The Ball and the Gun
After a political rival was murdered, the Colombian government set up the world's richest league
It's 9 April 1948 and the clock strikes one.
Jorge Eliécer Gaitán puts down his pen, removes his tie and lifts himself from his desk. He is weary and his stomach groans.
A long morning of meetings concluded, Gaitán withdraws from his work and gazes out from the office window.
Below, on one of the main high streets in the Colombian capital city Bogotá, shoppers throng.
Dr Gaitán's office is on the third floor of the Agustín Nieto building, which hulks over Calle 7 in downtown Bogotá. It's a cold, grey monolith, devoid of any architectural creativity. Obscured in its shadows shuffles a man, his hands tucked into his coat.
Behind Gaitán the office stirs and his friends prepare to leave. As he puts on his coat and fixes his hat, Gaitán checks his afternoon schedule. There are more meetings, starting in an hour's time with a 21-year-old Cuban law student called Fidel Castro. But first lunch.
The Hotel Continental was a brisk five-minute stroll away, along Calle 7 and then right towards the mountains in the east. Lunch there wasn't cheap but this was a celebration.
Gaitán is on the cusp of a famous victory as defence lawyer for Lieutenant Jesús Maria Cortés. The previous day he'd put in a masterful performance in the trial's final session and every radio station and newspaper in Colombia was hailing his brilliance.
Exhausted but jubilant the five men leave office 406. At about five past one, with the others following a few metres behind, Gaitán and his trusted friend and colleague Plinio Mendoza Niera leave the building arm in arm and step out onto the busy high street. It's cold but the sun is out.
They turn north, unaware of the shadow that now shifts behind them. A few steps, no more, and four shots ring out. Gaitán slumps into his friend and then onto the pavement, his face ashen. Blood trickles from his back. Fifty minutes later Gaitán is pronounced dead at a nearby hospital.
Over the 10 years that followed, an estimated 300,000 Colombians would die in the aftershocks of the assassination. Gaitán was more than a mesmerising orator skilled in the practices of the law, he was also a hugely popular politician and a shoo-in for the 1950 general election as left-wing leader of the Liberal Party.
Seismic historical events are never straightforward. They are laced with theory, counter-theory and outrageous conspiracy theories. Sixty years on from Gaitán's death, nobody is sure of the whos and whys.
Officially the killer was identified as 26-year-old schizophrenic, disgruntled at the Liberal leader's refusal to give him a job. Few believe it. Others, like Gaitán's daughter Gloria, point the finger at the CIA. Less credible versions claim it was Fidel Castro acting as a Soviet agent or militant Catholic priests angered by Gaitán's atheism.
Whatever the reason, the legacy of bloodshed, the human cost, was appalling. This was the period of La Violencia but the wave of death and despair wasn't the only result of the murder. It also led to the creation of the very first professional national football league in Colombia.
Football had, of course, existed in Colombia for many years before 1948. Debate still rages as to where the real birthplace of football in Colombia is but Barranquilla on the north Caribbean coast has perhaps the greatest claim. Its argument, at least, is the most vociferous.
Their story goes that the game was brought to Colombia by English sailors, railway workers and engineers just before the turn of the 20th century. Matches were at first sporadic and informal, arranged when sailors were in dock. Gradually local onlookers employed by the Colombia Railway Company became involved and on 6 August 1904, the first official game took place. The English influence was obvious, one team wearing red and white stripes with blue shorts, the other side in halved shirts, the top white, the lower part red.
It provided the incentive for the first discussions about football and this, combined with the trickle of rich Colombians returning from studying in England, led to the formulation of a set of English FA-style rules as a basis for play.
The city of Santa Marta, two hours along the coast from Baranquilla, contests this theory. Although they record the first official game to have taken place in 1909, they argue football was played long before this – on the beach and among workers from the nearby United Fruit Company.
A few years later around 2,000 of those workers would be massacred by the Colombian army for going on strike. Their struggle was semi-fictionalised by a local writer, Gabriel García Márquez, in his masterpiece One Hundred Years of Solitude, but in the real world it was a young radical lawyer that took up their case. And with it Jorge Eliécer Gaitán became a household name.
But whether Barranquilla or Santa Marta, it was by the Caribbean that football found its most enthusiastic devotees and it soon became the coast's number one sport. Even today Colombia's World Cup 2014 qualifiers are played in the national stadium not in the capital Bogotá but in Barranquilla, a nod to the feverish support there and the historical roots of the game.
As clubs sprouted across the country in the twenties and thirties, football developed very slowly. While Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Uruguay began contesting international tournaments like the first Copa América in 1916, it was only in 1924 that Colombia formed a national governing football association – Asociación Colombiana de Fútbol, later known as Adefútbol. Its headquarters were in Barranquilla.
And yet problems persisted. Hamstrung by the peculiar topography of Colombia, football was confined to local league competitions under the heavy-handed authority of Adefútbol. It wasn't long before discontent with the latter's shoddy leadership and lack of organisation brought regional leagues into direct conflict with the ruling order.
It was a dialectical struggle that continued throughout the 1930s and 40s. The regional leagues were disobedient and provocative, Adefútbol authoritarian and dismissive in their response. With each party acting from self-interest, by the mid-1940s direct confrontation had become commonplace. And still there was no national league.
In the background raged another debate, that of amateurism versus professionalism. It's a discussion that most football associations across the globe have had to endure and in Alfonso Senior and Humberto Salcedo, Colombia found two very convincing voices in favour of a professional and national league structure.
In 1936 Colombia were accepted as a member of South American football's governing body, Conmebol. Of the present 10 members, only Venezuela joined later. Colombia made their Copa América debut in 1945 but performed poorly, winning just one of their six games. Senior and Salcedo saw professionalism as the key to improving the quality of football in Colombia and the Copa disaster prompted the first serious talks on how to restructure the regional leagues.
Senior and Salcedo had little initial success but on 9 April 1948, the pendulum took an incredible swing in their favour.
Guillermo Ruiz Bonilla is Colombia's most respected football historian. His house is a shrine to football, with three rooms stacked with documents, photos, videos, shirts, balls and books. He argues that the government saw football as the only way to mitigate the social unrest that Gaitán's death unleashed. "Before the creation of the league, the strongest regional leagues were those in the departments of Antioquia, Valle, Atlántico and a few others,'" he said. "These leagues were talking and working towards professionalism.
"But with the death of Gaitán in April 1948 and with the influence of the Mariano Ospina Pérez government, direct support from the president was given to the idea of a national professional league. This was essential. In just four months — May, June, July and August — a league was created and in all parts of the country football was seen as the solution to help alleviate the huge problems the country was facing."
Ruiz Bonilla argues that football's mass popular appeal made it a potent weapon in the government's fight to maintain law and order: "That's clear. Football was the only thing that the government could think of to control and calm the population after the death of Gaitán. There was nothing else that came close, except maybe horse-racing.
"Alfonso Senior and Humberto Salcedo were instrumental in the start of professional football. Years later Senior told me: 'If Gaitán's death hadn't happened, the start of the league in Colombia would have been delayed by years. Gaitán's murder was what triggered professional football in Colombia.'"
The project was born in Barranquilla on 26 June 1948. It wasn't without its problems, not least because of the resistance of the regional leagues who were set to lose jurisdiction over their teams. And with it, of course, money. The discussions were heated — club representatives stormed out of meetings and insults were traded — but, on July 7 agreement was reached. Professionalism had won.
"In the end the situation was resolved when Dimayor [the professional league] agreed to pay money, initially 3% of gate receipts, to the regional leagues," Ruiz Bonilla explained. "They also had to affiliate to Adefútbol, the body responsible for governing football in Colombia."
On August 11 at 11 am, 126 days after Gaitán was shot, the league began. A morning kick-off was chosen to fit with the established practice of Saturday afternoon horse-racing. Both events in the same stadium: a feast of sporting distraction.
The Bogotá side Millonarios began the season as overwhelming favourites. The club was only two years old, but had been founded by a group of wealthy and well-connected businessmen. One of those was Manuel Briceño Pardo, a lawyer who would later become mayor of Bogotá. Like most of the founding fathers of Millonarios, Pardo was also a prominent Conservative Party member and he understood perfectly the potential football had to connect to the masses. Initially Millonarios played in all white but Pardo moved quickly to reinforce the club's links to the Conservatives by changing its colours to blue.
But despite Millonarios's superior wealth and power it was their capital city rivals Santa Fe who won the first Colombian championship, pipping the Barranquilla side Junior to the title by four points. Millonarios finished fourth.
Undeterred, Millonarios kept on buying players. Under the watchful eye of their wily club president Alfonso Senior, new signings were lured by under-the-table sweeteners. In early 1949 the Argentinian Carlos 'Cacho' Aldabe was signed and appointed player-manager. "'El Cacho was a friend of the great Argentinan player Adolfo Pedernera," Ruiz Bonilla said. "Soon after he joined Millonarios he approached Senior with the idea of bringing Pedernera to Colombia."
At the time Pedernera was arguably the world's best player, the star man in River Plate's fabled La Máquina side. He was, in the words of Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, "the axis of River's La Máquina... generating play, threading passes through the eye of a needle, changing gear, surprising opponents with his bite."
It was a swoop so audacious, so ambitious, as to be almost unthinkable. But in Argentina in the mid-to-late-forties something peculiar was taking place. Invigorated by the election of a general in 1946, Argentina's working classes were flexing their muscles and demanding change. What's more, they were being listened to. This rise of union and worker militancy encroached into football and by 1948 the players' union, Futbolistas Argentinos Agremiados, was at war with the football authorities. Battle lines were drawn in April as the players threatened to strike to achieve three key demands: freedom of contract, a minimum wage and recognition of their union.
At the eleventh hour the authorities buckled and agreed to recognise the union. It was enough temporarily to release some steam but, despite attempted government arbitration, by November players were on strike. Stadiums fell empty and Senior watched on with an opportunist's eye. In March 1949, he would be handed the means to execute his daring raid.
Relations between Adefútbol and Dimayor had reached breaking point. On March 15, Adefútbol could take no more and disaffiliated Dimayor. It was a dispute that would only be resolved in 1971 but for Senior that was an opportunity. Dimayor were not only cast adrift from Adefútbol but also from Fifa. They were isolated to organise football as they wished.
Tensions rose further when Adefútbol sent a team to the 1949 Copa América in Rio de Janeiro. The Barranquilla-based federation turned to the local side Junior to represent Colombia in Brazil. Colombia flopped to a last-placed finish and, if the embarrassment of the players wasn't enough, Dimayor responded by banning Junior for the following season.
The Argentinian players' strike and Dimayor's disaffiliation were two quirks of history that coincided. Senior, unshackled from the usual Fifa restrictions, sent Cacho to find Pedernera in Argentina. "Senior was really afraid of giving Cacho the money," Ruiz Bonilla said. "He didn't trust him and thought that he may run away never to be seen again."
Cacho left Bogotá for Buenos Aires with a suitcase stuffed with US$5,000, an astronomical fee for the time. When he met Pedernera, the striker was well aware that he might never play football again. He was 30 and, with no end to the strike in sight, Cacho's proposition was attractive.
Pedernera named his terms — he accepted the $5,000 signing-on fee and asked for a monthly salary of $200. They were big figures that Cacho feared were beyond the reach of Millonarios, despite their name. He sent a telegram to Senior explaining Pedernera's conditions and received an immediate response: "Bring him."
Pedernera's club Huracán were never consulted and never received a transfer fee. Such details were considered unnecessary Fifa red tape. Why pay a club a fee when that cash could instead go directly to the player, enhancing his labour conditions?
The second Colombian football league was already five rounds old when Pedernera arrived at El Dorado airport on 10 June 1949. His move was condemned as a scandal in Argentina but he was greeted by hordes of fans in Bogotá. The following day he was unveiled at Millonarios's El Campín stadium. The Blues were playing the Medellín side Atlético Municipal but Pedernera was badly out of shape, having lost nine kilograms during the long months of the strike.
Still, while he couldn't play, his presentation was a monumental moment in the history of Colombian football and 15,000 fans turned up for his welcome. Senior, who had previously promised the other club directors he would foot the bill if Pedernera's stint didn't work out, saw $17,000 taken at the turnstiles. Pedernera's yearly salary was covered in ninety minutes.
Millonarios ran out 6-0 winners on Pedernera's debut. Expectation and excitement reverberated around the ground. El Dorado —the Golden Age — had begun.
Pedernera made his debut against Deportes Caldas on 26 June 1949. He didn't score but he was behind every attacking move. It was as if a Picasso had found its place in a high-school art exhibition. Millonarios won 3-0 and another $17,000 dropped into the accounts. Senior basked in the glory but he wasn't satisfied. And neither was Pedernera.
After a few games the gulf in class between Pedernera and his teammates was obvious. Pedernera requested a meeting with Senior to suggest the signing of more players. He asked specifically for some strikers — "without goals, we're not going to win anything."
Senior suggested Pedernera return to Argentina and search out the very best. He did just that and, in August, the former River midfielder Néstor 'Raul' Rossi arrived together with a 23-year-old forward called Alfredo Di Stéfano. If Pedernera was the grandmaster, Di Stéfano was his apprentice. Many players would arrive in Colombia over the following three years from all across the globe, but none would make quite such an impression as 'La Saeta Rubia', the Blond Arrow.
On his debut he netted a hat-trick in a 5-0 win. That season Pedernera, Rossi and Di Stéfano helped Millonarios average almost four goals a game as they brought the 1949 title to the blue half of Bogotá for the first time.
As Colombians swarmed to pack stadiums and watch football of a calibre they had never seen before, elsewhere there was outcry at what was perceived as an act of piracy.
Efraín 'El Caimán' Sánchez is one of Colombia's greatest ever goalkeepers. In 1948 he became the first Colombian to play in Argentina after being scouted at the 1947 Copa América in Guayaquil, Ecuador. He witnessed first-hand the mass exodus of Argentinian players and the subsequent birth of Colombian football's golden age.
I met him in Bogotá's Museo Nacional where he gave a talk about his experiences playing for Colombia during the 1962 World Cup final. Our interview in the museum's leafy garden café was constantly interrupted by fans eager for photos, autographs or just the chance to shake his giant hand.
"René Pontoni, Argentina's main striker, approached me and asked me whether I'd like to play in Argentina," Sánchez said. "I was really excited — at the time Argentinian football was the mecca of world football — but I had already made a verbal contract with the Mexican team Oro de Guadalajara. I had to choose between Argentina and Mexico."
He chose Argentina and, at the age of 22, joined San Lorenzo. "San Lorenzo gave me my fame and in Argentina I became a star," he said. "It's also where I got my name, El Caimán. It was carnival time when I arrived in Buenos Aires and during my first interview for La Critíca they asked me where I was from and I told them Barranquilla. At the time there was a really famous song that was played everywhere that went something like 'se va Caimán, se va Caimán, se va para Barranquilla.'" In the next day's newspaper the headlines said, 'They are bringing us El Caimán from Barranquilla.'"
Music was always important for El Caimán. One of his heroes was the great tango singer Carlos Gardel. But while music was an interest, football was his passion and it was another talismanic figure from the age that inspired him to take up football and become a goalkeeper. "As a child during the 1930s we used to form pitches in Barranquilla by throwing sand in the street,'" he said. "I remember from about the age of six playing one against one, kicking the ball from one makeshift goal to another. We made the footballs ourselves from sand, wood chippings and newspapers.
"I was 15 when I decided I wanted to be a goalkeeper and my life-long idol was always the Spanish goalkeeper Ricardo Zamora. I collected a card of his from a sweet wrapper when I was a child and I remember watching him play for Spain during the 1934 World Cup. He was and still is my hero, him and Gardel."
El Caimán's first few months in Argentina were unhappy ones. He felt lonely and missed home but, ultimately, the experience made him stronger. "In Argentina I started to feel like a man, because it was really hard for me to adapt," he said. "After a while though I promised myself I would only cry if I had something serious to cry about and that way I became a star."
It's hard now to imagine this towering octogenarian once blubbering to himself but behind the proud veneer his tender and sensitive side is still apparent. Just two weeks after he made his debut for San Lorenzo against Gimnasio y Esgrima de la Plata. El Caimán was given a sharp reminder of home with the murder of Gaitán.
"I was in Buenos Aires when he was killed, it was a great shock," he said. "I read a lot about him, everybody was talking about Gaitán, just like they still are doing. The country changed when he was killed and Gaitán became a martyr. I saw lots of similarities between him and Perón. Both were very good speakers, very convincing with powerful voices that involved the crowd. I once went to a public talk with some musician friends. We were stood very far away from Perón but it was like he was a few metres away. He had the voice of a leader, complete charisma."
But however infectious Perón's charisma was, it couldn't save Argentinian football from strike action and when Pedernera departed, it left the country reeling. "It was like a bomb going off," El Caimán said. "Argentinians considered their football to be the best in the world and so to lose their stars hurt a lot."
One example of how Argentinians felt is given by a particularly lyrical and vitriolic attack on the Colombians in La Epoca. Upon learning that Deportivo Cali were poised to snatch three Argentinian players the paper published an editorial that said, "This latest case announces itself as a real hawk with a cannibal appetite. The question for us [the Argentinians] is, what we are going to do to safeguard our coveted pigeons... just how long will the suicidal zeal of the Colombians last? And we declare it a suicidal zeal because one day this will all collapse. Which castle of cards doesn't? The spectacle of football as business and not as sport can only give so much and so there will be many that will return with tears in their eyes and confessing to their dangerous adventure."
Bitter and angry words that at no point tried to relate to the frustration Argentina's stars were facing. As strike action continued and the authorities refused to give ground, just one year into his Argentinian career El Caimán left too. He claims his reasons were personal rather than economic but it must have been difficult to ignore the industrial strife and poisoned atmosphere of Argentina in the late 1940s. "I joined América de Cali in 1949," he said. "My mother was ill; she had a problem with her liver and so I returned home to be closer to her. The league had started in 1948 but it was in 1949 that all the big players began arriving from Argentina, Brazil, Peru, Paraguay, from all over the world."
Millonarios may have grabbed the initiative in El Dorado with Senior's daring raids but other clubs weren't far behind. Deportivo Cali, a club that was always closely linked to the ruling elite of Colombia's third city, were one of the first teams to act. In 1949 Cali's directors agreed to send a small plane to Peru. When it returned, 14 players, several of whom were members of the national team, were on board.
The greatest of those was Valentino López, who made his debut halfway through the season and ended the campaign as third-highest goalscorer, scoring in every game in which he played. Cali became known as 'El Rodillo Negro', 'the Black Steamroller', and finished the season in second place, level on points with Millonarios.
Independiente Medellín also looked to Peru to bolster their squad. With their recruits, the entire Peru national team was based in Colombia. This sudden influx of talent into the Colombian league didn't go unnoticed and across the continent discontent was brewing. The Argentinians, who had perhaps suffered most, found allies in Paraguay and Peru. Their case was eventually taken to Fifa and on 25 October 1949 Colombia were expelled.
Dimayor responded in bombastic style. In the following day's newspapers the league organisers boasted that the expulsion didn't affect them, that they weren't a member of Fifa anyway and its clubs would "continue to contract national and foreign players."
By the 1950 season the level of poaching had reached fever pitch. Cali, who had fielded a five-man front line of Peruvians the previous season, lined up with five Argentinian forwards. The great Argentinian goalkeeper Julio Cozzi joined Millonarios to add defensive solidity to a team brimming with the attacking talents of Di Stéfano and Pedernera. Paraguayans arrived at Pereira and Boca Juniors de Cali. By the time of the 1950 World Cup the whole of the Paraguay national team was playing at one of the two clubs.
Junior, back in the league after their suspension, brought in Brazilians, including another of the stars of the age, the enigmatic and troubled Heleno de Freitas. To this day, fans of a certain age remember de Freitas as an idol. "For me, he was the greatest player ever to play in Colombia," says Gustavo Hernandez, who owns a fish restaurant in Barranquilla. "I was just a little boy when he was playing for Junior but he made me fall in love with football. There was nothing he couldn't do. Sadly he had many psychological problems and it eventually killed him. He was a massive gambler, an ex-lover of Eva Perón and people say there wasn't a prostitute in Barranquilla he hadn't had sex with. I think only George Best can compare to Freitas."
The inner demons eventually became too much. At the age of 39, he died in a mental asylum back in Brazil. By then, he weighed just 30 kg and had only one tooth.
With the exception of Atlético Nacional de Medellin — who were known as Atlético Municipal until 1950 — every Colombian team had international stars. Having syphoned off most of South America's top talent, it wasn't long before some clubs started to look further afield. Santa Fe led the charge under the command of Luis Robledo. The son of a millionaire cattle farmer, Robledo had studied in England at Cambridge where he had started following Arsenal.
When he returned to Colombia he helped set up Independiente Santa Fe, copying the Arsenal strip of red shirts with white sleeves. Those were the colours of the Colombian Liberal Party but, initially at least, there was no political connection between the two. Robledo began ploughing his money into Santa Fe and in René Pontoni and Angel Perucca he had already attracted two of Argentina's star players when he set his eyes on England.
In the summer of 1950, England entered the World Cup for the first time. It would prove to be a disaster, forever remembered for the shock 1-0 defeat against the US and England's embarrassing first-round exit. But one of their main players wasn't in Brazil for the finals and was instead being dragged around the US on a pre-season tour with Manchester United. Pockets were being lined but not those of the left-winger Charlie Mitten.
Matt Busby's Manchester United played 12 games across the States that summer to sell-out crowds, but Mitten's wage remained stuck on £12 a week. And then came the call. It was from England's Neil Franklin, considered by Tom Finney to be the finest centre-half he ever played against. Franklin was England's number one defender but like Mitten he wasn't part of the England World Cup set-up. He had told the English FA he wanted to be excused duties to care for his wife who was about to give birth. But it was revealed that he was actually in Colombia with his Stoke City team-mate George Mountford.
Robledo had approached them both after learning of the antiquated transfer policy of English clubs. As in Argentina, English players had no freedom of contract. It was a burning issue that Robledo sought to exploit. The two players were enticed to Colombia with a £5,000-a-year contract, £35 win bonus and £5,000 signing-on fee. It was almost 10 times the British maximum wage.
Mountford and Franklin were slated by the class-ridden British media and establishment as greedy and insolent working-class mercenaries. But Robledo's work wasn't finished and after signing the two stars he asked Franklin to find him the best left-winger in the world. It was to Mitten he turned. The offer was the same and, for the frustrated 29 year old, it was a chance too good to let go. When the call arrived, Mitten was in his hotel room on Times Square the night before the Manchester United squad was scheduled to go back across the Atlantic on the Queen Mary. Pondering his future and unable to sleep, he approached his manager that same night. Busby told him straight, "You'd better go, or you'll die wondering."
Busby's apparent blessing combined with a lack of financial security for English players made up Mitten's mind. He flew to Bogotá the next day and signed to become El Dorado's latest import. In the Colombian daily newspaper El Tiempo, his every move was traced. Looking through the archives today, there's genuine excitement and curiosity from local journalists that players from the home of football were prepared to travel halfway across the globe to play in Colombia. It was confirmation, perhaps, of the fact that the Colombian league had become the best in the world.
But less than a week after Mitten arrived, Franklin left. He'd played just six games and had earned rave reviews, but the culture shock and the simmering political tensions were too much. Gaitán's death had had a major impact on the country. In 1950 the Liberals boycotted the elections, organised themselves into guerrilla units and took up arms. They were confronted by the brutality of the ultra right-wing Conservative president Laureano Gómez who had assumed dictatorial powers in the absence of a Liberal challenge. An estimated 50,000 people died in 1950, something surely not lost on the English players.
A few years before Mitten's death in 2009, the writer Richard Adamson interviewed the player for his biography, Bogotá Bandit. In it, Mitten speaks of his first impressions of life in Colombia: "We found that the country had a huge social divide: there was the great mass of poor people and above them a tremendously wealthy millionaire elite, mostly descended from the Spanish conquistadors, who in fact owned the country. And here we were, English footballers, pioneers — that's how we regarded ourselves — the first rebels against a restrictive and archaic system which treated its principal characters as second-class citizens, mixing freely with this upper class.
"We very quickly found that we were accepted into the inner circles of Colombian social life. As a professional footballer, I rubbed shoulders with oil barons, wealthy landowners and cattle ranchers and their cohorts."
Mitten's time is recorded in Adamson's book with an unconvincing positive spin. He talks enthusiastically of his experiences and an appreciation of the new-found financial security the Colombian adventure offered him. He was also given the opportunity to play alongside the great Di Stéfano in a propaganda-ridden showcase match the Colombian FA had organised against newly crowned world champions Uruguay.
But when Mountford departed Mitten was left alone. The swirling mess of violence and political instability was no place for him or his three young children and after a year he left too. Real Madrid came calling but he instead returned to England as an outcast. Busby had turned on him and the English FA banned him for six months. He later joined Fulham but he was the never the same player again.
When George Eastham famously ended the retain-and-transfer contract in 1963, one of the parties he filed against was his ex-manager at Newcastle for conspiring to keep him at the club. That manager was Charlie Mitten.
England may remember Mitten for his chequered career and questionable stance on footballers' rights, but in Colombia he left a more positive legacy. El Caimán took another sip of coffee. He waited a few seconds to consider my question and then nodded. "Yeah, Charlie Mitten was the best left-winger that was playing in Colombia during El Dorado," he said. "He was an extraordinary talent, so quick and very strong."
The historian Ruiz Bonilla agrees. He describes Mitten as a "crack," a Colombian expression reserved for only the finest players. "Mountford and Franklin didn't last long in Colombia," he said. "Franklin was strong, very technical but a little slow. But Mitten was a great talent. At Millonarios there were also a Irish player Billy Higgins and a Scotsman Robert Flawell. They were part of the same team as Pedernera and Di Stéfano. But later three more English players turned up, supposedly to play at Millonarios. Pedernera was furious and went to speak to Alfonso Senior about it. 'A quick word Don Alfonso, I want to know something — are we a team of Englishmen or Argentinians? Because, if these English guys play for Millonarios, I'm off.'" Pedernera's threat changed the directors' minds and the three other English players spent a week in Colombia before returning to England. They never played a game.
In October 1950 Billy Higgins also walked. He claimed he'd been lied to by the Millonarios directors and instead of the promised £135 monthly salary his Colombian adventure earned him just £28. But, central to the ex-Everton striker's decision to return to England was the hostility he encountered from the Argentinians in the squad. "The Argentinian players boycotted me and made me play as a reserve," he told the press in Southampton on his return. "The Argentinians at Millonarios have been acting like this for some time because they understood that the English were going to take their places in the team."
Sour grapes from a player who sacrificed so much on a move that didn't work out perhaps, but Pedernera's appointment as Millonarios player-manager in the same month as Higgins' departure must surely have played a part in hastening his exit.
The largely unhappy time served by the five British players that gambled their careers on El Dorado in little more than a footnote in English football history. But how different that could have been if other names had joined them. Mitten claimed that Stanley Matthews had been approached to play in Colombia and had considered it before deciding that at 35 he was too old. And while camped in Brazil for the 1950 World Cup finals Walter Winterbottom complained to El Tiempo that his team was constantly being distracted by Colombians trying to tempt players to switch to play in the pirate league: "Two of my players have been constantly chased by Colombian representatives, but their answers have always been the same: No, No."
In the summer of 1950 El Tiempo's pages were awash with transfer news, with barely a day passing without a new star player being unveiled. In July it was reported that Santa Fe had sent a representative to Brazil to sound out the England manager himself as head of their youth development. Their offer was described as "flattering".
Winterbottom's response was never followed up and his academic, school master-like approach to coaching would have been a strong departure from the existing methods employed in the fledgling league. But Santa Fe's approach was perhaps made in response to another set of disciplinarian Englishmen that arrived in May 1950 and went on to make quite an impression. In 1948 when the league was hastily convened, little consideration had been given to the question of referees. The ruinous officiating that followed this oversight besmirched the opening two championships and match reports were littered with complaints about referees being ill-equipped to cope on the stage afforded them. If disrespect for authority and rule was absent on the football field, what consequences would this have on wider society?
It was with this in mind that Colombian football chiefs decided to take action and in May 1950 six English referees arrived on one-year contracts. At first they were derided. Adverts appeared in newspapers calling for foreign referees to return home and they were largely seen as too old and too divorced from Colombian sensibilities properly to understand the Latin game.
But gradually attitudes shifted and one, Tom Pounder, even entered Colombian history books as the first referee to score a goal. It was a crucial one too, having an influence on the outcome of the 1950 championship. Millonarios had started the season as strong favourites and coasted through the opening stages winning 11 of their first 12 games. But with all the wheeling and dealing throughout the season their form slipped away and when they met lowly Universidad, points were desperately needed to maintain their challenge.
With four minutes left the score was 0-0 when a shot hit Pounder and was deflected into the goal. Players besieged the Englishman and the game was held up for several minutes. But the goal stood and Pounder was later found locked in his changing room having been assaulted. Millionarios ended up throwing away the title that season, finishing two points behind the surprise package Deportes Caldas.
Great teams rarely click straightaway and the fine tuning of Millonarios would involve another poaching mission in Argentina for it truly to flourish. In came Hugo Reyes, Antonio Baez and Reinaldo Mourin: Millonarios were complete. For the next three years they would be the dominant force not just in Colombian football, but as Real Madrid would soon find out, in world football too.
As the 1951 championship expanded to 18 teams, the flood of foreign talent hit its peak. Of the 440 registered players for the new season, only 153 (35%) were Colombian. Of the rest there were 133 Argentinians, 49 Peruvians, 28 Uruguayans, 24 Paraguayans, 18 Hungarians, 13 Costa Ricans, 9 Brazilians, 2 Englishmen, 2 Chileans, 2 Ecuadoreans, a Panamanian, an Italian, a Spaniard, a Czechoslovakian, a Romanian, a Yugoslavian and an Austrian.
But as many Colombian teams clambered to scrape together the finest talent in South America, there were other directors who simply wished to entice fans with the exotic and unknown. For every star signing like that of Eusebio Tejera who joined Cúcuta a few months after winning the 1950 World Cup with Uruguay, there were others who arrived whom nobody had heard of. "Spectators didn't have the communication access like they do now," the radio journalist Hernán Peláez explained. "People were seduced by the exotic foreign names. For example, I remember when the editor of a newspaper was told somebody called Micara was going to arrive in Cali. Everybody assumed that this was a footballer and it was reported in the paper that Cali were about to sign a new player. Actually, he wasn't a footballer at all, he was a priest!"
The techniques to sign players grew ever more sophisticated. Money talked big but Argentinian and Brazilian teams were beginning to take measures to protect their players from Colombia's poaching. "Piracy is absolutely right, the perfect word," Peláez said. "One of the ex-bosses at Junior, Mario Abello, who's dead now, told me how it was possible to bring over players like Gérson dos Santos to Junior, a player who'd played for Brazil and was a star at Botafoga. He told me very plainly that they used to meet in Caracas because if Junior representatives went from Colombia directly to the Engenhão [Botafoga's stadium] everybody would know what was going on — that he was going to sign their players. So one of Junior's men was sent to Venezuela with $20,000; this was the price at the time. Gérson then went back to Brazil and then a few days later he appeared in Colombia. This was the strategy that was used to bring players to Colombia. Players were bought with the most incredible tricks."
But it wasn't just vigilante club directors that were involved in the piracy; the Colombian government itself was actively supporting these raids.
Argentina didn't enter the 1950 World Cup finals because of a row between their football federation and that of the host country Brazil. But it's worth considering another factor. By 1950 Argentina's star players, like Di Stéfano, were no longer playing for Argentina — they had Colombian citizenship.
Alfonso Senior, speaking before his death in 2004 for a government-sponsored series of short documentaries, described how the government helped smooth the way for many of the transfers: "The government helped clubs bring players to Colombia. They gave them visas the moment they stepped into the airport in Bogotá. The government saw that football was a harmless way of calming people, of providing fun for people every Sunday."
Harmless fun in a country in which, in the two years that followed, 200,000 people would be slaughtered. And it wasn't just the relaxing of bureaucratic restrictions that the government were helping with. Funds were also provided, officially in the form of prize money and the relaxing of the exchange rate but also through back-door channels, as the league was given financial and logistical muscle.
Still Colombia swam alone in the wilderness of world football. No foreign clubs could organise games against them — at the time a rich source of income — and players were banned from representing their country. But that was accepted as a minor inconvenience compared to a level of play never seen in Colombia before.
Its protagonist was Millonarios and in 1951 they found expression in a type of football that married the technical with the artistic. Not only did Millonarios blast their way to the title with 28 wins from 34, they did it with a style that became known as La Ballet Azul, the Blue Ballet.
It was a system that had its roots in River Plate's fabled La Máquina side, for which Pedernera had played a starring role in. Like most sides of the age, River employed the 2-3-5 formation but they refused to accept that each player had a designated and fixed role. "Some players would enter, some would leave, all would attack, all would defend," said the River coach Carlos Peucelle. "On the blackboard and on the pitch our tactical system wasn't the traditional 1-2-3-5. It was 1-10."
Pedernera tried to replicate the style at Millonarios. He was helped by having some of the finest players in the continent at his disposal but it was the Argentinian's insistence on fluidity and flexibility that the opposition found so hard to deal with. It gave the team an almost unbeatable edge and to spectators this new style appeared almost as dance. As Millonarios waltzed their way to the 1951 title, fans swarmed to the stadiums. But the rivalry between Santa Fe and Millonarios was not the only red against blue rivalry in Colombia; as Liberals fought Conservatives, the level of violence increased until Colombia was in a state of civil war. For 90 minutes every weekend football acted as tranquiliser.
"The stadiums were completely full, especially for the clasicos and it was this that gave every player strength," El Caimán recalled. "Whoever scored became an instant hero with the fans. I still remember the noise of the crowd, it was a great motivation for every one of us. This was a new type of football in Colombia that had stars from everywhere. But we couldn't ignore the violence elsewhere in Colombia. For example I remember once that we went for some beers after a game. We were sat in this bar drinking when a man walked by and shouted 'Long live the Conservatives! Spit if you aren't with me!
"We knew that everybody was divided into Liberals and Conservatives, that it was war and it was a really dangerous time. So I kept quiet but one of my friends, one of the directors, jumped up and shouted, 'Long live the great Liberal party!' So the Conservative took out his gun and my friend jumped up, ran out of the room and leapt through the bar window — we were on the second floor! The Conservative came up to me with his gun and questioned why I was here. I told him I was just a football player. But he then asked me: which colour are you, Liberal or Conservative. I was panicking, because I knew that a wrong answer and he would have shot me. But then, very luckily, one of his friends must have recognised me because he told him to put his gun away, this was El Caimán and he's one of us."
For players like El Caimán, the thought of El Dorado brings back mixed feelings. He remembers fondly the atmosphere in the stadium and the great players he played alongside but being ostracised from the football community hurt. In March 1951, the first talks on resolving the crisis began but they stuttered for five months without any progress. Despite a special Fifa commission being set up, the countries most affected demanded huge sums of compensation for the players the pirate league had illegally contracted. It was something Dimayor and its members refused to consider and so disgruntled football organisations instead took to lobbying their respective governments to put direct pressure on the Colombian president Laureano Gómez.
Finally, in August 1951 an agreement was struck. The wave of opposition from all corners had caused Dimayor to crack and they agreed to a deal. Players would remain in Colombia if their original parent club agreed they could do so, but if not, they would return and a fee would be paid to the Colombians.
When Fifa met in October 1951, they lifted Colombia's suspension and 11 years later Colombia made their debut at the World Cup finals in Chile. But while the agreement, known as the Lima Pact, sounded the death knell for El Dorado, a cunning clause was inserted into the seven-point plan by the Colombians — that players would only return after October 1954.
While clubs were barred from bringing in more stars without proper transfer agreements along Fifa lines, current players could remain in Colombia for a further three years. Millonarios unsurprisingly went on to claim the 1952 and 1953 titles but, while the Blue Ballet had won many admirers at home, Senior looked to Europe to broaden the team's popularity.
In early 1952 Real Madrid organised a small tournament to mark their fiftieth anniversary, inviting River Plate and the Swedish champions IFK Norrköping to Spain. This puzzled the Millonarios president: why had Santiago Bernabéu chosen River and not Millonarios as the representatives of South America? Senior was friends with Guillermo Valencia, a keen football fan who worked in the Spanish embassy, and asked him to remind the Real president that River's La Máquina was no more and that South America's greatest team was now in Colombia.
Bernabéu sent a scout to watch Millonarios play and he returned so impressed that Real invited the Colombian club to replace River. As a Franco sympathiser, Bernabéu had similar political beliefs to the Conservative Senior and both were eager to use football as a way to portray an image of normality despite the horrors that were plaguing their respective countries.
Millonarios and Real met in the final of the Campeonato Bodas de Oro on 30 March 1952 and, after a sumptuous performance from Di Stéfano, the Colombians ran out 4-2 winners. Millonarios had turned professional only four years prior but they had now conquered Europe. Their trip to Spain had drawn many admirers and, after the final, Bernabeú approached Senior about signing their star man, Di Stéfano. A gentleman's agreement was struck but after the team returned to Colombia, Di Stéfano was invited back to Spain by Real's arch-rivals Barcelona.
He spent an all-expenses-paid week on the Costa del Sol where a couple of exhibition games were enough to convince the Catalan giants to sign him. Unlike Real they had no contacts with Millonarios and so they appointed a negotiator, Ramón Trías Fargas, to fly to Argentina to talk with River, who also claimed rights to his contract. A deal was reached.
Barça then sent one of their top men to Caracas to meet with Millonarios representatives. They were unable to agree a price with the Colombians and the Barça president Martí Carreto returned to Spain frustrated. When news got out that Barça were trying to sign Di Stéfano, Bernabéu was furious. He immediately rang Senior to ask what had happened to their informal agreement.
What followed was one of the messiest and most complicated transfer wrangles in the history of football. Four clubs fighting over one player with interference from General Franco, suspicions that a Santa Fe-supporting representative had sabotaged the Barça deal and a ridiculous compromise idea by the Spanish federation for Di Stéfano to play alternate seasons for Real and Barça.
Eventually, Real emerged victorious and on 24 July 1953 they announced Di Stéfano's transfer. He made his debut two months later and would go on to play a leading role in shifting the balance of power in Spanish football to Madrid.
The transfer would signal the end of El Dorado but the final season of the pirate league would again belong to Millonarios. In 28 games they conceded just 13 goals and recorded a 6-0 win over their rivals Santa Fe as they romped to the title. Their reputation had spread fast as they beat Real, Hungary and the world champions Uruguay. But by 1952 it wasn't just the sporting world that was interested in La Ballet Azul.
That summer, a sweaty and bearded Argentinian doctor rolled up on his motorbike outside El Campín, the stadium shared by Bogotá giants Santa Fe and Millonarios. The 25 year old had been tending to patients in the Colombian Amazonian town of Leticia alongside his friend Alberto when the local football team, Independiente Sporting, signed him as player-coach. In his free time, despite his chronic asthma, he guided the side to the local championship final in which they lost on penalties.
Alberto, also a doctor, noted in his diaries, "During our trip we used football a lot to get into contact with the people." Hearing about Millonarios and the Argentinian contingent of Pedernera, Rossi and Di Stéfano, the two set off for the Colombian capital. They met Di Stéfano in a downtown restaurant not far from where Gaitén had been assassinated five years earlier and La Saeta Rubia gave the two doctors free tickets to a Millonarios game.
This little known meeting brought together two of the twentieth century's icons: Di Stéfano would go on to become perhaps Real Madrid's greatest player, while the doctor-cum-footballer-cum-revolutionary Che Guevara later headed to Cuba, overthrew a dictatorship and became a poster boy for the left and counter-culture.
Guevara was lucky: he caught Millonarios and El Dorado in their pomp. A year later, the Dimayor's project was falling apart. Faced with the impending loss of swathes of players under the terms of the Lima Pact, teams chose to cash in, grabbing whatever fee they could.
Players left en masse. Star names like Julio Cozzi and Néstor Rossi returned to their former teams in Argentina while others, such as the Uruguayan Ramón Villaverde and Santa Fe's Héctor Rial followed Di Stéfano to Spain.
The government knew the game was up and lost interest in supporting football. Finances were pulled and teams disappeared under the weight of mounting debt. In comparison to the 18 clubs that contested the 1951 title, just 10 registered for the season three years later. Even then, the 1954 championship saw 11 games cancelled at the last minute due to lack of players and funds.
Millonarios, domineering a year previously, were forced to field a mixture of youth players and unknown journeymen. In 1957 they finished bottom of the league. Other clubs were so drowned in debt that just finding 11 players became difficult. Predictably, stadiums fell empty.
However, despite this, Colombian players like El Caimán found heart amid the league's collapse. A return to Fifa and the chance to play in a World Cup outweighed the false glow of El Dorado. "During El Dorado we were excluded from the football community and people treated us as pirates," he said. "When we were invited back into Fifa we were delighted, but it was only later when I led the team out in Chile in 1962 that I realised how important that was. Nothing is worth more than the honour of representing your country in a World Cup."
Football could no longer sustain the mirage of normality. The mask had slipped from the face of Colombia and, according to the historian Guillermo Ruiz, a surge of violence swept the nation. "When El Dorado came to an end in 1954 there was an big increase in murders," he said. "It was terrible: without football, violence exploded. In the second half of the fifties when many teams fell into a massive financial mess, attendances collapsed and violence rose. There was a direct connection. In a way I suppose you could say football saved lives in the years after Gaitán's death."
El Dorado had propelled Colombian football to the forefront of the world game. It had attracted stars, revolutionaries and controversy but following its demise Colombian football would spend the next 30 years enduring financial meltdown, pitiful match attendances and a poor quality of play. Its next moment in the sun would come in the 1980s with the boom of the drug cartels, when the fortunes of the Colombian league would again be manipulated by corrupt and unscrupulous powers. It would be awash with controversy, violence and death and be ostracised from the football community once more. But it would again attract stars and win prizes.
Unfortunately, for the first 60 years of professional football in Colombia, success on the pitch has involved paying a very heavy price off it.
Colombia's El Dorado league was a glimpse into the future, a world of imports lured from across the globe by vast wages. Yet the players (and referees) who arrived in Colombia in the late forties and early fifties found a country being torn apart by civil war and infrastructure lagging some way behind the quality of football being played. Pitches were poor, stadiums rudimentary and press coverage appealingly haphazard.
It's a fascinating period and one that given the status of the players involved, remains relatively unresearched. The photographs in this essay came not from an agency but were unearthed by Carl Worswick and the Septima Agency after a trawl through numerous museums in Bogotá. The captioning of photographs is often problematic (El Gráfico in Argentina recently discovered a previously unseen photograph of Diego Maradona performing a nutmeg on his debut, lost for 35 years because it had been filed under the name of the embarrassed defender rather than a teenager nobody had heard of), but it seems to have been particularly so in the Colombia of six decades ago. By cross-referencing with other sources we've tried to identify players but some, unfortunately, remain as they were captioned then: 'unknown Brazilian' or 'Millonarios defender'.
In a sense, it doesn't matter; even if we can't work out who every player is, the shots give a sense of the strange mixture of chaos and excitement, of the energy and sheer weirdness that made up El Dorado.
Circa 1950. Estadio Nemesio Camacho, El Campín, Bogotá. The Santa Fe players Neil Franklin and 'Chonto' Gaviria.
1951. Atlético Minicipal (later known as At. Nacional). Estadio Alfonso López, Ciudad Universitaria. Echeverry, Mesa, Rafael Serna (scorer of the first ever goal in Colombian professional football), 'Pildorita' Cardona, 'Manco' Gutiérrez, Osorio and 'Turrón' Álvarez.
1951. Estadio López Pumarejo, Ciudad Universitaria. The Millonarios players Antonio Báez, Alfredo di Stéfano and Adolfo Pedernera.
1949. Estadio Nemesio Camacho, El Campín, Bogotá. Millonarios v Sporting de Barranquilla, the match in which Adolfo Perdernera was presented for the first time. The bull-fi ghter Miguel Dominguín is a special invited guest.
The Argentinian goalkeeper Julio Cozzi playing for Millonarios.
1953. Estadio Nemesio Camacho, El Campín, Bogotá. From right to left: Francisco 'Cobo' Zuluaga (the Millonarios captain), Ramón Hoyos Vallejo (a soldier and five-times cycling champion of Colombia), Efrain 'El Caiman' Sánchez (the Santa Fe captain). Extreme left: Guillermo Cubillos Moreno, photographer.
1949. Estadio Nemesio Camacho, El Campín, Bogotá. Millonarios v Santa Fe. In goal, Julio Gaviria Zapata 'Chontafé' with Neil Franklin looking on.
1950. Estadio Nemesio Camacho, El Campín, Bogotá. Millonarios v Deportes Caldas. Vytautas Kriščiūnas punches the ball away under pressure from Pedernera.
A director from the confectionary company Caramelos Mara-Mar with the Santa Fe player Fernández.
1950. Estadio Nemesio Camacho, El Campín, Bogotá. The Santa Fe players Neil Franklin and George Mountford talking with three English officials.
1951. The reinauguration of Estadio El Campín, Bogotá. Alfredo Di Stéfano talking to the radio journalist Jesús Álvarez Botero from la Voz de Colombia.
Unknown Brazillian goalkeeper.
All images Carlos Cubillos/colecciónmuseodebogotá