El Dorado – when Colombia had the best league in the world

in Features

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When Irish people (and probably European people in general) think of Colombia, thoughts tend to drift towards the stereotypical. With a less than subtle nod to popular culture, cocaine and violence immediately spring to mind as do broad accents, white suits, larey shirts and good coffee.

Similarly, when folk ponder upon Colombia’s association with the beautiful game, thoughts don’t stretch too far beyond the wild haired Carlos Valderamma, the unorthodox Faustino Asprilla and Rene Higuita’s scorpion kick.

Of course, people worldwide are also familiar with the tragedy of Andres Escobar, the defender who was murdered following the 1994 World Cup after he had scored an own goal against the host nation, but really that is about it when most people enter the categories: “Colombia” and “football” into their brain’s search engine.

The term “El Dorado” captures and ignites the imagination in a different way. Upon hearing it, we are immediately whisked away to adventures in the Amazon jungle, tracing the paths of explorers like Francisco de Orellana in search of lost treasures and incomprehensible fortunes.

But among Colombian football fans, “El Dorado” refers to a period between 1949 and 1954 when they could quite rightly claim to have the “best league in the world”.

Up until 1948, football in Colombia was viewed as nothing more than a pass time for the working class – a boorish sport introduced by British sailors and railway workers, but a sell out tour that year by Argentine side San Lorenzo shone a spotlight on an untapped resource. The bumper crowds provided the necessary financial motivation for those with the means, to go about establishing Colombia’s first professional football league.

The new association, known as DIMAYOR (Division Mayor del Fútbol Colombiano) and led by President Humberto Salcedo Fernandez, approached the existing amateur association Adefutbol with their plans to professionalize the game in Colombia. Adefutbol refused to co-operate and convinced their friends at FIFA to suspend the proposed professional league’s affiliation with them immediately.

Instead of admitting defeat, Fernandez saw FIFA’s sanctions as an opportunity rather than a deterrent and with the help of lawyer Alfonso Senior Quevedo they pushed ahead with their plans. They concluded that DIMAYOR could start to recruit players without the constraints of FIFA’s imposed restrictions and strict caps on transfer fees and wages at the time.

Football’s international ruling body’s tight fisted fiscal governance had left many of the world’s players disillusioned and underpaid. DIMAYOR’s revoked FIFA affiliation meant that their teams could start to poach players without having to pay any transfer fees at all, which in turn allowed the club’s to offer much higher wages than their European counterparts.

The arrival of the world’s top footballers started with Adolfo Pedernera, who signed for Bogota based club Millionarios under manager Carlos Adalbe. Pedernera poached from River Plate in Argentina, during a country wide player strike, was one of football’s biggest stars and former member of the fabled River Plate attacking quintet La Máquina. News of the astronomical wages and signing on fee offered to the striker soon spread.

“They called me mad,” Millionarios President Senior once said, “they asked me how we were going to pay a $5000 bonus and a salary of $500…but when we presented him to the fans…we took 35000 pesos at the gate, which was seven times what were getting for the average game. That was $18000, so it turned out to be a great deal.”

Two more internationals, Bobby Flavell from Hearts in Scotland and Billy Higgins from Everton arrived soon after. Colombia was now the place to play.

You have to understand that this was decades before being a professional footballer meant riches and security for life. It was a period for example, where England’s top players would take summer jobs after the season ended to keep the wolves from the door (picture Wayne Rooney coming to clean your gutters). The opportunity to earn such vast amounts of money for a stint in sunny South America, would have been near impossible to turn down…and so the players kept on coming. (note: the defection of the English based players resulted in two sizeable increases of the “maximum wage” for footballers there – a rule that was eventually abolished in 1961).

By the end of 1949, 109 players (57 Argentines) had joined the new professional league. Deportivo Cucuta brought no less than eight of Uruguay’s famous 1950 World Cup winning squad including the fantastic Ramon Villaverde.

In the early 1950s Millionarios added  Alfredo di Stefano, Nestor Rossi, Hector Rial, Rene Pontoni and Jose Jacuzzi to their squad, instantly transforming them into one of the world’s finest teams. Adopting the rioplatense style developed in Uruguay and Argentina – based on feints and dribbling – Millonarios would become known over the course of the season as “the Blue Ballet” for their graceful and captivating performances.

Santa Fe captured Neil Franklin and George Mountford from Stoke City as well as legendry Manchester United winger Charlie Mitten.

Atlético Junior signed Brazilians Tim and Heleno de Freitas as well as the Hungarians László Szőke, Imre Danko, Béla Sárosi, Fernes Neyrs and Mihail Uram.

Deportivo Pereira brought players from Paraguay: Carmelo Colombo, Enrique Avalos, Marcelino Vargas and César López Fretes; and a player from Italy: Luigi Di Franco.

While the people of Colombia revelled in the performances of the all star ensemble performing on their doorsteps, the exodus of stars from FIFA’s affiliate leagues understandably caused huge consternation in football’s corridors of power. The association sent numerous delegations to convince DIMAYOR to end what they saw as a football absurdity – an unsustainable aberration.

By the end of 1950 DIMAYOR eventually relented and agreed to end the unregulated competition through the Pacto de Lima, as long as the players honoured their contacts until 1954, when they would then be allowed to return to their former clubs.

The Colombian public got to enjoy 6 seasons of scintillating football, 4 of which resulted in title wins for star-studded Millionarios.

In 1954, DIMAYOR and “El Dorado” came to an end, with the league’s stars exiting just as quickly as they arrived. Di Steffano and Rial would go on to dominate the European cup with Real Madrid, Vallverde would light up the Camp Nou in Barcelona, while Charlie Mitten, labelled “The Bogota Bandit” returned to Old Trafford where he was suspended by Matt Busby and eventually sold to Fulham. It closed the chapter on the most bizarre and intriguing period in South American club football history.

by Simon Winter

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