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Gimnàstic Tarragona, from the Catalan city about 100km down the coast from Barcelona, are the opposition in the first preseason friendly of the 2020/21 season (Saturday at 7.00pm CEST, LIVE ON BARÇA TV+). Today we turn the clocks back a massive 120 years to the historic occasion in 1901 when FC Barcelona travelled outside of the city for the very first time… to play in Tarragona.
The 1901 Copa Macaya was the first ever football competition in Spain. It featured FC Barcelona and three other teams from the city plus, rather surprisingly, a club called the Aficionados Unionistas de Football de Tarragona.
It’s debatable whether this makes Nàstic the oldest football club in Spain. The Club Gimnástico from which it takes its name has existed since 1886, but there is no record of the club playing football until 1914. It’s unclear where the 1901 footballers fit into the story, but it’s hard to believe that there wasn’t some kind of connection.
The Tarragona team were something of a mystery. In fact, despite their enthusiasm to take up the new sport, none of them had ever seen it played for real, and started travelling up to Barcelona to watch games and learn how it worked.
The game that never was
FC Barcelona were due to play Tarragona on February 17. All other games were cancelled as everybody wanted to be at Hotel Casanovas to see the intriguing new team in action. Unfortunately, Tarragona sent a telegram saying they were sick and the game was rescheduled for March 3.
Despite horse-drawn carriages being sent to meet them at the station, a full orchestra waiting to welcome them to the field, and a post-match dinner ready in the hotel, Tarragona again failed to appear. Barça won the game by default.
On a soaking wet morning of March 17, the FC Barcelona players took the train south for the return game in Tarragona. The game was a horrible mismatch. The experienced Barça team were no match for the young novices. The 18-0 victory was more of an embarrassment than a triumph and would remain Barça’s biggest ever win until they trounced Dutch regional side Smilde 20-1 in a friendly in 1992.
Barça president Hans Gamper scored an incredible nine goals in that match, but by the end of it, Tarragona had simply given up. And they didn’t take the humiliation well. Rather than a wonderful opportunity to spread the game to the Catalan provinces, the whole affair was a diplomatic disaster.
Writing in local newspaper La Opinión, Tarragona president William Tarín said that “this club has never sought to claim we can beat foreigners at football, who have played the game since they were children and tired of battling away abroad have come here with such pompous titles as football champion, as one player does.” That last bit was a dig at Gamper, who like Tarín was from Switzerland.
He described FC Barcelona’s mission to simply score as many goals as they could as ‘unsportsmanlike’ and compared this game with the one against Barça’s rivals Hispania a few weeks earlier. After Hispania had scored five goals, that game was abandoned and they just mixed the teams to play a friendly.
Barça published their defence in their own Los Deportes magazine a few days later. They were bitter about Tarragona’s repeated failure to attend the games in Barcelona despite all the efforts that the club invested in making it a grand occasion, and also resented the ‘glacial’ reception that greeted them on arrival in the south of Catalonia.
Unlike Hispania, they were given no tour of the city and had to find their own way to the field. It could only mean one thing – Hispania, with whom Barça had a rivalry as fierce as any other that came later, had done all they could to get Tarragona ‘on their side’.
In fact, Barça would have loved to have fielded a weaker side, but competition rules forbade that. Instead, they had played a ‘child-like’ game with no roughness and deliberately tried not to score goals when they knew they could. Even so, they won the game 18-0.
We meet again
That Tarragona team only played one more game after that before disappearing from the records without scoring a single goal. But thankfully football would eventually thrive in the city. In 1948 Gimnàstic finished as high as seventh in La Liga, and were playing first division football as recently as 2007.
On Saturday they are back. Due to Covid-19, the circumstances might be even stranger than they were in 1901, but we certainly won’t be seeing 18 goals. Let’s hope not anyway, for fear of reviving ghosts of the past!
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