FC Barcelona has long been a favourite football club for many British followers. Perhaps it has been because of their status as an ‘anti-Franco’ club. Or perhaps fans have been attracted by the membership structure of the club that gives ordinary supporters a say in the election of presidents. Or it might even be because of its long standing reputation for playing open and attractive football, with some of the world’s very best players pulling on the famous blue and claret shirts.
Founded in 1899, when the Swiss-born Hans Gamper established a team made up of Swiss, English and Catalan players, the club quickly established itself as a focal point of the city and the region. Gamper is an integral part of the early history of the club – scoring103 goals between 1901 and 1903 and then becoming the president until his death in 1930. It was he who enabled the club to purchase their first ground in 1909, with a capacity of just 6,000 people. Gamper then oversaw the development of the Les Corts stadium, initially with room for 30,000 although it was later doubled in size. And, the year before his death, he was able to see his club become the first ever Spanish League champions. By this time, with in excess of 10,000 members, Barcelona was already attracting star footballers from overseas – the Uruguayan striker Hector Scarone being the first of many ‘big money’ signings. Perhaps the most famous of Barcelona’s players in this era, however, was the goalkeeper Ricardo Zamora. Zamora is remembered today for mainly two reasons. Firstly, he has given his name to the trophy awarded to the best goalkeeper in La Liga each season. And secondly, he was the first player to tread that dangerous transfer path from Barcelona to Real Madrid!
The notorious and long standing rivalry between Spain’s two major teams has always been keenly felt. This came to a head, of course, during the Franco era. Barcelona, as now, was the emblematic capital of the region of Catalonia and Franco banned both the Catalan flag and its language. FC Barcelona became the only place where large groups of people could gather and speak in their native language and the claret and blue of Barcelona became a recognisable substitute for the red and yellow of Catalonia. Josep Suñol, the president at the time, was murdered by the military in 1936 and a bomb was dropped on the FC Barcelona social club in 1938. Football-wise, things probably reached their nadir in 1941 when Barcelona were ‘instructed’ to lose a match to Real Madrid. They did, in fact, lose the match by 11 goals to 1 in protest – and then saw their goalkeeper banned from football for the rest of his life.
During the 1950s and 60s, of course, Barca were somewhat overshadowed by the famous Real Madrid team of Puskas, Di Stefano et al, but they still managed to win the league four times in the fifties. The sixties, however, were a much more difficult time for the club, just winning the Spanish Cup in 1963 and 1968 and the Inter City Fairs’ Cup – later to become the UEFA Cup – in 1966.
In 1973, though, the legend that was Johan Cruyff joined the club from Ajax, stating that he chose Barca in preference to Madrid because he could never play for a club associated with Franco. Alongside his compatriot Johan Neeskens, they immediately took the club to their first title for 14 years – defeating Real Madrid 5 – 0 at the Bernabéu in the process. Cruyff was pronounced European Footballer of the Year and gave his son a Catalan name, Jordi; his iconic status was now forever assured. By the time the club’s 75th anniversary came round, there were now 70,000 members and the Camp Nou Stadium, which had opened in 1957, was full to its 90,000 capacity every home game.
Josep Lluís Núñez was elected club president in 1978, a post he was to keep until the end of the millennium. It was he who brought great financial stability and supreme overseas players to the Camp Nou. Players such as Diego Maradona, Bernd Schuster, Gary Lineker, Ronaldo, Gheorghe Hagi, Ronald Koeman, Michael Laudrup, Mark Hughes, Hristo Stoikov, Romário, Rivaldo and Luis Figo – not many defenders there, you’ll notice – and managers such as César Luis Menotti, Terry Venables, Luis Aragonés, Bobby Robson and, most successfully, Cruyff himself, all brought continued success in the form of league titles in 1985, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1998 and 1999; Copa del Rey victories in 1978, 1981, 1983, 1988, 1990, 1997 and 1998; Spanish Supercups in 1983, 1991, 1992, 1994 and 1996; the UEFA Champions League in 1992 and runners up in 1994; the UEFA Cup in 1979, 1982, 1989 and 1997; and the European Super Cup in 1992 and 1997.
In 1999, the club celebrated its centenary year by winning La Liga and Rivaldo, playing at his absolute peak, became the fourth Barca player to be voted European Footballer of the Year but the first three years of the next century saw something of a decline in fortunes on the pitch, epitomised by the departure of the club’s idol, Luis Figo, to Real Madrid. Few players have received receptions at their former grounds that can match those given to Figo when he returned to the Camp Nou.
In 2003, however, a new, young and politically astute president, Joan Laporta, took the helm at Barcelona and, with his appointment of Frank Rijkaard as manager, the club enjoyed a time of great success. By signing some of the world’s very best players – Ronaldinho, Deco, Eto’o and Messi – and combining them with a strong Catalan influence from the likes of Puyol, Iniesta, Xavi and Valdés, Barca were able to not only win La Liga but also, in 2005-2006, the UEFA Champions League. Highlights of this exciting era were the Larsson inspired victory over Arsenal and an amazing evening in Madrid when, after as comprehensive a 3 – 0 away win as you could ever see, the Real Madrid fans rose in unison to acclaim the unbelievable Ronaldinho.
Unfortunately, for ‘Los Cules’, the seemingly insulting nickname for Barcelona fans, things have not gone as well since. Internal divisions, which began to emerge during 2006 – 2007, really came to the fore during the following season, leading to the departure of Rijkaard and the break up of his squad. The fans are called Los Cules, by the way, not in an insulting manner – it means ‘backside’ but simply refers to the fact that, when people were sitting at the top of the stadium, their backsides all people in the streets below could see.
Readers who want to learn more of the history of this fascinating institution, can do no better than get hold of a copy of Tom Burns’ eminently readable book, Barca.