This is a continuation of Football Paradise’s Evolution of the Dribble series. Part 1 can be found here. This is a story about magical streets, lofty ideas, and football’s first surrealist, Josep Samitier.
Josep Samitier discussed tango with Carlos Gardel and films with Maurice Chevalier. And on holidays, he played football with Salvador Dali and his ocelot.
Life’s immense in passion, pulse and power,
cheerful, for freest action is not formed under laws,
I am the Modern Man, I sing.
Three untaken left turns and 40 doors down from the peach-coloured wall of Cemetery de Les Corts, there is a street pointing south-west. I take it.
To my right, the complex of Parc Cientific de Barcelona is lined with boring wagon cars, neat dumpsters, hatchbacks, and trees out of Dali’s dreams.
As I walk down this street, numbered zero eight zero two eight on my tourist map, a vision fills my mind’s eye for as long as the sound of the flutter of wings last. I figure it’s one of those strange streets where the oddest ideas sail by, like empty packets of crisps catching wind and passers-by alike. I know that the moment I turn the corner, I would immediately forget what I was thinking of.
I look at my tourist map. One hard right from there and the rim of Camp Nou’s crown should be in sight.
Roads leading up to historical sites are paved with ghosts and caked with asphalt. Some of them still have cobblestones. The magic of these places is tethered to their names; names signifying ideas, upon which legacies, and, sometimes, even empires are built. Their magic is stronger when those names have walked down those streets long before those streets bore their names – and after, like a bead of water through a prayer wheel.
I look back at the street sign and remember the story of Josep Samitier.
Josep Samitier was an ambitious eight-year-old. Rolling a tyre with a stick down the roads near Les Corts, Barcelona, he wanted one of those streets for himself and a shiny car with smooth edges to ride through it. He wanted people to wave at him wherever he went.
When he told his father this, his father laughed, while his mother cajoled him – “És clar, Josep. És clar, meu amor.”
Aged 16, in 1918, he sold his soul to Barcelona CF in exchange for a wrist watch with a dial that glowed in the dark, a three-piece suit, and greatness.
If God wanted men resigned to the ground, he wouldn’t have invented the sky. And if there was no sky, Antoni Gaudi, the architect of Sagrada Familia (a church 564.30 feet in height), and Josep Samitier, would have both been out of a job.
Word spread remarkably swiftly as it did in those times – tales of a part-footballer-part-acrobat who would perform astounding feats of agility, swinging forwards and backwards from midfield, using momentum as his trapeze.
He defied gravity, leapt into positions in the opponent box dropping out of nowhere, with sweeping movements and precise timing. Leaps and hangs, booming goals and crowded pauses punctuated his game.
Both father and son of the Mediterranean style of football, Josep Samitier’s dribble had elements of gymnastics, acro dance, circus and ballet. He defied the boundaries of time and space with an Olympian grace, that goal-scoring midfielders still struggle to measure up to almost a century later. He had a shot that made the crowds whistle, fii-fiuuu!
He was one of football’s first midfield generals, the pioneer of the box-to-box role. This was before the time football needed to limit its imagination and their heroes to roles. Football fans were merely grateful.
Crowds named him Home Magosta, the Grasshopper Man. Intellectuals called him Surrealista.
The Grasshopper Man
There was no scarcity of miracles, and consequently, no dearth of spectators. Catalans poured in from far and wide to see the aerialist, one of their own. Samitier and his troupe of Paulino Alcantara, Ricardo Zamora, Felix Sesumaga and Sagibarba of the 1920s, like the Royal Russian Circus, were an event. An event required a big stage, and so Barcelona moved grounds to cater to the demands of an ever-increasing swell of crowd. Thanks to Samitier, football was suddenly a booming business in his homeland.
Josep Samitier pulled off a top just as easily as a flying volley. He wore it outside everywhere, except for when he was playing.
Over the clinking of glasses and polite chatter of gallerias, Samitier discussed tango with 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 General Franco (oppressor of Catalonia). Josef was a man of the people. Very many kinds of people.
In the late nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries, impressionist mainstream art, which relied on the aspects of light and shadow, was being abandoned. Paintings increasingly took on symbolic meanings. In the works of Edvard Munch, Van Gogh and Salvador Dali, subjective art was taking center stage.
In an era of cubism, surrealism and dadaism, Samitier aligned himself with the spirit of subjectivity, and not the objective realities of chiaroscuro – light and shadow, wrong and right. It showed in his game as much as it explained his allegiances and made sense of his boundless life.
Samitier defected to bitter rivals Madrid not once but twice, helping them win the league in 1932; then, acting as a scout/double-agent to sabotage Barcelona’s deal for Alfredo Di Stefano (a man who would go on to score 216 goals for Madrid) in the 1960s.
In between that period, he would score 333 goals for Barcelona (club’s 3rd highest scorer), recruit Ladislao Kubala (who would go on to be a Barcelona legend) as a Barcelona scout, coach Atletico Madrid, get relegated, get arrested by the Anarchist Militia for ties with Franco during the Spanish Civil war, flee to France in a war ship, play for OGC Nice, act in a movie called Stars Search for Peace, come back as a manager and steer a struggling Barcelona to their second league title in 1945 – their first since 1929, when a young Samitier was bending minds, time and space.
He willed the vehicle of his dreams into existence. And when he rolled down his windows in Les Corts, sweet shop owners who’d once shunned the rascal, would approach him with apron full of sweets and descriptions of their beautiful Catholic daughters. And he had them all, knowing that no dentist in all of Catalonia would ask him for a fee.
When he left the human plane for good, Samitier was given a state funeral in 1972 and a street that leads to Camp Nou.
Certain streets have names, and names denote ideas upon which legacies, and, sometimes, even empires are built. If you happen to walk down zero eight zero two eight, Josep Samitier Street, Barcelona, you may catch a few surreal ones. And it’s up to you to make the most of them.