If one were to ask the average football fan to name Barcelona’s biggest stars, one could expect them to say, Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, Xavi, Andres Iniesta or Ronaldinho and others. An older fan may rattle off names such as Johan Cruyff, Pep Guardiola, Ronald Koeman or Romario.
However, one man who may not be as commonly known, but is thoroughly deserving of a spot among those already mentioned, is Paulino Alcantara. Hailing from the Philippines, Alcantara was not only a truly legendary player for Barcelona FC, but he also broke many barriers in both Filipino and Spanish society, making him a hero to many. Beyond his footballing career, Alcantara’s story was particularly fascinating as well, as he became embroiled in 1930s Spanish political history.
On October 7, 1896, Paulino Alcantara Riestra entered the world, the son of Eduardo Alcantara, an officer in the Spanish military, and Victoriana Camilan Riestra, a Filipina mother of indigenous Ilongga descent. Alcantara left his hometown of Concepcion in the Filipino province of Iloilo for Barcelona, Spain in 1899, just as Joan Gamper officially created the soon-to-be-famous football team, Futbol Club Barcelona. Upon being selected by the founder himself in 1912, Alcantara joined Barcelona’s academy aged only 15, before making his senior team debut that same year.
When Alcantara took the field versus Catala SC in the Catalan league (prior to the creation of La Liga), he became the first-ever Asian or Pacific Islander to play football for a European team as well as the youngest player to play for FC Barcelona, a record that still stands. The records did not stop there, however, as Barcelona would go on to beat Catala 9-0. The first, second and third goals were all scored by Alcantara himself, becoming Barcelona’s youngest ever goalscorer, another record which still currently stands.
In the next few seasons, Alcantara would cement himself as one of the best players in the team and one of Barcelona’s first-ever superstars. He would also go on to win several major titles, such as the 1913 and 1916 league titles as well as the 1913 Copa del Rey. Alcantara played as a striker and was known for his incredible eye for goal, scoring goals for fun as it seemed.
However, in 1916, after his family decided to move back to the Philippines, Alcantara was forced to prematurely end his spell in Barcelona. In his birth-nation, Alcantara went to college, studying to become a doctor. Despite his studies, he still continued his football career, turning out for Bohemian Sporting Club in the Philippines Championship.
Possessing a talent like no other, Alcantara propelled his new club to two league victories in both 1917 and 1918. The Filipino hero then gained the attention of his national team, and soon he went on to represent the Philippine National Team at the Far Eastern Games. It was at this tournament that Alcantara captured the hearts of all Filipinos as he led his team to a smashing 15-2 victory over Japan, the Philippines’ historical sporting rival, getting himself on the scoresheet in the process. This humiliating demolition of the Japanese is still currently the Philippines National Team’s biggest ever win.
Despite his success in the former Spanish East Indies, Barcelona FC were desperately missing Alcantara back in Catalonia and they pleaded for him to return as they had gone trophyless since his departure. Alcantara wanted to return to the Catalan capital but in an era before football was the major cultural and global sport it is today, his parents preferred that he focus on medical school. However, when Alcantara suddenly came down with malaria, he insisted that he would refuse treatment unless he could return to Spain, and he eventually got his wish.
Upon his return to Spain and recovery from malaria, Alcantara arrived as a much more mature player mentally, but also much stronger physically. As a result, the goals rolled in more than ever and Barcelona returned to their winning ways. Alcantara’s second stint in a Blaugrana shirt is where he would reach the peak of his career, forever solidifying his place as one of Barcelona’s best-ever players. On the international stage, Alcantara would go on to play for both Spain and Catalonia as well, although he would unfortunately never be able to represent either team in a major tournament as he played in an era before the World Cup or the Euros were founded.
It was on international duty though, that a moment, truly personifying Paulino Alcantara’s career would occur. In a 1922 International Friendly, Alcantara lined up against France while playing for Spain. La Furia Roja eventually ran out 4-0 winners over the French with the Filipino talisman bagging a brace. However, one of his goals was particularly historic as he struck the ball with such venom and force that it tore through the net. Upon this momentous feat, Alcantara became known as “Trencaxarxes” in Catalan, or “El Romperedes” in Spanish, both meaning “the Net Burster.” A similar incident occurred while playing for Barcelona against Real Sociedad where it was reported that a policeman accidentally walked onto the field. Unfortunately for the policeman, he got caught in the line of fire between a powerful Paulino Alcantara shot and the front of Real Sociedad’s goal. The shot was hit with so much momentum that it sent both the ball and the poor policeman into the goal.
Opting to finally pursue a career as a doctor, Alcantara would eventually retire from football in 1927, aged only 31. Alcantara ended his second stint in Barcelona winning eight of a possible nine league titles, as well as four Copa del Rey titles in which he scored in the final of three. Individually, he would also finish his Barcelona career with an absolutely incredible 395 goals in 399 games, making him Barcelona’s top scorer of all time until Lionel Messi overtook him in 2014. Unfortunately, the majority of Alcantara’s goals were not recognized as being scored in official games, but even when you only consider his official goals, he still stands at seventh place in Barcelona’s current all-time scoring chart with 143 goals, above recent Barcelona legends like Samuel Eto’o and Rivaldo.
While Alcantara entered a career in medicine, he would briefly return to football on the managerial front, managing the Spanish and Catalan National Teams in the 1950s, going undefeated as the manager of Spain. When considering Alcantara’s legacy in a modern context, he is still very impactful as he paved the way for many foreigners from former Spanish colonies to make a name for themselves playing football in their mother country, as well Asian and Pacific Islander footballers playing for European clubs in general.
Alcantara broke many barriers by coming to Barcelona and certainly left a major influence on players yet to come. As a man of Asian, Indigenous Pacific Islander and Mestizo descent, he likely had to overcome many adversities and discrimination in White Spanish and Catalan society. But with his dazzling skills, ambitious desire on the pitch and his likeability off of it with his honorable gentleman-like presence, he found himself fully accepted into society.
Alcantara was a trailblazer in many senses. After he laid the groundwork, players like Alfredo Di Stefano of Argentina, Hugo Sanchez of Mexico, Ivan Zamorano of Chile, Diego Forlan of Uruguay, Lionel Messi of Argentina and Luis Suarez of Uruguay all made names for themselves in the Spanish topflight. Alcantara had a large effect on Asian and Pacific Islander footballers coming to Europe as well, with other players like Cha Bum-kun of South Korea, Ali Daei of Iran, Sami Al-Jaber of Saudi Arabia, Hidetoshi Nakata of Japan, Park Ji-sung of South Korea, Tim Cahill of Australia, Keisuke Honda of Japan and Son Heung-min of South Korea all becoming big stars on the European stage.
Outside of football, Alcantara lived the years following his retirement peacefully, pursuing his passion for medicine and working as a doctor. However, at the breakout of the Spanish Civil War, Alcantara would open a whole new chapter in his life, going in a completely different direction. As a member of the Falange Espanola political party, he was forced into exile in France and Andorra following General Francisco Franco’s 1936 failed National Uprising.
Later that year though, he would volunteer for the Nationalist forces and was eventually promoted lieutenant in the Francoist Army as his medical skills were put to use. With the Spanish Civil War unfolding across the country, Alcantara was part of a tank regiment stationed in Aragon. By the next year, he would then serve as a lieutenant in the famous Frecce Nere Brigade, otherwise known as the Black Arrows, which was a legionnaire force under the command of Benito Mussolini.
With Mussolini’s Black Arrows, Alcantara fought numerous battles all across Spain, ranging from Guadalajara, back to Aragon and even his adopted home of Catalonia. Alcantara was even present at the pivotal invasion of Barcelona in early 1939 which signaled an end to the war and Republican defeat.
Following the fall of Barcelona, Alcantara became a hero again, but instead of with football fans it was with the Spanish Nationalists as he became renowned for his role as a field doctor and prominent lieutenant. When the war eventually ended and General Franco’s government prevailed over Spain, Alcantara returned to his medical practice, opening his own clinic. His military service would not be forgotten though as he remained a lieutenant in the Black Arrows in the next few years and he even held several political positions later on in Franco’s Party, Falange Espanola Tradicionalista y de las Juntas de Ofensiva Nacional Sindicalista, or FET y de las JONS.
Despite his role in a contentious period of Spanish history and controversial life after football, Paulino Alcantara remained a beloved figure in Barcelona. As was mentioned before, he would briefly enter a career in management, but he would serve as Barcelona’s technical director as well. In 1964 however, Alcantara’s life would be cut short at the relatively young passing age of 67 after he fell ill with the rare condition of aplastic anemia.
After his passing, the world of football and the people of Barcelona and the Philippines never forgot the legacy of the Filipino doctor. A statue in his likeness stands in Pasig City, Manila, and the top club tournament in Filipino Football is named the Copa Paulino Alcantara. In 2007, FIFA officially recognized Alcantara as the greatest Asian footballer of all time, and his legacy serves as a reminder to a young man who broke numerous barriers in European football, all while becoming one of the greatest players in the history of the sport.