Talent, tantrums and tragedy: The story of Canito — once the future of Barça but forever Espanyol

EFE/Archivo‚3

He didn’t particularly like the comparisons with John Travolta but stood there at his presentation, tall and handsome, in an immaculate white jacket and plunging, open-necked shirt, you could see why they made them. He was certainly no stranger to the nightclubs — a regular at the iconic Bocaccio on Carrer Muntaner, always impeccably dressed and hospitable company to be in.

Barcelona’s expensive new signing, José Cano, known by the diminutive ‘Canito’, epitomised late 1970s glamour — designer clothes, fast cars and a revolving cast of girlfriends. Naturally blessed with the skill and physique that made him a classy operator on the field, a fact recognised by his recent international call up, Canito had the world at his feet.

However, as with Tony Manero, Travolta’s seminal character from “Saturday Night Fever” — life away from the bright lights was an altogether more complex affair. The road he had travelled had been humble and heartbreaking. To have overcome that to be plastered over every newspaper as the future of FC Barcelona was remarkable. Sadly, the journey that lay ahead was no less complicated and was ultimately tragic.


“I was lucky enough to spend the afternoon with him and to me, he seems a phenomenal person.” Barcelona director Albert Parera was keen to assuage any doubts about the character of their young signing. “They say he’s hot-headed, but with some love, the boy will fit in well with us.”

Tucked away in the following day’s edition of Mundo Deportivo was maybe the biggest clue to how things would fare out for Canito the other side of the Avinguida Diagonal. The Espanyol correspondent detailed Canito’s farewell to the club that had plucked him from the lower reaches of Catalan football. Canito had gathered together every single club employee to thank them. “Rarely has there been such a gesture in the Espanyol family.”

For Canito, Espanyol really was the closest thing to family. 

Born in the Pyrenees, Canito lost his father at an early age and with his mother unable to cope, he was left in the reception of La Salle de Nuestra Señora in the port area of Barcelona. There, from the age of six, he was brought up amongst the orphaned and abandoned in the school that was nicknamed the ‘Port Asylum’.

With little interest in his studies, manual work around the port was the best Canito could find as he struggled to scrape a living for himself. Football provided an escape and some extra income as he turned out for Penya Barcelonista Anguera in the local leagues. In an era when Franz Beckenbauer was in his pomp, scouts were alive to the sight of a defender elegantly bringing the ball forward and Canito was soon moving up the pyramid, attracting the attention of first division clubs.

Barcelona’s enthusiasm was checked by tales of Canito’s temper and eccentricity. Real Madrid also showed interest but it was a former legend of theirs, José Santamaria, who made the decisive move, signing Canito for Espanyol. Santamaria immediately sent him on loan to Tercera division Lleida to a manager he believed would instil some discipline in the 18-year-old.

It didn’t quite work out that way. Exasperating his coach, arguing with local journalists and refusing to play unless the club bought him an all-white suit were all highlights of an eventful season that nearly saw the loan ended on several occasions. On the pitch though, he showed enough for Santamaria to incorporate him into the Espanyol first team in the 1976/77 season.

Military service interrupted Canito’s progress at Espanyol after a good first year. Keen for him to continue his development, they came to an agreement for him to be loaned to Cádiz, near where he was stationed. Cádiz were relegated, but Canito further enhanced his reputation — in particular with a man-marking job on Johan Cruyff in a 1-1 draw at Camp Nou.

Back at Sarría the next season, Canito excelled. Capped by Spain in December, by March the papers bubbled with speculation about who was in prime position for his signature. As Mundo Deportivo reported, “Although the majority of sources take it as a given that Canito will transfer to Real Madrid, the promising defender is squarely in the orbit of FC Barcelona. Ultimately his destination will be whoever arrives first with the 40 million peseta asking price.”

A three-game spell at the end of that 1978/79 season typified Canito. Superb and the scorer of the only goal of the game as Espanyol beat Valencia live on national television, he was again on the scoresheet as they held leaders Real Madrid to a draw a fortnight later. In-between was a bizarre 2-0 loss in Salamanca in which he was booked for arguing with his own teammate, Marañón, who had expressed some frustration at Canito’s selfish play. “After that, Canito was a bag of nerves, of which anything could be expected. He rattled the crossbar with a shot a few minutes later before then asking to be replaced despite Espanyol already having used both of their substitutes,” read the match report in Mundo Deportivo.

That summer, the cordial relationship between Barça president Josep Lluís Nuñez and his Espanyol counterpart Manuel Meler won the day and Canito crossed the city to sign for Barcelona. Although some thought that a move to Madrid would have been the true making of Canito, taking him away from those habits and friendships that often led him astray in his native city.

Life at Camp Nou started well. Canito’s home debut featured two goals from defence in a thumping 5-0 win over Real Betis that had the press purring over a young Barça largely in reconstruction since Cruyff’s departure for Los Angeles. 

By Christmas though, Canito had lost his place in the side and his behaviour became ever more erratic — often late for training, occasionally accompanied by his dogs and rarely inclined to listen to his bemused manager, Helenio Herrera.

It was Canito’s enduring love for Espanyol that lay behind the most infamous incident in his time at Camp Nou. Towards the end of his first season, he had earned a start for Barça’s game against Athletic Club, who were direct competitors for a European place. Just before the hour mark, the scoreboard broke the news of an Espanyol goal in their crucial relegation match-up against Hercules. Canito put his arm in the air to celebrate, to the dismay of some supporters in Camp Nou.

Asked about the gesture after the game, Canito was keen to brush the incident off although ultimately he couldn’t betray his delight for his old club. “I was just asking for water and I certainly heard no boos from the crowd afterwards. The most important thing is that I thought I played well and getting the win. Besides I’m very happy that Espanyol won in Alicante.”

Those sentiments came as no surprise to his Barcelona teammates. Years later, in his time as presenter of El Día Después, Lobo Carrasco revealed that Canito regularly trained with an Espanyol shirt underneath his Barça gear.

Despite the arrival of László Kubala as manager in the summer of 1980, Canito’s second season at Camp Nou quickly faded into insignificance. Kubala had given Canito his chance at international level and in the future would reflect that Canito “could have been the best sweeper in the history of Spanish football”. Even with a coach that appreciated his talents, by December Canito was reduced to early-round cup appearances and even then grabbed the headlines for the wrong reason.

Seven minutes into a second-round tie against Lleida, an opponent’s sardonic remark to Canito that he could see why he was only picked in the cups was met with violent retribution and Canito was sent off. Jeered by his own supporters, Canito returned fire with sarcastic applause. At the end of its tether, the board instructed Canito to stay away from all club facilities. 

As the season ended, Canito wasn’t waiting around to find out his fate. Although still officially registered as a Barcelona player, he boarded a flight with his former club and featured in all six games of Espanyol’s South American tour. A midfield cameo that kept Diego Maradona in check in a goalless draw against Boca Juniors was a reminder of Canito’s quality.

President Meler was once again able to smooth a deal with Nuñez to officially bring the prodigal son back to Sarría but it wasn’t to be a happy return. Just days after signing the contract, Canito exploded spectacularly during a pre-season tournament in Badajoz against Atletico Madrid. One of four Espanyol players to be sent off by some dubious officiating, Canito stormed to the dressing rooms and launched all of the referee’s belongings into a running bath. The Extremadura Federation handed Canito a four-month ban for his actions.

The fallout from the ‘Battle of Badajoz’ lasted for days with debates over whether such lengthy suspensions could be handed out for unofficial tournaments. In his column in Mundo Deportivo, Andrés Astruells opined that “The only one who can see the events in good humour is Barça president, Josep Lluís Nuñez, who can breathe yet another deep sigh of relief for having got rid of Canito.” Some diplomatic manoeuvring by Espanyol, including committing to an exhibition game, eventually reduced the ban.

Despite strong performances on the field, the 1981/82 season proved to be a tempestuous one as Canito regularly clashed with his manager, José María Maguregui. In the final game of the season, Canito initially refused to travel with the team to play Sevilla only to be talked round. A 4-1 defeat did little to improve Canito’s mood and he clashed violently with Maguregui and a club masseuse after the game.  

Once destined to star for Spain as they hosted the World Cup, Canito spent the summer of 1982 disillusioned and threatening to walk away from the game. “The only thing that interests me about the World Cup is the Rolling Stones,” he told an interviewer who had tried to engage him in football talk.

The saga of Canito’s future rumbled on all summer. Banished from the squad, at one point he looked poised to join the New York Cosmos. Improbably, by August he had found his way back into the fold at Espanyol, making conciliatory noises and even taking the captain’s armband in a pre-season friendly. Although when the league resumed, Maguregui’s refusal to name him in the first team squad brought matters to a head and Canito delivered an ultimatum to the board that either Maguregui went or he would walk. 

The board duly annulled the player’s contract. “Espanyol is the team of my life. My departure is down to my incompatibility with the manager, who has made my life impossible. The club is more important than personal issues and I respect that because I love the club. One day I’ll be back – even if it’s to play for free.”

As fate would have it, Canito was back just a fortnight later. Signed by Real Betis, his debut came in their win at Sarría. As the ground filled up, it was evident whose side the Espanyol support were on as chants of “Canito si, Magu no”, rang out. Betis’ two late goals left Canito’s nemesis, Maguregui, under intense pressure.

Canito’s two seasons in Seville were mostly happy ones. He was once more impressive against Maradona in Betis’ meetings with Barcelona. A glitzy wedding in Seville’s famous cathedral was testament to some stability in his personal life. As was always the way, there were fabled stories from his time in the south. From the time he handed out a 100 peseta note to each kid that asked for his autograph to the legend that he tore up his final cheque from Betis as he disagreed with the figure.

Unhappy spells at Zaragoza and in Portugal with Belenenses rounded off Canito’s time at the highest level. At the age of 30, there were no longer any elite clubs willing to take on the baggage that came with him. A career that had promised so much and had its moments sadly never fulfilled its potential. 

Canito returned to his native Barcelona, falling back down the leagues and into bad company.


A lavish and generous spender during his playing days, it wasn’t too long before money became an issue for Canito and he fell into the seamier side of Barcelona nightlife.

Drugs took hold — first cocaine, then heroin. By the mid-1990s, Canito was almost unrecognisable, surviving from day-to-day and spending nights in homeless shelters or bank lobbies. As someone who had always been benevolent to those in need, he was hurt to find himself abandoned. The friends that had been there when the champagne flowed had long since disappeared. 

“People have shunned me, I don’t think that I deserve that. But I need to hold on to the sense that, before anything else, I’m still a person,” he told Interviu magazine in 1996.

“Those who used to say hello, now call me a pain and slam the door in my face. It’s the poor people that have helped me more than the rich. That has been hard for me to take because when I had money, I would give a lot to anyone who asked for it.”

Desperation had reunited him with his older sister, Fina, who had helped him battle his addictions. “I owe her my life. My mother abandoned me totally and the relationship with my wife broke down when my problems with drugs began.” 

Clean at the time of the interview, Canito was under no illusions how tough staying that way would be. “Right now I’m not involved in drugs but I can’t guarantee that I won’t fall again.”

Those words were sadly prophetic and Canito fell deep into drug use once more. Four years later, taken in by his sister, Canito’s body was ravaged by drugs. The legs that once carried the ball so majestically from defence to attack were now riddled with circulation problems and barely able to support him as he crossed a room.

On the 25th November 2000, Canito died in the arms of his sister. He was just 44 years old.

“Everybody said he had everything to succeed. And that’s true of his football skills and his heart as a person. But the rest was very hard: no parents, a failed marriage and people around him that took advantage of him,” lamented Fernando Molinos, his former teammate at Espanyol to El Pais.

Canito would always be remembered at the club he held dearest to his heart. In 2015 he was voted by supporters as one of the top 15 Espanyol players of all time and two years later the most vocal section of their stadium was named the ‘Grada Canito’ in his honour.

A huge tifo display regular flutters across the stand featuring the image of Canito and his easy smile in the shirt of the club that was his only mainstay in a turbulent and tragic life.


ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

Two excellent articles in particular were a great help in putting this article together

Quince años sin Canito. El rebelde que fue futbolista by Daniel Badía for CIHEFE

Un Perro Lobo Perico en Can Barça by Laia Cervelló in Líbero magazine

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