From 1949-1953, Colombia may have had the strongest football league in the world. But was the so-called ‘El Dorado’ league such a glorious time for Colombian football?
All that glitters is not gold – Colombia’s El Dorado league.
It is hard to think that for a short period, from 1949-1953, Colombia may have had the best football league in the world. It’s less hard to imagine that in some ways, the so called ‘El Dorado’ professional football league in Colombia of this period was associated with illegality, or at least the ‘footballing piracy’ of signing players directly rather than going through their clubs. For the brief time it lasted, Colombia suddenly became relevant in sporting terms (not just in football) as some of the greatest Latin American stars of the post-war generation eagerly signed up with Colombian league clubs who were offering far more in signing on fees and wages than their previous clubs could offer. But it wasn’t just Latin Americans who were attracted to the league. European footballers too, from the UK, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Lithuania and Romania amongst others, somewhat like the Spanish conquistadores of the late 15th and early 16th centuries were lured across the Atlantic by the promise of riches. But, as is often the case in football, all that glitters is not gold.
Colombia’s first national professional league was founded on the backdrop of national conflict and was employed to some extent by the government of the time to mask a period of such ferocious barbarity and bloodletting in Colombia, that it is now simply known as La Violencia, The Violence.
On the 9th April, 1948, liberal politician Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, darling of the working classes, demagogue, fiery orator, and a man destined for the Colombian presidency in the eyes of many, stepped outside his office onto the Jiménez de Quesada Avenue in the historic centre of the Colombian capital city Bogotá. There he was shot by a young man Juan Roa Sierra, for motives still unknown. As Gaitán lay dying, Roa Sierra was lynched by furious Gaitán supporters and his dead body was dragged through the streets.
It was the spark that set the city on fire, both metaphorically and literally. Political tensions between Liberals and Conservatives, often the cause of conflict in Colombian history since Independence, exploded and the city rioted. The destruction and death of that fateful 9th April is now known as El Bogotazo and violence soon broke out throughout the country as news of Gaitán’s murder spread. Murder brought counter murder as gangs and militias of Liberals and Conservatives roamed the countryside. There are gruesome tales of torture and atrocities committed, of certain groups having trademark ways of killing their victims. No one knows exactly how many died over the next decade, but estimates range from 200,000 to 300,000 people.
So, what does Gaitán’s murder have to do with football? In the months before his death, a group of Colombian businessmen led by Barranquilla native Humberto Salcedo Fernández (known as Salcefer) had become disgruntled with the poor quality and organisation of Colombian football by Adefútbol, the Colombian football association recognised by FIFA. Football was still nominally amateur at the time, but ‘profesionalismo marrón’ was common practice, with players being paid unofficially for their services by the biggest clubs. There was still no national league, though teams from different cities would play each other in exhibition matches and teams from elsewhere in Latin America would play the bigger teams on tours. Public interest was waning in these football spectacles, and the lack of a national league and significant competition meant that the Colombian national team was also not developing.
Frustrated by Adefútbol’s continuing ineptitude, Salcefer and others created a rival football body, Dimayor, and managed to convince ten clubs from across the country to join the league. These ten teams featured two from four of Colombia’s main cities, Millonarios and Santa Fe from Bogotá, América and Deportivo Cali from Cali, Medellín and Atlético Municipal from Medellín, Once Deportivo and Deportes Caldas from Manizales, as well as Junior from Barranquilla and Universidad de Bogotá, who would play their home games in Pereira, despite being a Bogotá team (Universidad as it turned out would only play five matches in Pereira before common sense and practicality won out and they played in Bogotá). The league was supposed to start in January 1949, but the government needed something to calm the political tensions and distract the masses from the bloodshed going on in the country. They therefore gave the new professional league their approval, facilitated the use by clubs of stadiums owned by the municipalities and encouraged the Dimayor-organised league to start in August 1948. The Colombian senate also approved a sum of $10,000 Colombian pesos for the league winners.
There wasn’t huge interest in the first league games in the Colombian press. Sport only featured occasionally in national newspapers and magazines and even then tucked away in the corners, and the first round of matches merited only a cursory mention. The very first professional league game was played between Atlético Municipal of Medellín and Universidad de Bogotá. The game had to be held in neighbouring town Itagüí as Medellín didn’t have a stadium, and the pitch was at the horse race track. Due to there being races in the afternoon (a much more established and hitherto popular sporting occasion), the match kicked off at 11am, with Municipal winning the game 2-0. Rafael Serna had the honour of scoring the first goal from a penalty.
Interest in the league grew as the season progressed. There were a number of foreign players in the league, most who had been playing in the country during the shamatuer period, and there were a number of foreign referees, from Germany, Austria, Uruguay and Argentina, to help the standard of officiation. Amongst the stars of the league was Argentinian Alfredo Castillo who rattled in 31 goals in 18 games for Millonarios, including a remarkable six in a game against Medellín, and four in a match on two occasions, against both of the Manizales clubs. Carlos Rodríguez of Junior also enjoyed playing against Once Deportivo, managing five goals in a game. Despite the best efforts of Castillo and Rodríguez, the glory of winning the first league title went to Santa Fe. In 2017, the Santa Fe women’s team matched this feat by winning the first ever women’s professional Colombian league.
1948 was a generally positive start for the league, but 1949 was the year when El Dorado really began. The year had started in controversy with a huge argument breaking out between Adefútbol and Dimayor over the team that would represent Colombia in the South American Championships to be held that year in Rio de Janeiro. There were arguments over Dimayor releasing players to play, who would pay for the team’s travel expenses, and who should actually be selected. The upshot of the argument was that Dimayor refused to allow players in the league to play, which meant the Barranquilla-based Adefútbol decided to send the Junior team to be the national team (Junior withdrew from the league as a consequence) and in addition, Adefútbol complained to FIFA who withdrew their official recognition of the Dimayor league. The Junior team who travelled to Rio, perhaps inevitably, performed terribly, being beaten easily by Paraguay, Peru, Brazil and even lowly Ecuador, though at least managing draws against Chile and Uruguay. It was another national footballing embarrassment and Adefútbol were blamed for the team’s showing and lost a lot of credibility in the eyes of the Colombian public.
Meanwhile, Dimayor losing FIFA recognition had opened some interesting possibilities. Coincidentally, player strikes over wages in Argentina and Uruguay had left many of the league’s best players on the sidelines. One of the directors of Millonarios, Alfonso Senior, was first to spot the opportunity. As the league was not recognised by FIFA, they could sign players directly without going through the clubs. He sent his Argentinian manager, Carlos Aldabe to Buenos Aires with instructions to sign the best player he could. Aldabe went to see Adolfo Pedernera, a player who was approaching the end of a glorious career, mostly spent at River Plate as one of the famous ‘la Máquina’ (the Machine) set of five forwards, along with Juan Carlos Muñoz, José Manuel Moreno, Angel Labruna and Felix Loustau. Pedernera was kicking his heels at Huracán, unable to play due to the strikes and with a pregnant wife. He asked for a US$5,000 signing on fee and a salary of $500. Aldabe contacted Alfonso Senior with Pedernera’s demands, and the other club directors panicked – there was no way their gate receipts could cover this amount of money. Senior, however, was a more savvy businessman and took responsibility for the deal. He telegrammed Aldabe back with orders to agree the deal. Pedernera soon flew to Bogotá, and arrived on 10 June 1949.
Although Colombian football was a backwater at this time, Colombian football fans knew about Pedernera. Legendary sports newspaper El Gráfico was sold across the continent, and Argentinian footballers of the status of Pedernera were legendary. Millonarios signing Pedernera was much like a Chinese club signing someone of the stature of Ronaldo or Messi. Suddenly football was front page news in the Colombia with huge excitement everywhere about Pedernera’s arrival. The whole country suffered from a contagious disease some dubbed pedernitis, so desperate were they to see El Maestro, the Master, play. Pedernera attended his first game as Millonarios beat Municipal 6-0. The ground was absolutely full and the takings at the box office more than covered Pedernera’s signing on fee. When Pedernera played the next week, the crowd were jubilant and the press drooled over Pedernera’s technique, his vision, his skill and his football intelligence. Club owners across the league saw dollar bill signs in front of their eyes.
Millonarios went back to Argentina and signed two more famous players, midfielder Néstor Rossi and forward Alfredo Di Stéfano. The result was immediate and the Millonarios team became the talk of the country. It was the start of the ‘Ballet Azul’, the Blue Ballet. For ten straight matches Millonarios scored 5 goals. They could have scored more, but there was a team agreement to stop after five in respect for their opponents. Their mission was all about having fun and entertaining the crowd. The spectacle was all that mattered. However, in one game, Peruvian forward Ismael Soria scored a sixth. The teammates were furious with him, but there was a prize of a rather fine hat that was in fashion at the time for the scorer of the last goal of the game, and Soria was keen on it.
Other clubs were quick to follow Millonarios’ lead, some also signing Argentinians, and players from all over Latin America began joining the league, getting wages far higher than their previous clubs could afford. The only club that refused to import foreign stars was Municipal, who decided on a strict Colombians only policy. The main rivals to Millonarios that season were Deportivo Cali, and they had opted to sign Peruvians. Soon they had a front five of Peruvians who became known as ‘El Rodillo Negro’ (the Black Steam Roller), comprising Valentino López (a fine header of the ball known as ‘The Tank of Casma’), Guillermo Barbadillo, Luis Salazar, Máximo Mosquera and Manuel Drago. Both Deportivo Cali and Millonarios matched each other game after game and the goals flooded in. The league eventually was decided by a two-legged play-off with Millonarios emerging victorious.
For the government of Mariano Ospina Pérez, the football circus was perfect. Colombians in the cities were talking about football rather than politics, and the murdering in the countryside could be masked by censorship laws in the press. Ospina Pérez realised the power of football to pacify the angry masses, to calm the tensions between Liberals and Conservatives. He is reported to have asked Dimayor to try and set up a football side in Tunja in Boyacá, as there were considerable problems for the government there. When the brother of Liberal party leader Darío Echandía was murdered, a football match was hastily arranged to smother any potential explosion of bipartisan hatred. Violence was never too far away from the surface though; on 25 September an eight-year-old boy described by a journalist as having ‘rebellious and uncombed hair’ was shot and killed by a policeman for trying to get into the stadium in Cali without paying the 25 cents for a ticket. In response, the ‘Tribunas de gorriones’ (Sparrow Stands – sparrow is often the nickname for a little boy) were created in football grounds by clubs so poor children could watch the football for free.
But, not everyone was happy with the footballing spectacle. Sports magazine Estadio, though delighted with the quality on show, were cautious. In their haste to sign the best players they could find, clubs were ignoring the Colombian players. Not as famous, not as good and not as box office as the Argentinians, the Uruguayans, the Peruvians or the Brazilians, the Colombian footballers sat on the bench as the imports played and went to the banks afterwards. In many cases, clubs had little idea of who they were signing and how good these signings were; players recommended their friends to come and play who were not of the same quality.
In editorials, Estadio frequently warned of the dangers for Colombian football. It was all well and good having fantastic players there, but they had to benefit the Colombian game. They had to teach Colombians to play, to give new generations a chance to learn and then compete. These warnings were ignored by every club apart from Municipal. Club owners thought only about the money and the crowds. Football matches became social occasions. Mayors, celebrities and beauty queens queued up to take the ceremonial kick off and there were various pre-match entertainment activities. At this time we have the first reports of women’s football matches in Colombia, often including beauty pageant contestants, and much more of a curiosity than a serious sport. A Santa Fe women’s team beat their Millonarios compatriots 17-5 before the main event of the men’s local derby.
1950 saw even more imports flooding into the country. New teams joined the league and each team seemed to sign players from a certain country to help their cause. Cúcuta Deportivo had many of the 1950 Uruguayan World Cup winning squad in their ranks including Schubert Gambetta, Juan Carlos Toja and Eusebio Tejera; Junior opted for Brazilians, including the brilliant but tempestuous Heleno de Freitas; Deportivo Cali added more Argentinians to their Peruvian contingent; Deportivo Pereira bought Paraguayans; and Santa Fe, perhaps most amazingly, managed to convince three Englishmen to join them: Charlie Mitten from Manchester United, and Neil Franklin and George Mountford from Stoke City.
This was a remarkable set of signings. England was seen as the founding fathers of football and thus hugely respected as the best football in the world. For Colombia, it was a huge coup. The signings made the front cover of every newspaper. Back in England, however, the signings were treated with disgust by the English press. Franklin, then one of the best centre halves in the country, was likely to be in the England squad for the World Cup in Brazil, and his choice to take the money made him seem like a mercenary rather than a patriot. The fact that players were paid a pittance by their clubs made no difference. Of the three Englishmen, only Mitten stayed for a year. Franklin and Mountford were unable to settle, put off by the food, the language, the curfews in place in the city, the violence in the country, and the animosity from Argentinians at Santa Fe who didn’t want their compatriots to lose their place in the side or play in a different way. They soon returned home. Franklin, in particular, was shunned by the footballing establishment on his return and his career never hit the same heights as before his short-lived trip to Bogotá.
Heleno de Freitas also didn’t last long on the Barranquilla coast. Like many other players, he enjoyed the money too much, often causing a scandal with drunken behaviour and being seen with prostitutes. On the pitch, flashes of genius were interspersed with tantrums. He described fellow forward Haroldo as a ‘beach footballer’ and was furious at other players not being intelligent enough to keep up with him on the beach. Having received an advance on his wages, Heleno tried to escape to Miami but was arrested at the airport, made to pay the money back, and was soon put on a plane back to Brazil. He did create an impact, however, when he did perform on the pitch. Nobel-prize winning Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez wrote, ‘I’ve been told by people who were at the Estadio Municipal that the Brazilian put in a miraculous performance. In a metaphorical sense, Dr de Freitas – who must be a good lawyer – used his feet to control legal briefs and sentences in both Spanish and Portuguese, not to mention the declarations of Justinian in the purest classical Latin.’ Elsewhere García Márquez acknowledged the less favourable side of Heleno, writing, ‘He was a permanent opportunity for others to speak ill of him’.
Other players are more fondly remembered. Julio Cozzi, the Argentinian ‘goalkeeper of the century’, arrived to further bolster Millonarios. Another goalkeeper, the Lithuanian Vytautas Krisciunas was one of the main reasons that Deportes Caldas shocked everyone by beating Millonarios to win the 1950 league. That season, Dimayor had contracted a number of English referees to improve the standard of the officiating, as a number of fights, rough play and poor decisions had marred the spectacle in previous seasons. One of them, however, Mr. Pounder had an inadvertent role in helping Deportes Caldas win the league. With 4 minutes left in a match between Millonarios and Universidad and the score at 0-0, a shot by Universidad player Solano was diverted into the goal by the unfortunate Mr. Pounder. Millonarios lost 1-0. The incident caused a huge controversy and was amply argued about in the press.
Millonarios got back to their winning ways in 1951 and totally dominated the league. Pedernera, Di Stéfano, Rossi et al., were unstoppable. Boca Juniors scored a remarkable 126 goals in 34 matches and could only manage second. High scores were the order of the league and at the other end of the table, Universidad conceded 126 goals, the Panamanian goalkeeper Gerardo Warren having a particularly miserable time. New teams Quindío and Samarios joined the league, the latter with a fascinating story.
Samarios were originally a team of predominantly Hungarians who were playing in Italy and had embarked on a tour of South America. They played games in Colombia and Ecuador before the money ran out, and the team were offered a base in Santa Marta to play in the Colombian league. Samarios featured Hungarian legend Gyula Zsengellér, who had been second top scorer in the 1938 World Cup. Past his best and aging, Zsengellér was still more than capable, scoring 6 goals in one match as Samarios thrashed hapless Universidad 12-1. Another player in that Samarios team was Austrian Rudi Strittich. He had been searching for other options having gone on a Middle East tour with his club Rapid Vienna, but was arrested on his return for smuggling narcotics into the country. He was imprisoned for three months and banned from playing for a year, but found a home in this pirate league.
1951 was really the final year of the El Dorado glory. Latin American clubs and football federations were fed up of having their best players pirated away to the Colombian league and FIFA had expelled Colombia from all competitions while also banning Colombian clubs from playing abroad. A solution to the problem was needed.
In October, the Pact of Lima agreed that the Colombian clubs could keep their players until 1954, and then they would have to return to their original clubs, and then Colombia would be reinstated by FIFA. 1952 did provide one last hurrah as the magnificent Blue Ballet of Millonarios, at the height of their powers, was invited to Spain to play in a tournament to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Real Madrid. To the joy of Colombia, Millonarios won the tournament and beat Real Madrid 4-2. Colombia thought they had the best team in the world and the Colombian ambassador to Spain, and future Colombian President, Guillermo Valencia, said that the club had done more for the country in 90 minutes than the diplomats had managed in 3 years. The Millonarios squad featured only two Colombians, and was one was the substitute goalkeeper (future great Colombian manager Gabriel Ochoa Uribe).
1952 also saw another famous Argentinian, Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, pass through Colombia with his travelling companion Alberto Granado. They played local football in Leticia, managing and coaching a club called Independiente Sporting. Che sometimes played as a goalkeeper, with Granado doing rather better as a striker. In his diaries, Che recalled meeting Alfredo Di Stéfano and interviewing him. Di Stéfano gave his countrymen two tickets to a Millonarios game. As a comment of the political situation at the time, with politics and society heavily repressed by censorship and a government trying to repress political violence, Che commented that the only time the people of Bogotá seemed euphoric was in the football stadium.
By the following year, the end of the league was in sight. Money had talked rather than sense and mismanagement. Several clubs, including Medellín and Huracán, could no longer afford to pay their players and dropped out of the league. The two Manizales clubs had to join together to make ends meet, but then left the league the following season along with Universidad, while Samarios became Unión Magdalena. In 1954, Bucaramanga, Cúcuta, Sporting, Pereira and Junior disappeared, América withdrew from the league to go on tours and play exhibition matches which were more economically viable than the league. Interest was waning from fickle supporters, and the best players begin to drift away to seek other opportunities. The very best like Di Stéfano went to Europe. Others went back to their home countries. Colombian football, at the end of 1954, had returned to its pre-1948 mediocrity.
What was left? Certainly Colombian football itself had not improved. Very few Colombian footballers played regularly and even then were far from the stars of their teams. Perhaps only defender Francisco ‘el Cobo’ Zuluaga and goalkeeper Efraín ‘el Caimán’ Sánchez (the first Colombian to play in Argentina, having starred for San Lorenzo in 1948 before returning to play for América in Cali) could be considered Colombian greats of the era. The famous imported players had left little impact – they hadn’t coached younger players, they hadn’t passed on their skills, Colombians had not really learned from them, and the fact that clubs had not had the foresight – despite warnings from Estadio magazine in particular – to create youth and reserve teams showed that El Dorado as an opportunity to learn from the best in the continent had been wasted. The imports had taken the plaudits and the money and had gone, leaving empty stands and clubs in financial crisis behind them.
El Dorado is remembered misty-eyed by fewer and fewer Colombians, and while many may still consider it a golden period in Colombian football history, there are also many who now look back on it as a disaster for their football landscape. No Colombian style of play, no great players and no football quality emerged that was Colombian in origin. The greats may have graced the field, but they left only memories behind.