This week, FC Barcelona is returning to the U.S., where the team will play three friendly matches against Juventus, Manchester United and Real Madrid; it comes eight decades after their first visit to North America, in a tour through Mexico and the U.S. that was considered essential for the club's survival.
The Barcelona of the "MSN," or of Pep Guardiola, Lionel Messi, Ronaldinho and Johan Cruyff, the club that nowadays excites fans all over the world and is constantly active on every social media platform, once lived through all kinds of hardships in a past that seems so far removed from today's megaclub. And one of those hard moments, which did not get much attention when it happened, resulted in an unexpected turn of luck.
It was a kind of lottery that almost nobody expected and that was essential for Barca's future after the terrible Civil War that devastated Spain between 1936 and 1939. The amount of 461,799.10 "pesetas" at that time, which at the current exchange rate would be just €2,775, was used by the blue and garnet club to continue their activities after 1939.
The outburst of the Spanish Civil War in July 1936 was a tough blow to Barca's already battered finances. While the club boasted 12,207 members in 1924, it barely exceeded 8,000 in 1934 and plummeted to fewer than 5,000 by 1937. The club's deficit was beginning to be overwhelming, and the murder of its president, Josep Sunyol, urged the formation of a committee to save the club. They began holding friendly matches that barely covered their expenses.
And then, Barca received an unexpected and vital invitation that was essential for the team's long-term future. Manuel Mas Soriano, a Catalan businessman based in Mexico who played for the Barcelona baseball team in his youth, sent a letter offering the club to perform a tour through Mexican cities, with all expenses covered and an estimated income of $15,000 for Barca.
The offer astonished the club officials and was duly accepted. A delegation departed Barcelona by train toward the south of France, to board a ship on May 24 that arrived in Veracruz on June 8 where they were received with full honors.
As a suitable welcome, a local newspaper read, "We hope that the stay of the Catalan football players will erase the impression of tragedy and mourning that they bring from their grief-stricken country, and that the Mexican football will be able to reap the benefits of this visit." It was understood from the very beginning that the visit, besides being of great help for the club's future, was also considered the arrival of a legitimate ambassador of Spain's Republican regime, exceeding its identity of a simple football team.
What had been originally intended as a five-game tour to be held in Mexico over three weeks was extended to three months and nine additional friendly matches, the result of a social and sporting expectation that surprised the Barcelona players with its warmth and fondness. It also gave birth to a reciprocal relationship that the club worked to maintain along the years.
The Barca touring squad played a total of 14 matches, 10 in Mexico and four in the United States, from June 20 to Sept. 20 with 10 wins and four defeats. They also gained an extraordinary boost to their international reputation, as well as revenue of 461,799.10 "pesetas" -- the sum was deposited in a Paris bank in October and, at the end of the Civil War, in 1939, was used to cover the deficit that was crippling the club as membership dwindled to just 2,000 members.
Barca started the tour with a match against Club America on June 20, losing 2-0; a week later, the visitors won their match against Atlante, 2-1, and defeated Espanya on July 4. On July 11, Barca beat Necaxa 4-2 and then did it again, winning 2-1 against the same team on July 18. The latter was held on a date of particular significance: It was the first anniversary of the start of Spain's Civil War.
On July 25, Asturias FC beat Barca by a 5-1 score, and on Aug. 1 they played another match against Club America, winning this time 3-2 thanks to an excellent performance by Marti Ventolra (scorer of two goals) that resulted in his signing for Atlante at the end of the tour. On Aug. 15, the Barcelona team played the Mexico national team in Parque Necaxa, with the locals winning 5-2, and a week later Barca lost once more against the national team 3-1. Their last match before leaving Mexico was a huge 7-2 win vs. Cidosa on Aug. 28.
The success with the fans, the expectations created and the fondness received all moved Soriano, who had been the tour's "alma mater," to offer Barca the opportunity to extend their trip to the U.S. with other matches. He finally scheduled four additional matches, all of them in New York.
On Sept. 6, Barca defeated Brooklyn Hispano 4-2, and on Sept. 12 they beat a combined team called New York 4-3. On Sept. 19, they defeated another combined team named American Soccer League, 2-0, and finally, one day later, they won against a team of Jewish all-stars 3-0.
Not only was this the end of a tour that saved Barcelona's future -- though at that time, nobody was conscious of the club's dire financial situation -- it changed the lives of several team members forever. It caused a mixture of emotions among members of the delegation. The battles of Guadalajara and Brunete were an evidence of the progress made by Franco's troops in Spain and several team members took the decision of not returning to Spain. One of them was Ventolra, Barca's most important player; he later married a nephew of Lazaro Cardenas, who was ruling president of Mexico at that time.
Ventolra, who represented the Spanish national team 12 times, had participated in the 1934 World Cup. His son, Jose Raimundo Vantolra Rangel, also participated in the 1970 World Cup with the Mexico national team. They were the first (and up to now, the only) father-son pair to have played in a football World Cup with different national teams.
Just as Ventolra did, six other players also chose to stay in Mexico at the end of the tour, though all of them agreed not to request any additional payments for their participation in any of the matches played that summer.
Domenec Balmanya, Ramon Zabalo and Josep Escola, who would turn out to be three of the most illustrious players in Barca history, remained in France and returned to Spain after the Civil War, and Julio Munlloch, Jose Argemi, Pere Cabot, Jose Bardina and others took the risk and returned to Barcelona, together with the coach Patrick O'Connell, the delegate Rosendo Calvet, club attendant Modesto Amoros and physio Angel Mur. In 1938, Munlloch took the decision to return to Mexico, where he took residence.
Eighty years have passed since that tour, one that's rarely thought about these days but helped Barca stay afloat in the midst of the Spanish Civil War. It feels in stark contrast to the modern era, where such big tours result in huge windfalls that merely increase the financial muscle of the great clubs instead of helping them survive. Barcelona have experienced both.