it comes to these heinous jargon misdemeanours.

Without meaning to undermine the accomplishments of some talented players, scoring 30 goals in a single season doesn’t mean you’re rubbing shoulders with the likes of Alfredo Di Stefano, Pelé and Ferenc Puskás.

On Sunday (March 16), Lionel Messi bagged a hat-trick during a 7-0 rout of Osasuna and, in doing so, became the highest goalscorer in Barcelona’s 144-year history.

This goalscoring record is yet another hefty chisel blow into the Lionel Messi face that will adorn football’s Mount Rushmore for many, many years to come.

Understandably, the most recognisable figure in football has been splashed across every glossy magazine, newspaper and sporting website you can possibly imagine over recent days.

Aged just 26, the thought of his final benchmark is staggering, but Lionel Messi is not a legend. Not just yet anyway. His story is still being written.

Sadly, very little mention has been made of the man who wore Messi’s freshly snatched goalscoring crown for nearly nine decades before him.

That man was Paulino Alcántara Riestrá and he is worthy of the label, ‘football legend’.

Son to a Spanish military officer father and a Filipino mother, Alcántara was born in Iloilo, Philippines on October 7th 1896. He was three years old when his family moved to Barcelona, the same year that FC Barcelona was formed by Swiss football pioneer, Joan Gamper.

Impressed by his goalscoring prowess and electric pace, Gamper recruited Alcántara to his youth team in 1910, after seeing him play for FC Galeno. Two years later, aged 15 years, four months and 18 days, Alcántara was asked to make his debut for FC Barcelona against Catalá SC in the Campionat de Catalunya league.

Unnerved, Alcántara nabbed a hat-trick in his side’s 9-0 demolition over their city rivals. He still holds the unbroken record for the youngest player to ever score for FC Barcelona in an official fixture. No stranger to record setting, Alcántara also became the first ever Asian-born player to represent a European club.

Having later helped FC Barcelona to win a Cola del Rey and Campionat de Catalunya in 1913 and another league title in 1916, Alcántara was forced to return to the Philippines with his parents.

The prodigy started to study medicine, but continued to play football for Manila side Bohemian Sporting Club. He led his new side to two Philippine Championships in 1917 and 1918, before representing the national side at the Far Eastern Championship Games in Tokyo, where they subjected Japan to a 15-2 defeat. Another high-scoring record that still stands this very day.

Not content with dominating one sport, he also found the time to represent Philippines at table tennis.

In 1917, Alcántara was diagnosed with the deadly virus malaria. Meanwhile, in his absence, FC Barcelona had failed to win a single trophy and begged his parents to return their son to Spain.

Alcántara told his mother and father that he would refuse to take his medication until they allowed him to go back. It was only once the 5’8’’ forward returned that the golden-era truly got under way.

During this time he earned the nickname, ‘El Romperedes’, or the ‘Netbreaker’. Whilst representing Spain in a friendly against France, Alcántara released a 30-yard shot so venomous that the ball rifled past the goalkeeper and tore a gaping hole into the netting.

By the time Alcántara retired at 31 years old in 1927, he had won 17 major titles and represented Spain, Catalonia and the Philippines at international level. Along the way he scored a whopping 369 goals in 357 games for FC Barcelona and was regarded as the club’s all-time highest goalscorer for 87 years — until last Sunday, of course.

He remained in Barcelona until his death on February 13th 1964, aged 67. His final resting place is close to the Camp Nou, at the Les Corts cemetery.

Alcántara continued to receive accolades many years after his passing – FIFA named him the Best Asian Player of All Time in 2007 – and a statue of him stands outside the Philippine Football Federation HQ to this day.

His boots remain on show in FC Barcelona’s museum and in 2012, to commemorate his Barça debut 100 years previous, a match was held at the Camp Nou against Sporting Gijón. Alcántara’s granddaughters were the guests of honour that day.

“A century may have passed since his glorious debut, but Alcántara – one of the beautiful game’s early greats – remains well worth remembering” – FIFA.com

Alcántara was FC Barcelona’s favourite son, their first true superstar, and had it of not been for this man’s achievements, the Catalan giants may not be where they find themselves today.

The fact it has taken a football gargantuan such as Lionel Messi to bypass his goal scoring record is an overpowering testament to the player he was. His tale has passed the test of time and his achievements are so incredible they can never be forgotten.

Ask any young fan to name the greatest ever player to don the Catalan club’s red and blue, and they would cry: “Estás loco? Lionel Messi!” Ask the man himself and I imagine he’d flash a wee smile and gracefully pronounce: “Paulino Alcántara, por supuesto.”

Paulino Alcántara Riestrá defines the word legend.

The numbers:

  • Seasons at club: 1912-1927
  • Games played: 357
  • Goals scored: 369
  • Trophies: Five Spanish Championships  and 10 Catalan Championships
  • Awards: FIFA Best Asian player of all-time (2007)

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