On 29 November 1899 a group of footballers from Spain, Switzerland and England, answered a newspaper advert and got together to form the world’s most famous football club, FC Barcelona. Success followed quickly.
Today, the motto of the club is “Més que un club,” meaning “more than a club.” And so it has proved, as the football team has come to symbolize Catalan identity and provided a focal point in Spain for resistance against repressive government.
The man behind the club’s creation was a Swiss German called Hans-Max Gamper. A keen sportsman in a number of fields, Gamper was only 22 in 1899 but had already played football in his native land, where he co-founded FC Zurich, as well as rugby in Lyon.
In 1898 Gamper visited an uncle in Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia, a region in northern Spain which had always resented control from Madrid.
Like many before and since, the young Swiss man fell in love with the city and decided to stay, even officially changing his name to its Catalan form Joan.
Making a team
Whilst working as an accountant and journalist for some Swiss companies in the city, Gamper enjoyed playing football with his fellow Protestants after church, and in October 1899 decided that the city needed a team of its own.
He published an advert in his new paper Los Deportes on 22 November and waited over the next few weeks for a response. Although interest in football was in its infancy in Spain, foreigners like Gamper were spreading it quickly.
On 29 November, he met with the men who had enthusiastically replied to his call for players in Barcelona’s Gimnasio Solé.
Eleven talented footballers had answered the call, a multinational mix including Swiss, locals and Englishmen – including the first Club President Walter Wild and the brothers John and William Parsons.
At this meeting the name and colours of the team were decided, and the famous blaugrana blue and red kit was created, possibly inspired by that of Gamper’s hometown club FC Basel.
Gamper was a formidable player himself and refused to sit back and take an administrative role during the club’s first seasons, and he scored over 100 goals between 1899 and 1903.
In that time, the club won its first trophy in 1902 and reached the inaugural final of the King’s cup or the Copa del Rey, where they lost 2-1 to Bizcaya.
After a lean spell from 1905 Gamper was forced to become Club President to alleviate financial troubles, and was once again a driving force behind the club’s success.
Under his stewardship FC Barcelona became a source of Catalan pride, as it moved into a permanent stadium, hired a full-time manager in Englishman Jack Greenwell, and brought in the club’s first “golden age,” as the club won six Copa del Reys and four Pyrenees cups.
Football and politics
Then politics intervened. Over the first decades of the 20th century the club had evolved into one main way in which Catalans exhibited their national identity, and many followed the club more out of pride than any interest in football.
Sensing this, Gamper had changed the official language of the club from royal Castilian Spanish to that of Catalonia, a bold political statement.
Meanwhile, Spain was in the grips of the dictator Primo de Rivera at this time, which only increased animosity towards the central regime in Madrid.
In 1925, the crowd booed the Spanish national anthem before a game, and the dictator had had enough.
Gamper was forcibly removed from his post, and miserable and destitute, committed suicide in 1930.
A time of troubles then followed, as Spain slid into a civil war in 1936. That year Club President Josep Sunyol was murdered by fascists over his sympathies to Catalan independence.
His martyrdom would become an important moment in the history of the independence movement.
Two years later Catalonia was occupied by General Franco’s forces and FC Barcelona was seen as a hotbed of anti-government sentiment.
Its official language and crest were changed, and membership was cut down hugely. Most of the best players fled abroad, fearing for their lives.
Eventually, the situation calmed down, and the 1950s were another fine period for the club, and its ranks were swelled by numerous talented Hungarians who lit up La Liga with their skill.
In 1957 the Camp Nou, Barcelona’s famous stadium, was completed. Despite another lean period in the 1960s after the crippling expense of the stadium, in 1973, the arrival of young Dutch midfielder Johann Cruyff for a world record fee of £930,000 heralded a new golden age.
His arrival started a football revolution centred around Barcelona which continues to this day.
Despite his small stature, Cruyff’s technical ability with a football was magical and won the Ballon D’Or prize for the world’s best footballer three times whilst playing for Barcelona.
When he returned as manager in 1988, he stamped his technically focused passing style on the club and its famous academy La Masia, turning it into a footballing powerhouse responsible for a new style of play known as “total football.”
This fame and commitment to smaller and more technically gifted players lasts to this day, with the diminutive Lionel Messi, considered the best player of all time by many, a product of the academy shaped by Cruyff.
One of the Dutchman’s pupils was a rangy local midfielder called Pep Guardiola, whose spell as manager in 2008-2012 brought the club to its current spot at the pinnacle of the world’s club game.
FC Barcelona continues to be a symbol of Catalan nationalism. In 1978 a democratic election was held for the position of Club President, in what was seen by many as a pointed gesture of comparison with Generalissimo Franco’s dictatorial regime.
With his death and the restoration of true democracy in Spain in 1982 the club was once again able to proudly flaunt its Catalan identity.
With Spain suffering economically and calls for independence on the rise, the club’s position as a nationalist symbol could grow ever more important alongside its triumphs on the pitch.
Header image credit: 2016–17 FC Barcelona at the Match of Champions. Credit: Commons.