Portuguesa and the Venezuelan Ultra Turned Kidnapper

In 1963, with Real Madrid, FC Porto, and Sao Paulo in Caracas to play in the Pequeña Copa del Mundo, two-time Ballon d’Or winner Alfredo Di Stefano was kidnapped. After being held by his captors for 70 hours, he was released unharmed. Orchestrating the headline-grabbing escapade was Cuban-born Venezuelan Paul del Rio with the sole intention of bringing the world’s attention to his political cause, the Armed Forces of National Liberation.

Di Stefano went on to play in the final game of the tournament a day after his release and del Rio, after a stint in prison when he was finally captured ten years later with other illegalities of political propaganda to his name, went on to lead a life of celebrity as an artist until his death in April 2015.

But with both now dead and that story told many times, there’s another kidnapping in Venezuela and in football, 15 years later, to be delved into.

Venezuela, Portuguesa, football, Copa Libertadores, Primera Division, Orlando Sanchez, kidnapping, Venezuelan football, fan culture, football culture, football ultras
Artwork by Onkar Shirsekar

In 1978, 350 kilometres away from the capital of Caracas and the location of Di Stefano’s kidnapping, Portuguesa were hosting Paraguay’s Cerro Porteño in that year’s edition of the Copa Libertadores. The Rojinegro were Venezuela’s in-form team. They’d just broken the Venezuelan transfer record to sign Richard Paez from Estudiantes de Merida, the year before they had won their 3rd league title in four years with Brazilian World Cup winner Jairzinho netting 20 goals in 24 games to finish league top scorer, and they weren’t long off a 16-game winning streak that remains unbeaten in the Primera Division to this day.

Group 5 of the 1978 Copa Libertadores had started well for Portuguesa. After a 0-0 draw with fellow Venezuelan side Estudiantes, they had beaten Libertad of Paraguay 1-0. Cerro had started it better, though, with two wins from two. When Pedro Peralta, coincidentally Paraguayan, gave Portuguesa a 51st-minute lead there was temporarily a new group leader—and news reports in the days that followed suggested that that was very much on script.

Three days later, a report in Venezuela’s El Nacional newspaper contained the claim that referee Orlando Sanchez of Colombia had “violated an alleged agreement according to which Sanchez would have to create the conditions for a Portuguesa victory.” But neither that nor the score draw was the crux of the story—it was not an exposé on corruption.

Sanchez, who would go on to have a 25-year career as a referee, had been kidnapped on his way back to the airport after the game.

“The true version is this—there is no other,” 73-year-old Manuel Majzoub tells me. “Not everyone knows the true story until today,” his son, Mojamed, adds for emphasis. “Many have false stories about that day but my father is the only one who is alive from the group who kidnapped the referee.”

Eleven minutes after Peralta had given Portuguesa the lead, Cerro Porteño equalised. The hosts were no longer bolstered by Jairzinho (his Venezuelan sojourn was just one season long) but did boast the previous year’s competition topscorer Argentine striker Juan Cesar Silva and the aforementioned Peralta, who was already a two-time Venezuelan Primera Division Golden Boot winner.

In the final moments of the game, with the visitors reduced to ten men, Ramon Echenausi crossed into the Cerro box. Peralta met the ball with his head and sent it goal-bound. It found the back of the net, but somewhere in its flight, Sanchez had blown his full-time whistle. Despite wild celebrations on and off the pitch, the goal did not stand.

“There was a play in front of the goal,” Peralta, now 79 years old, recalls to me. “The field was a little bit problematic, too, because the grass was not growing well and there was a lot—a lot—of dust. There was a strong windstorm that night and when the cross came in there were a lot of players in the box and the referee couldn’t see well. The goal was disallowed.”

“This is where in the midst of injustice I decide to kidnap the referee,” Manuel explains. He gathered ten of his equally aggrieved mates and, after the kind of fact-gathering mission only well-connected fans could undertake, headed to the Araure Roundabout where Sanchez would be driving through on his way out of the city.

Like Di Stefano’s kidnapper, Manuel was not Venezuelan-born but would grow to love his adopted home with such zeal that he too would leave a man in fear of his life. Arriving in the South American country as a refugee fleeing war-torn Syria, he became a cobbler on the streets of Acarigua and adopted the local football club as his own.

In El Nacional’s account of the kidnapping, Sanchez’s troubles began as he was leaving the stadium, with a police escort necessary to protect him from “an angry group of people armed with bottles and other objects who were trying to attack him.” After collecting his belongings from the hotel he was staying in, El Nacional reported that Sanchez was “intercepted by six vehicles” and forcefully taken to “a secluded area seven kilometres away, which apparently was an abandoned baseball field.”

Under the headline, “Referee Denounces Kidnapping and Almost Murder in Venezuela,” fellow Venezuelan newspaper Ultimas Noticias made no mention of an abandoned baseball field, which in time would provide the backdrop for the anecdote that Sanchez was forced to dig his own grave, but did carry several quotes from the referee himself.

Stating that he would retire from his profession if CONMEBOL did not take action, Sanchez said that he did not want to “risk his life and leave his family unprotected” and claimed that “guns were put to our chests and we were beaten up.” 

Manuel, who has outlived his fellow kidnappers and Sanchez himself, tells his own version, assured by a local functionary that he won’t be prosecuted 46 years after the event.

“As we saw the car he was traveling in approach the roundabout, we blocked the road with tyres and rope. We pulled the four referees out of the car, tied them to a tree with their mouths taped shut, and gave them a beating.”

After three hours, Manuel and his friends rang the police to inform them of what had happened and left Sanchez bound to a tree.

Despite being corroborated by multiple first-hand sources, there was no mention of the disallowed goal in the two contemporary news reports of the kidnapping, nor in a feature piece on violence in South American football some time after. There were, however, allusions to match-fixing—something Manuel insists had its roots in the referee.

“Sanchez wanted a gift of $1000 and the Portuguesa president notified him that in this team they do not buy matches,” Manuel alleges. “Then the referee lowered his price to $500 and the answer was the same: at Portuguesa Futbol Club, they do not buy matches.”

CONMEBOL did indeed take action, forbidding Portuguesa to host their upcoming continental fixtures in Acarigua, but despite investigations into the kidnapping, neither Manuel nor his accomplices were ever caught or questioned—nor did Manuel live in fear.

“I was not afraid of going to prison, I came from a country at war, and the others were not afraid either, much less so for these colours and this team.”

Given the minimal and conflicting reportage, the story of Orlando Sanchez’s kidnapping continued to be shrouded in mystery, myths, and mistruths. Even in his native Colombia and in the country’s highest circulated newspaper, El Tiempo, the tale was misreported in his 1997 obituary as happening before rather than after the game and listed the participating teams as Caracas and Argentina’s River Plate.

“This now is the whole truth,” Manuel assures me, “there is nothing more to add to that beautiful night.”

As is commonly the case with football, the best stories are off the pitch. The game finished 1-1. In 1981, three years after the kidnapping, Manuel’s daughter was born. Her name? Portuguesa Linda Majzoub. If there is anything beyond doubt in this story, it is one man’s love for his club.

Jordan Florit

Jordan is an insatiable reader, as well as a writer. He reads and writes about Latin America, politics, psychology, sociology and psychology. He is the author of "Red Wine and Arepas: How Football is Becoming Venezuela’s Religion".