(The following is an excerpt from an article appearing in The Football Pink, Issue 17)
Iloilo City, the Philippines in 1896 was a tumultuous place. Though the Philippine Revolution was underway, many of the local Ilonggo population had a favorable relationship with the Spanish colonizers and initially discouraged the insurgency. Iloilo City had been something of a model port with regards to not only the Spanish (who went so far as to declare it ‘The Queen’s Favored City In The South’), but also the British, French, and German immigrants who came and ingratiated themselves in trade and tobacco. Inter-marriage and mixed race children were not out of the ordinary, and it was in this environment that Eduardo Alcántara, a Spanish officer stationed in Iloilo married a Spanish-Ilongga mestiza, Victoriana Camilan Riestra. The couple would have seven children together, with Paulino being born on October 7, 1896.
The apparent harmony the Ilonggo people of the region had with the Spanish during the Filipino revolution was so strong that it extended to fighting against their fellow Filipinos in defense of the Spanish crown. Noted forces of Ilonggo military volunteers that fought for Spain against Katipunan Filipino Revolutionaries successfully in 1897 & 1898, were greeted upon their return to Iloilo City in April, 1898 with some fanfare. Though after hundreds of years, Spain’s hold on the nation was diminished and the United States was poised to wrestle their colonies away. The stability that had evolved over centuries of Spanish rule was in tumult, and the complex cultural balance of Ilonggo, Mestizo, Spanish, Chinese, German and more was upended.
Football is thought to have been introduced to the Philippines in 1895 by British sailors, and then spread further by Filipino students who’d returned to the country after being exposed to it in Hong Kong, going on to form the first nascent clubs in Manilla. The initial interest in the sport was tempered by skepticism at the foreign game, and then much more so by the onset of the Spanish-American War.
The short-lived flash of time between the collapse of the Spanish colonial structure, and the domination of the country by the US allowed for virtually no time of independence. The subsequent US military policy “permitting no neutrality” meant that you were either an ally and friend to the US military neo-colonizers, or an outright enemy that was treated as a rival combatant. Even compared to the colonial Spanish, this was seen as heavy-handed and callous, and the US seemed less inclined to view their Philippine subjects as entitled to the measure of human rights and respect with which their European counterparts had treated them.
The transitioning years saw tremendous instability as disease outbreaks, disrupted trade, and an unchecked military presence of Americans stomped out a path to ‘friendship’ between the US and the Philippines. Though football had only just begun its incubation in the Philippines, the US introduced basketball to their new territory and within a short while it boomed in popularity that far surpassed football. The pool of footballing talent that was available on the islands would largely go to waste–with a notable exception.
In 1905, Eduardo Alcántara packed up his family from the Philippines and headed back to his homeland to raise his children in Barcelona. Football in Spain had yet to grip the nation, and the first exhibitions and public games were overwhelmingly comprised of Englishmen who were working abroad. Even in Catalunya, football was just beginning to take shape with the first club in the region having been founded in 1898 (said to be Palamós FC). It wouldn’t be until November 1899 that Swiss-born Joan (né Hans) Gamper founded FC Barcelona.
The early days of football in Catalunya were expectedly disorganized, with local competitions falling prey to the inconsistencies of a pastime that was still in its infancy. The need for a reliable ongoing competition would see local league cups transition rapidly in the early years of the 20th century–from the Copa Macaya, to the Copa Barcelona, until eventually the Campionat de Catalunya would be the defacto league of the region. A unified Spanish Liga would still not be formed for decades. Officiation was frequently partisan and contested, with clubs known to boycott games in objection to decisions.
Paulino Alcántara with Joan Gamper
In 1912, fifteen-year old Paulino Alcántara was scouted by FC Galeno–a Barcelona club that was founded by and largely made up of medical students and young doctors. The club would play their games in the courtyard of a local hospital, and counted among their founders Carles Comamala. Comamala was also an early member of FC Barcelona, and would be the successor to Joan Gamper as the head of Barça, in addition to being a practicing orthopedist.
Before he got to make his debut for Galeno, however, Comamala’s friend and compatriot at FC Barcelona, Gamper, swooped in and signed Paulino and instantly inserted him into the attack of the Blaugrana. Football a hundred years ago bore little resemblance to the tactically organized systems of today. At FC Barcelona, the team favored a five-man forward line of attackers with just two defenders protecting their goal. How every game didn’t end up a ten-ten draw is a mystery, but on the debut of Alcántara against Catalá SC, Alcántara scored a hat-trick to open the match, and Barça routed their rivals 9-0. Catalá SC had been founded only weeks before FC Barcelona, and they self identified as the first club founded in the city. Within a few years of the debut of Alcántara they would be relegated from the Campionat de Catalunya. They shuttered forever in the late 1920’s. Paulino, aged 15 years, four months and 18 days remains to this day the youngest debutant to play for Barça.
The impact of Paulino was immediate and indelible. Though Barça had performed generally well during the time leading up to Alcántara’s arrival, championships and cups were by no means a guarantee. Local rivals FC Espanya, and CD Espanyol (which would be largely comprised of the intriguingly named X SC, a club that performed well in the first decade of the 1900’s before being absorbed into the current cross-town rivals of the Blaugrana), were strong competitors at the time of Paulino’s debut. Though there were still controversies within the leagues at the time, and Barça would actually withdraw from the established local cup competition for the 1912-1913 season, Paulino managed to help the team secure two Catalan championships and a Spanish Cup in a few short years.
Paulino with his mother and brother, 1916
In 1916, however, just as Paulino was beginning to enter his physical prime with his football club maintaining momentum, his family moved back to the Philippines and took him along to study medicine in Manila. True to form, he joined local football club Bohemians, who became the dominant team in the nation. Alcántara would lead them to local success, and get recruited to play for the Filipino national team at the 1917 Tokyo Far Eastern Championship Games. It was there that he played during what remains the country’s high-water achievement in football, as the Philippines destroyed Japan 15-2. Astonishingly enough, he also represented the Philippines in table tennis.
The accolades he’d accrued in Asia notwithstanding, Paulino was desperate to return to Barcelona. In late 1917 he contracted malaria and refused to take medication to remedy it until he was allowed to go back to Spain and get back on the pitch. His family acquiesced and the phenomenon was soon back in Catalunya, where he resumed the keen form that saw the Blaugrana lifting trophies once again.
Paulino Alcantara, passport photo, 1916
In 1920 he was chosen to represent Spain in the Olympics, but instead of going with La Roja to the Antwerp games he elected to take his final medical exams instead, missing out on Spain’s silver medal finish to host nation Belgium’s gold. There was doubtless an air of ‘what if…’ as one of the great talents of the day prioritized medicine over the relative frivolity of sport. He would get his Spanish national team debut a year later, at the age of 25, and score six goals in five appearances for Spain–including a brace in a 2-0 victory over Belgium. Alcántara would go undefeated in the Spanish national team.
Without film or indeed many photos of Paulino, it is hard to truly understand what gifts he possessed on the pitch, but there remain accounts of his legendary cannon foot. It is said that a policeman guarding the pitch in a game at Real Sociedad in 1919 ventured too close to the goal, and Paulino shot with such strength that both the ball and the officer ended up in the back of the net. Cementing his legend, a 1922 game played for Spain against France saw his shot rip through the back of the net. This feat earned him the nickname “Trencaxarxes“– the net breaker.