Josep Samitier, the surreal legend of FC Barcelona

This long-read was written by Saikat Chakrobarty, who you can follow on Twitter here. 

Considered one of the most symbolic players in the history of Barcelona and the best European midfielder of his time, Josep Samitier led the legendary Barça team of the 1920s. This was the first golden age of FC Barcelona which included the likes of Paulino Alcantara, Ricardo Zamora, Felix Sesumaga and Franz Platko, led by the enigmatic Samitier.

Born in February 1902 in Barcelona, the Catalan capital, Samitier started his playing career at FC Internacional before making his Barcelona debut at the age of 17 in 1919. As his signing-on bonus, Samatier received a luminous watch and a three-piece suit. The youngster quickly established himself in the starting lineup, and went on to become one of the first legends of Football Club Barcelona… 

The midfield general – The Grasshopper Man

His acrobatics and amazing jumps captivated the FC Barcelona fans who very quickly made him into their idol, naming him ‘Home Magosta(The Grasshopper Man)’ – the intellectuals dubbed him ‘Surrealista (Surrealist)’. The first reverberation of football crowds in Catalonia came largely because of Samatier. A champion football team was created around him due to his exceptional technique and great skills. His dribble had elements of gymnastics, acro dance, circus and ballet.

Samitier and his enigmatic Barcelona of the 1920s, were an event, the first of their kind in the Spanish game. An event which required a bigger stage, and so Barcelona moved grounds to cater to the demands of an ever-increasing bulge of crowd and thus, ‘Camp de Les Corts’ was built in 1922.

Despite playing as a midfielder he is remembered as an exceptional goalscorer. The figures are significant. He scored 361 goals wearing the blaugrana shirt which made him one of the greatest goalscorers in the Catalan club’s history (third highest). He martialed his troops from the midfield like a general and made countless late runs going forward, he also tracked back to help out the defence. Samatier was one of football’s first midfield generals, the pioneer of the box-to-box role. 

Samatier was one of football’s first midfield generals, the pioneer of the box-to-box role. 

Between 1919 and 1933, Samitier’s Barca won 11 Catalan Championships, five Spanish Championships and the first Spanish league that began in 1928-29. Among the goals he scored were four in the Copa del Rey finals of 1922, 1925, 1926 and 1928.

His exploits with Barcelona earned him a spot in the first ever Spanish national squad. The team, coached by Francisco Bru, won the silver medal at the 1920 Olympic Games. He subsequently made 21 appearances and scored 2 goals for Spain.

Samitier also represented Catalan XI in at least 21 games and scored over 15 goals. Together with Paulino Alcantara, Sagibarba and Ricardo Zamora he helped the Catalan XI win an inter-regional competition – the Copa Princep de Asturias –three times during the 1920s. In the 1924 final he scored twice in a 4–4 draw against a Castile XI and scored again in the 3–2 replay. His last game for the Catalan XI was his own testimonial on 19 January 1936 at Les Corts. He scored in a 1–1 draw with SK Sidenice of Czechoslovakia.

A controversial figure – La Surrealista

In the late nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries, in the works of prominent artists like Edvard Munch, Vincent Van Gogh and Salvador Dali, subjective art was taking center stage over naturalism and impressionism. In an era of surrealism, Samitier aligned himself with the spirit of subjectivity, and not the objective realities of wrong and right. It showed in his game as much as it explained his allegiances and made sense of his boundless life.

In an era of surrealism, Samitier aligned himself with the spirit of subjectivity, and not the objective realities of wrong and right.

Samitier indulged himself in discussion about tango with his close friend Carlos Gardel and films with Maurice Chevalier. On holidays at the Catalan resort of Cadaques, he played football with Salvador Dali and his ocelot named Babou. He was both a Catalan hero and an occasional dinner guest of Catalonia’s oppressor General Franco. 

In 1933, the great Catalan hero did something almost unthinkable. An ageing Samiter found himself in dispute with the FC Barcelona management and was dropped from the first team.

Real Madrid, then known as Madrid CF, were quick to take advantage of the situation, and he transferred. His Madrid career wasn’t as illustrious, although he did help them win a La Liga title in 1932–33 and the Copa de Espana in 1934.

The surreal coach?

In 1936 Samitier made a brief start to his career as a coach. He succeeded Fred Pentland at Atletico Madrid in the middle of the season, but failed to prevent them from being relegated.

However, Samitier’s new career and Atletico’s relegation were postponed with the start of the Spanish Civil War. He found himself arrested by an anarchist militia, but was eventually released and left for France on a warship. His escapewas later used as propaganda by the Franco regime and was made into a film The Stars Search for Peace, where he played himself. In October 1936 he joined OGC Nice as a player. He subsequently scored 47 goals in 82 matches for the French team. He eventually retired as a player in 1939 and was briefly coached OGC Nice in 1942. 

Samitier returned to Spain and became manager of Barcelona in 1944. In 1945 he guided them to only their second ever La Liga title. His team then beat the Copa del Generalisimo winners Atletico Bilbao to win the Copa de Oro Argentina. Samitier subsequently worked as the chief scout of the club and was instrumental in the recruitment of another FC Barcelona legend Ladislao Kubala. It is believed he used his influence in Franco regime to lure Kubala from the grasp of Madrid. 

However, it is widely believed that Samitier deserted to archrivals Madrid not once but twice and the later is still considered as one of the biggest treacheries in Spanish football. He worked as a double-agent to sabotage Barcelona’s deal for Alfredo Di Stefano, who would go on to score 216 goals for Madrid in the 1960s. 

When he died in 1972 in Barcelona, he was given a state funeral as Catalan hero.On September 16 1993, his name was given to one of the streets near Camp Nou.