FC Barcelona continue their Champions League campaign next week with a trip to Lyon. It’s a city they first visited for a friendly in 1960, although the link with France’s third largest city goes back much further than that.
It was here that Hans (Joan) Gamper spent a year of his life before moving to Catalonia and founding FC Barcelona in 1899.
Already a seasoned footballer from his youth in his native Switzerland, where he had founded FC Zurich, the 19-year-old Gamper left for the banks of the rivers Rhône and the Saône in 1897 to work as an accountant at Crédit Lyonnais. Being the impassioned sportsman that he was, it wasn’t long before he was playing football in France too, but by a totally different set of rules to those that he was used to.
Whole new ball game
He joined Union Athlétique de Lyon, the local rugby club, and was soon excelling at the unfamiliar code. As local newspaper Lyon Sport observed: “Although he had only played association football … he quickly learned the rules of rugby football, contributing to our first team his excellent dribbling qualities. His kicks and dribbling have placed him among the top players in the region.”
The use of ‘dribbling’ shows how much rugby has changed since then, while match reports from clearly indicate that Gamper had become the team’s first choice kicker. But the Swiss expatriate hadn’t lost his love for the association game, and expressed an interest in also playing soccer for FC Lyon, the dominant side in the city at the time but since vastly superseded by Olympique.
These were times of a major conflict of interest between the two codes in France. The French Rugby Union was so fiercely opposed to the professionalism creeping into soccer that it had a law stating that anybody who played it would be banned from rugby for a year. However, despite protestations from Athlétique, special dispensation was granted to Gamper, apparently because the rule was inapplicable to his case. Exactly why is not clear, but perhaps it’s because he was a foreigner…
Ultimately it didn’t matter, because when rugby season came around again, Gamper had gone back to Switzerland and by November 1898 was settling into a brand new city – Barcelona.
Much to his dismay, organised football of any kind was practically inexistent in the Catalan capital. Very much a man of initiative, he decided something needed to be done to rectify the situation.
And the rest, as they say, is history…