Not only is Joan Gamper the founder of FC Barcelona, he also scored 120 goals in 51 appearences for the club. Many people in professional sports have led interesting lives with memorable accomplishments, but not many could match the Gamper’s impressive résumé. He was one of those rare people who lived a life that reads more like a movie than reality, complete with glory, politics, and a tragic ending. Since he’s the man responsible for Barça being here today, he’s a man that any culé should be familiar with.
The man who created the most famous symbol of Catalunya was born in 1877 in Winterthur, Switzerland. Originally named Hans Kamper, he became captain of the blue-and-red-wearing FC Basel before turning 20. This being decades before athletes regularly received massive paychecks for their services, Gamper set off for Africa in 1898 to get into the sugar trading business. On the way, he stopped to visit an uncle in Barcelona. He never made it to Africa. Like so many before and after him, he fell in love with the city. He learned Catalan before bothering to learn Spanish and changed his name accordingly. Still only 22, he placed an advertisement in local newspaper Los Deportes in search of football players to form a club. A meeting took place on November 29, 1899, and along with a group of athletes from the local area, greater Spain, England and Switzerland, FC Barcelona was born.
He took over immediately as team captain and began scoring goals at a pace that could relegate Lionel Messi to selling shirts outside the stadium in today’s game. He chose blue and red as the squad’s colors, perhaps as a tribute to his former club FC Basel, who still wear a similar shirt to Barça’s today (this is disputed, however, by other Swiss clubs with Gamper connections). With extremely advanced skills on the field, he became a local sensation. But things were not always easy at the club. Less than ten years after the club was born, Barca’s finances were in bad shape, and the team had not won a trophy in four years. The club was on life support and an early death seemed extremely likely. Not willing to let the club he had founded die young, Gamper decided to take the club’s presidency for the first time at the age of 31. It would be the first of his five presidential terms over the next 15 years.
This was far from a guaranteed plan for success. Being Protestant and a foreigner made things difficult for Gamper, bringing him a large amount of criticism. World War I broke out a few years later and being a native German speaker again made him a target. With Gamper in charge, the club began winning again and money soon followed. But Gamper managed to raise enough money to move the club to its own field for the first time in 1909, the 6,000 capacity Carrer Industria. In 1912, he discovered 15-year old Paulino Alcántara, who would go on to be the club’s all time leading scorer. This was the beginning of the club’s first golden age. After hiring Jack Greenwell in 1917, the club’s first professional manager, Gamper went on to sign some of the greatest players in the club’s history, including the great Josep Samitier. Several trophies were won and times were good. With membership rising rapidly, in 1922, he was able to move the club to the stadium it would play in for the next 35 years, Les Corts.
Unfortunately, Spanish politics soon brought an end to the fun. In 1925, at Les Cortes, Barça supporters booed the Spanish national anthem and cheered for “God Save The Queen,” played by the visiting British Royal Marine band. Not surprisingly, this was a problem for Spain’s pre-Franco fascist dictator, Primo de Rivera. The stadium was closed for six months and Gamper was forced into exile, accused of promoting Catalan independence. As a condition of his return, he was forced to avoid all contact with the club. This was the beginning of a downward spiral for Gamper. Piling on top of the depression he dealt with as a result of being away from Barça, the global economic collapse in 1929 destroyed his businesses. A year later, he committed suicide.
For many years after meeting his tragic end, Gamper was doing no better in death than he did in life. He was the opposite of everything Franco stood for: a foreign Protestant who committed suicide, a man who changed his name to a Catalan one, a liberal ideologist who advocated Catalan independence. The result was Gamper becoming a name one could only whisper at the club for many years under Franco. But today, Joan Gamper is well remembered at Barça. Every August, the club plays a well-known visiting squad for the Gamper trophy before La Liga starts. The club trains at the Joan Gamper Sports City, on the outskirts of Barcelona. He has been memorialized as Member #1 at the club. Without him, none of what the club is today would be possible. So when AC Milan come to Camp Nou on August 25th this year to play for the Gamper Trophy, don’t forget the man who made the club great.