eBook Preview #5: Dispelling and Re-telling Foundation Myths

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When does history begin? For humans, the answer is relatively simple. You are born. Your mother pushes your out of her womb. Then, the clock starts to tick. Normally, after sixty to eighty years, you expire. You are buried. The story ends. The story begins. Simple and clean.

For institutions, such as nation states, the story is seldom so simple. Rather, historians strive to identify a single individual or “event,” and then label that “event” and the year of that “event” as the proper starting point for an institution. In the case of FC Barcelona, the club’s story lends itself to both an event-driven and individual-driven historical story. In the case of Real Madrid, we have a muddled mess of clubs, associations, and leaders. Who gets the credit? Or, rather, should nobody get to claim the prize?

Only by re-framing the basic historical question of “when” can we arrive at a satisfactory answer. Let’s begin.

FC Barcelona’s tale offers the simplest story lines. Hans Kamper also known as Joan Gamper), a Swiss ex-pat, lived in Barcelona, loved soccer, and ran a newspaper ad inviting others to a kick about. Folks showed up, they played a game, then they later played an official friendly game against local opposition. FC Barcelona claims they began as an organization in 1902, the year of the ad and that first “official” game. Of course, not even a Catalan Regional league existed, let alone La Liga (which came about in the 1930′s). However, few can derail the club for wanting to give credit to Gamper, who also served as the club’s President and helped save the club from an early financial scare.

Still, just as folks have birth certificates, legal entities such as corporations have “articles of incorporation” (to use American legal parlance). Why not glance at Barcelona’s articles to pick a start date? First, in Spain the major soccer clubs formed well before a national league and evenĀ  few years before regional leagues, yet participated in the King’s Cup tournament. Thus, there’s probably a lag between the teams playing in the King’s Cup and the actual date of incorporation. Second, why be so formal with history? Barcelona is a club owned by socios (members), so their first associations are surely just as important as a legal date/stamp of creation. Lastly, I’m sure FC Barcelona is a complex web of parent companies and subsidiaries. Which one is the “real” legal FC Barcelona is probably an impossible riddle to decipher.

Real Madrid offers a complex background that contrasts markedly with FC Barcelona. Since the late 1890′s, groups of friends played soccer in Madrid. They formalized into associations and had names such as Football Sky, Madrid CF, and others. Real Madrid the club officially claims to have started in 1902, the year that the club elected its first Board of Directors. However, the club had a President, Julian Palacios, from 1900 to 1902. Furthermore, the club held regular meetings at a store ran by the Padros brothers beforehand. Juan Padros was the first “official” President, but why let Real Madrid decide its own birth date?

Of course, the same Articles of Incorporation problems with FCB arise with Real Madrid. However, at least FCB can point to Gamper and his newspaper ad. At Real Madrid, there’s a legitimate beef as to whether Julian Palacios or Juan Padros should get a bigger slice of credit. If Julian Palacios had never left Football Sky to come to Madrid CF, would Real Madrid have taken off? It’s a question we can’t answer, but the fact it’s seldom-asked raises further questions.

FC Barcelona’s foundation myth reads like a storybook – a man wants some friends to play with, they show up, and they live somewhat happily ever after. Meanwhile, Madrid’s scattered beginning defy the fairy tale structure. There’s no clear, single Prince Charming. There’s no clear event, such as a newspaper ad of Prince Charming slaying a dragon. Rather, the club’s birth date looks a bit arbitrary chosen – an unseen handed picked a year, all in the hopes that future generations could at least celebrate an anniversary.

It’s a historical date for history’s sake, but little else.

Image: Erik Ebeling. This illustration is one of 20 included in Elliott Turner’s forthcoming book, Real Madrid & Barcelona: the Making of a Rivalry, due out in May 2013.

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