Alcantara - The original Barcelona legend

With one of football's hot topics a potential Manchester United move for Thiago Alcantara, the story of an illustrious footballing great by the same surname deserves an airing.

In the aftermath of his stunning performance and hat-trick in Spain’s Under 21’s final, Thiago Alcantara is vastly becoming the talk of the football world.

Yet for the Barcelona faithful, the name Alcantara has long been synonymous with legendary status and goal scoring exploits. While Lionel Messi may currently be breaking just about every record for Barca, there is one that still alludes him – highest ever goal scorer.

With 369 goals in 357 appearances, that accolade still lies with Paulino Alcantara – the greatest player you never heard of.

Paulino Alcantara was born in 1896 in Iloilo, a small coastal town of The Philippines. Yes, you read that right – The Philippines…..that well known hot bed of football. Luckily for him, and indeed FC Barcelona, Alcantara’s father, a military officer, was posted over to Spain and during a youth club game for provincial side FC Galeno, was spotted by none other than FC Barcelona founder Joan Gamper himself.

Under Gampers insistence, Alcantara was bought into the Barcelona Youth Teams, and continued to impress with his goal scoring prowess – so much so that on 25th February 1912 at the age of 15 years and 4 months, he was thrown into first team action local Catalan rivals Catala.

As you know, not much should be expected when youngsters first step into first team football, but amazingly, Alcantara proceeded to score a hat-trick becoming FC Barcelona’s youngest ever goal scorer in the process – another record that still stands today.

Safe to say that his place in that team was set in stone thereafter! Four successful years ensued including 2 Copa Del Rey’s and seeing them twice win the Campionat de Catalunya – the national La Liga competition wasn’t founded until 1929 – all achieved with the consistent goal scoring of Alcantara.

Whilst it is generally acknowledged that all good things must come to an end, it was with great disappointment to Barcelona that this was to be a very premature end in 1916. Despite protests from both the club and Alcantara himself, his parents moved back to The Philippines – taking their son with them. Despite the setback, his career continued to flourish both on and off the field.

Unlike today’s superstars, Alcantara was blessed not just with a natural sporting ability (he was later to also represent The Philippines at table tennis) but was also a successful academic. Understanding the need for a sound career, he enrolled at medical college and began to train as a doctor.

Combining his studies with his football, he represented Bohemian Sporting Club in the capital Manila. Despite still only being a young man, his influence was enough to guide the club to success in the National Philippine Championships in 1917 and 1918.

During this period, he also gained his first taste of international football, representing the Philippines in the 1917 Far Eastern Championships, in which the team eventually finished as runners up, but not before thrashing the tournament hosts, and all conquering Japan by 15 goals to 2 – a result that remains by some considerable distance the record victory / defeat for both nations.

Despite the success he experienced in his homeland, Alcantara yearned for a return to Barcelona. With them having failed to win a trophy since his departure, the feeling was more than mutual and with more than a hint of what would today be called tapping up, they continued to send him correspondence, pleading for his return.

His parents insisted he remain in The Philippines and continue his studies. With little or no way of convincing them otherwise, fate dealt a very opportunist piece of leverage – he contracted Malaria. Being better placed that most to be able to make everyone aware of the seriousness of the situation, he flatly refused all medication and treatment until permission was granted for him to return to the Catalan club. Reports that Wayne Rooney will also be playing this card to leave Manchester United are as yet unfounded.

So, just as would be the case 90 years later, a player Barcelona had openly courted was soon pulling on the famous Catalan jersey. However, for reasons best known only to himself, having secured the return of the prodigal centre forward, English coach Jack Greenwell decided to experiment with Alcantara in defence.

Whilst he was never to disgrace himself in that position, the paid up members of Barcelona’s Los Socios club demanded he be returned to his natural position. Bowing to the money men – again, nothing changes – and picking Alcantara as a forward, Barcelona proceeded to win back their Campionat de Catalunya and reach the Copa del Rey final.

And so followed the first of many Golden Era’s for Barcelona, in which with the exception of 1923, saw them win the Campionat de Catalunya in each of Alcantara’s seasons with the club, along with 4 Copa del Rey successes, playing alongside such footballing greats as Josep Samitier and Ricardo Zamora.

Throughout this time of on field achievement, Alcantara continued with his studies, rejecting an opportunity to represent Spain in the 1920 Olympics due to a clash with his final medical exams, which saw him become a qualified doctor at the age of just 24.

Whilst football had its advantages, the 1920’s did not offer footballers enough wealth to set themselves up for life as it does today, and combining football with an active medical practice was proving tough – so much so that on 3rd July 1927 at the premature age of 31, Alcantara retired from football.

To mark the occasion, a sell out crowd watched on as Barcelona beat a Spanish National side 2-1 in what was to be the Filipino’s last ever outing. Though he later returned to the club to serve as a director, it will be his 369 goals in 357 games that will forever be remembered at Barcelona, and the one remaining individual record that Lionel Messi chases.

So, from one historical Alcantara to the Nou Camp’s modern day namesake – what of Thiago? Currently one of the hottest properties in Europe, whether he stays at Barcelona or heads to Manchester United is anyone guess.

But one thing is for certain – if he has a career a fraction as successful as his namesake, whomever he commits his future to will be one lucky club.

image: © tchacky

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