The term ‘netbuster’ is given to many players for their goal-scoring prowess. It’s also used to refer to goals that take your breath away. Very rarely is it meant literally. The phrase became the nickname of a boy born to a Spanish military officer and a Filipino mother in 1896. Paulino Alcántara was still a kid when he made his debut for Barcelona 15 years later, and he is still one of the club’s most cherished names. It wasn’t until almost a century after his debut that his goal-scoring record at the club was surpassed by a certain Lionel Messi.
Iloilo is the humble home of one of the most prolific forwards that football has ever seen. The Philippine province was under Spanish rule when Alcántara was born at the end of the 19th century, making more advanced sporting routes easier to pass down later in life. Work commitments forced his father back to Spain, with mother and baby following him to his homeland. It was 1899 when they arrived in Barcelona where, across the city, Joan Gamper was laying the foundations of Football Club Barcelona.
Gamper himself signed Alcántara up for the academy. Not much was known about this tiny player who’d moved in from afar, but Barcelona took him on. Sound familiar? Still shorter than most of the kids in the age groups below him, talent alone earned Alcántara his first-team debut in 1912. His net-finding pedigree was in plain sight in his first performance when a hat-trick helped Barça to a 9-0 win over Català. At the age of 15, Alcántara became the youngest player to score for the team founded 13 years earlier. Over a century later, he still is.
Things were different back then. Barcelona played in front of a few thousand fans each week at the Camp de la Indústria, a stadium which hosted the 1913 Copa Del Rey final replay. After the scores were level over two legs between Barcelona and Real Sociedad, the tie was to be replayed with the Blaugrana as the home team. Alcántara came on as a substitute as the home side ran out 2-1 winners. It was the youngster’s first trophy. His second piece of silverware followed shortly after in the Campionat de Catalunya. Another league title came three years later as Alcántara’s career began to take shape.
The only thing that could stop the relentless influx of goals was a call to go back home. And so, seven years after leaving the Philippines for Barcelona, Alcántara and his family made the return trip. Despite his success as a footballer, Alcántara’s father envisaged a more traditional career for his son. While back in Southeast Asia, Alcántara studied medicine alongside his footballing ventures with Philippine side Bohemian Sporting Club. It was during his second spell in the country of his birth that he represented them internationally. The Far Eastern Games were being held in Tokyo and the 21-year-old was selected to play for his homeland.
By then, he’d already turned out for the Catalan national team and was being tipped for a full international berth in Spanish colours. However, Alcántara joined the Philippines in Japan for a round-robin tournament with the hosts and China. Unfortunately for Japan, the outfit they’d sent (an inexperienced side made up entirely of boys from one school) were no match for the competition and were dispatched 5-0 by China in the opening fixture.
The Philippines and Alcántara then put 15 past them in an extraordinary 15-2 scoreline that remains the nation’s largest-ever winning margin. No one knows how many of those 15 goals Alcántara got. The decider ended in violence as Chinese and Filipino players came to blows with each other after China had scored their fourth from the penalty spot. The game was abandoned and China were given the gold medals. The Philippines went home in shame.
Later that year, Alcántara was struck by a bout of malaria. Although an anxious time for him and his family, Barcelona inevitably benefitted from the illness. A tug of war had ensued between the Catalan club and Alcántara’s parents. Barça officials wanted him back while his parents preferred him to stay and finish his studies.
When given the necessary medication for his malaria, Alcántara refused to take it unless he was allowed to go back to Spain. He wanted to play for Barcelona again. When he arrived back on Spanish shores the following year, the trophy cabinet at the Camp de la Indústria still had the same amount of silverware in it. They’d won nothing without him.
Although his career in medicine had stalled his one in football, Alcántara was a step ahead when he returned to Barcelona. His knowledge of the body made him fitter than the others. His short and slender physique made him more agile. His powerful legs and feet, packed with muscle, made him no match for defenders. The goals immediately started to flow again and his strike of a football became a thing of legend. The stories surrounding Alcántara are barely believable and paint him as this mythical creature capable of superhuman acts.
They say one of his shots was blocked by a policeman in a game between Barcelona and Real Sociedad at Les Corts. Both the ball and the policeman apparently ended up in the goal. When Spain faced France in 1922, they say one of his shots broke the back of the net and just kept on going. They called him Trencaxarxes – Netbuster.
With Alcántara’s fearsome shot as part of Barcelona’s armoury once more, the Blaugrana dominated domestically. During his nine-year second spell at the club, they won eight Campionat de Catalunya and four Copa del Rey. Alcántara netted in the 1920, 1922 and 1926 finals as well as finishing his playing days at Barça with a total of 369 goals.
Most of those goals are not officially recognised by senior figures and organisations in Spanish football but they are by those that matter. A treble from Messi against Osasuna at the Camp Nou in 2014 saw the Argentine overtake Alcántara at the top of the goalscoring charts at one of the most prestigious clubs in the world. However, Messi won’t be forced to retire in order to earn more money.
Alcántara’s footballing years were left to collect dust in 1927 when, at the age of 31, he hung up his boots to become a doctor. FIFA recognised him as the greatest Asian player of all-time in 2007. Even though he’s seen as a foreigner in Spain and in football, Alcántara had his part to play in the most turbulent chapter of modern Spanish history as the Civil War reared its ugly head in 1936.
After a period of exile in France and Andorra, he served for the nationalist side led by Francisco Franco and also worked for Benito Mussolini. He was made lieutenant of an Italian volunteer corps called the Black Arrows sent to provide support to Franco and his rebel troops. After three years of brutal war, Franco began his dictatorship of Spain and ruled with an iron fist. Alcántara survived the bloodshed and was made a chief of Franco’s fascist political party that led the country for the next 35 years. Before his death in 1964, he took charge of the national team for three games.
Political tensions still exist in Spain today, with many disagreeing on how the country and its regions should be run. Everyone will agree, however, that Paulino Alcántara was one of the very first stars of the Spanish game. Alfredo Di Stéfano, Johan Cruyff, Pep Guardiola, Andrés Iniesta, Ronaldinho and Lionel Messi have all trodden the path first marked out by Barcelona’s original superstar.
By Billy Munday @billymunday08