Who was Paulino Alcantara, the man whose record Messi broke?
Alcantara’s 369 goals for the Catalan club meant he’d stayed atop Barcelona’s goal-scoring charts for eighty-seven years, until Lionel Messi overtook the legendary striker when he notched his 370th goal in a Blaugrana shirt when his club smashed Osasuna for seven.
On the 25th of February, 1912, FC Barcelona were playing in the Campionat de Catalunya, the opponents were Catala SC, the venue was the Carrer de Industria.
On the pitch, standing shoulder to shoulder alongside his team mates was a Filipino lad of slight build. Standing at five feet seven inches, Paulino Alcantara made his debut for Barcelona at the age of 15 years, four months and 18 days.
By the time he’d finished his 90 minutes for Barcelona, he’d already written his name in the club’s history books.
Barca won that game 9-0, Paulino scoring the first three. In doing so, he became the youngest player to score for Barcelona in a competitive fixture – a record that stands to this day – and also became the first (and so far only) Asian to don the Catalan club’s prestigious stripes. (You can see an image gallery of the legendary striker HERE)
And once he’d started finding the back of the net, he couldn’t quite stop. Alcantara’s 369 goals for the Catalan club meant he’d stayed atop Barcelona’s goal-scoring charts for eighty-seven years, until Lionel Messi overtook the legendary striker when he notched his 370th goal in a Blaugrana shirt when his club smashed Osasuna for seven.
This was not the time of perfectly manicured pitches and ultra-light footballs. This was not the era of individually configured diets and exercise regimes that are constantly updated to keep in line with the latest that sports science has to offer. This wasn’t even the time of three substitutions.
That it took someone as extraordinarily talented as Messi to finally knock Alcantara off the Barcelona’s goal-scoring summit shows just how talented a player he was.
On the pitch, Messi and Alcantara might be kindred spirits, but off it, their lives could not have been more different.
While Messi’s early memories were of playing with a football he’d been given as a gift on his third birthday, in a middle-class suburb in Rosario in Argentina, Alcantara’s were of fleeing his native Philippines before conflict threatened to envelop it.
Born to a Spanish soldier and a Filipina during Spain’s occupation of the Philippines, Paulino’s father decided it was time to head home before things began to get messy under the archipelago’s new American governors.
Alcantara would get his first taste of football soon after he’d set foot in the land of his father. He joined FC Galeno, a team that was comprised mostly of voluntary health workers. They would have a lasting effect on his life.
It wasn’t long before the name of the young man who’d journeyed from across the sea reached the ears of Joan Gamper, the founder of FC Barcelona. The young prodigy was asked to join Barcelona’s youth setup, setting the template that would be used to groom so many others as they rolled off La Masia’s production line.
In the presence of contemporaries such as Francisco Sanz, Jack Greenwell and Roma Forns, Paulino was instrumental in Barcelona winning a Spanish Cup and two Catalan Championships in 1913 and 1916.
But Paulino wouldn’t lift another trophy on Spanish soil for another three years. Neither would Barcelona.
His parents decided to move back to the Philippines and away from the high intensity of Spanish football, influenced by his team mates at FC Galeno, Paulino took to studying medicine, while continuing to play the beautiful game in the land of his birth.
While in the Orient, he represented the Philippines at the 1917 Far Eastern games in Tokyo. He was instrumental in his country’s 15-2 humiliation of hosts Japan, a match which to this day stands as the Philippines highest-scoring game.
Centred around Alcantara, his team made it to the final, against a Chinese team comprised mostly of expats that lived in China at the time. However, that match was never completed. The referee called a halt to the game because of alleged rough play by the Philippines, who were awarded the silver medal.
He went on to win two titles in the Philippines with Bohemians FC but missed playing football for Barcelona. It was clear that his feeling for the club were mutual: akin to how Lionel Messi is so integral to the club today, Paulino was the driving force that had led Barcelona to triumph. In his absence, the club had failed to lift any silverware.
The club were desperate for their star to come back to Spain but his parents wouldn’t budge on their decision to keep him with them. They were forced to give in to his wish of returning to Spain when he contracted malaria but refused to take his medication until they agreed to let him return to Barcelona.
They’ll be glad they did.
Once Alcantara returned to Spain, he picked up where he’d left off. Making up for lost time, he scored the goals that saw Barcelona establish their first ever belle époque of dominance from 1918 to 1927.
He was part of Barcelona’s Dream Team that was at the forefront of their first era of glory. Alongside players such as Emilio Sagi Liñan, Josep Samitier, Ricardo Zamora, Franz Platko and Félix Sesúmaga and coached by his former teammate Jack Greenwell, Paulino and his teammates led the Catalan club to four Copas del Rey and eight Catalan titles.
It was the ferocity of his strikes that earned him his nickname, El Rompe Redes (The Net Breaker). During a friendly for Spain against France, he scored a goal of such alarming ferocity that it tore the back of the net, ripping it from its posts.
On the pitch, with his trademark white scarf around his waist, he’d established himself as one of the world’s most terrifying goal scorers. The legendary Arsenal manager Herbert Chapman called him “a ruthless striker, with gunpowder in his feet. He does things with the ball we haven’t seen over here.”
Off it, he continued his medical studies at Barcelona University. Alcantara knew that a good education would take him a long way and he’d decided to become a physician once he’d hung up his boots.
Few were the occasions on which he let his two worlds collide, but when they did, he was quick to realise that life would go on after the few years he’d spend on the football pitch. He could not represent Spain at the 1920 Olympic Games because his final medical exams were during that period.
In fact, unlike his club career, which lasted 16 years, he only played a handful of internationals. He switched allegiance to Spain and played five games for the Red Fury, scoring six goals.
Dedicated to studying medicine, Alcantara decided to end his career in 1927 at the age of 31. He became a urologist and opened a very successful practice in Barcelona. He was as good a physician as he was a goal scorer. He also served as Barca’s club director for three years from 1931 to 1934.
Barcelona have always portrayed themselves as an organisation that is mes que un club. Alcantara’s actions following his retirement – whether he intended to or not – made him a perfect ambassador for that motto.
In the 1930s, he joined up as a medical officer in Spanish dictator Francisco Franco’s corps and took part in several conflicts during the Spanish Civil War.
He was present in the fighting at Guadalajara, Aragon and Catalonia. As fate might have it, he was on the front lines when Franco’s army captured Barcelona, a city known for its staunch views against Franco and his regime.
While his footballing prowess endeared him to Catalans, his service for Franco saw him appreciated by those in Madrid, earning him the love of two very opposite sets of people.
As a thank you for his service to him, Franco appointed him coach of Spain’s national team. He oversaw three games with La Roja, winning one and drawing two.
Alcantara died at the age of 67, on the 13th of February, 1967, during the reign of General Franco. His coffin was carried through the city by Barcelona legends Ricardo Zamora and Josip Samitier. He lies interned at Les Corts cemetery in Barcelona.
Despite the fact that Barcelona was a city steeped in anti-Franco sentiment, Paulino Alcantara’s passing succeeded in uniting Catalans and Madridistas as they jointly mourned the passing of a great footballer, something that politicians have struggled to achieve.
He was the first superstar that Barcelona produced, the prototype for other greats that would follow in his footsteps. Even today, children in both Spain and his native Philippines dream of re-enacting the goals that Paulino conjured which left crowds spellbound.
While others left Barcelona for greener pastures (which existed at the time), Paulino stayed on. It was he that guided Barcelona to their first golden age of dominance, and it was he that was the team’s heartbeat.
Team sheets throughout the years showed different coaches’ names being filled in the little boxes and players whose names were written in ink on one sheet would not be there on the next. With the exception of Paulino, who played 357 games in his 13 years at the club.
Although he may not have embodied the principles of Futbol Club Barcelona, he was a Barcelona player through and through. It is in no small way through the achievements of this man that Barcelona have become the club they are today.
And that is why, when little Thiago Messi one day asks his daddy to tell him the story of Barcelona’s greatest goal scorer, Lionel, modest man that he is, will not tell him about his own exploits while tucking him into bed. He will tell him about the story of Paulino Alcantara Riestra.
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