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'We'll live finer than any footballer in the world' - The story of El Dorado, the world's first 'Super League'

12:00 AM MYT 21/04/2021
Alfredo Di Stefano Real Madrid GFX
More than 70 years ago, some of the planet's finest footballers were enticed to play in Colombia, but the dream of success and riches soon fell apart

A breakaway league. Riches beyond players' wildest dreams. Fierce disputes between clubs and governing bodies, culminating in dire threats, bans and exile.

Colombia's infamous 'El Dorado' era had it all, briefly gaining worldwide attention as well as some of the planet's most accomplished footballers in the post-war period.

At a time where Europe's football aristocrats are looking to leave the rest behind, it is worth remembering this brief but heady age in South America, which ultimately ended in acrimony and prescription.

Compared to its neighbours to the south, Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay, Colombia was a footballing backwater for the first half of the 20th century. Not until 1945 did the nation enter the Copa America, the penultimate South American nation to do so, ahead of only Venezuela.

The first professional league followed three years later – again, a decade or so after most of their continental rivals.

Initially, the Liga Dimayor, featuring newly-founded professional clubs such as Millonarios, Atletico Nacional and Boca Juniors, as well as the Cali duo, America and Deportivo, two of Colombia's oldest clubs, passed largely without incident as Santa Fe took the inaugural title ahead of Junior de Barranquilla.

In 1949, however, an obscure dispute between the Dimayor and the Colombian football association led to the nation's suspension from FIFA. Instead of bringing it to heel, the decision had a wholly unforeseen side-effect.

Since they were now 'outlaws', clubs felt they had no obligation to pay transfer fees for players – essentially meaning they could afford to offer astronomic salaries and recruit talent from across the world.

Almost simultaneously, the game in Argentina was also in crisis. In 1948, conflict between the players' union and President Juan Domingo Peron led to a national strike, with clubs forced to complete the season using youth players as their stars refused to play.

Colombia's nouveaux riche were watching closely. River Plate legend Adolfo Pedernera landed in Bogota in June 1949 to a hero's welcome in order to play for Millonarios, and two months later ex-Millo team-mates Alfredo Di Stefano and Nestor 'Pipo' Rossi were making their debuts for what would soon be dubbed the 'Blue Ballet' in deference to the side's dazzling football.

By its second year, more than 100 foreign nationals were active in the division, more than half of whom were Argentines. Other stars included the enormous Lithuanian Victor Kriscuonas Vitatutas, who grew up in Argentina and kept goal for Deportivo Caldas during their 1950 title triumph. 

Deportivo Cali boasted the talents of Peru idol Valeriano Lopez, a playboy striker who rebuffed Santiago Bernabeu's offer to play for Real Madrid in order to stay close to his family and who was famed for rolling cigarettes using high-denomination dollar bills. One notorious anecdote claims he was once put out of action by an ankle injury caused by a waitress, who kicked him for grabbing her breasts.

Bernabeu reflected years later on his failed signing attempt: “I went for Valeriano, because I'd never seen a more extraordinary header of the ball, but I came back with Alfredo. I can't complain... because he gave me five European Cups.”

But it was not just South America which saw an exodus to 'El Dorado': in 1950, Santa Fe scandalised the English game by hiring Neil Franklin, George Mountford and, most notably, Charlie Mitten, Manchester United's wizardly winger who earned himself the nickname 'Bogota Bandit' for his perceived misdeed.

Mitten and his compatriots were handsomely rewarded. The winger received a signing bonus of £5,000 ($7,000) and weekly wages of £100 ($140), 10 times his income at the Red Devils under the constraints of the maximum wage. Stoke and England defender Franklin famously boasted upon arriving in the Colombian capital: “We'll live finer than any footballer in the world.”

It was Millonarios' Blue Ballet that dominated, though, winning the title in 1949 and three consecutive crowns from 1951-53. In 1952, the club also inflicted a 4-2 defeat on Real Madrid in the Santiago Bernabeu as part of their 'Golden Wedding' 50th anniversary celebrations, with the unstoppable Di Stefano netting twice.

“In that period, Millonarios were considered one of the world's best teams,” Leon Londono, former president of Cucuta Deportivo, remarked, as quoted in Mike Forero's book Sport in Colombia.

“But there were also other extraordinary teams: Cali were an amazing team; Medellin were known as the 'Sun Dance'; Junior and their Brazilian stars; Cucuta had seven Uruguay internationals.

“At that time, football was very healthy and very peaceful.” Fernando Araujo, in his Colombian Encyclopaedia, underlines the furore that accompanied the explosion of the game.

“In those years people used to go to the stadium the night before matches to sleep outside and get a good spot on game day; in the offices, the subject was so often repeated that signs were put up which said: 'Forbidden to talk about football in office hours.'”

Even as Millonarios led Madrid a merry dance, though, El Dorado was already living on borrowed time.

The previous year, FIFA had given Colombia a stark ultimatum: return the 'stolen' players, or face permanent expulsion. The league agreed and signed the so-called Lima Pact, committing to the removal of all of its imports by 1954 in order to return to the fold.

Pedernera came back home to Argentina to play one more season with Huracan, his club prior to his Colombian adventure. Di Stefano, on the other hand, became embroiled in a bitter struggle involving Madrid, Barcelona and River, eventually landing at the Bernabeu in one of the most controversial transfers in football history and leading the Blancos to their first golden age.

He was almost joined by another El Dorado star. “Charlie... had an offer to go to the Bernabeu too,” Andy Mitten, author and great-nephew of the former United winger, told the Daily Post.

“But his wife was homesick and they returned to Manchester, where Busby refused to have him back at United because he’d walked out a year before.”

Mitten, Franklin and Mountford received six-month bans from the FA upon returning to England in 1951. All of the trio struggled in Colombia due to the language barrier and because of the strict 6:30pm military curfew in place during a period of political violence in the country.

Of the three, only Mountford was retained by his club. United sold Mitten to Fulham, while Franklin was shipped off to Hull City in the lower reaches of the Second Division.

Back in Colombia, meanwhile, the effect was devastating, with teams stripped of almost their entire playing staff and several choosing to drop out of the league altogether on a temporary or permanent basis.

“Teams could no longer sign players and people stayed away from the stadiums,” recalls author Guillermo Ruiz in History of Colombian Football.

“One never thought they could fall so low, after having the world's best players and the best teams visiting; now they can only scoop up what the rest have left behind.”

It would not be until the 1980s that Colombia's sides once more began to challenge the dominance of Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay, a period that was also tainted by controversy as later evidence indicated that notorious drug traffickers Pablo Escobar and the Cali cartel had been active in the likes of Atletico Nacional and America de Cali.

El Dorado, even though its heyday lasted barely five years, nevertheless retains near-mythical status in the history of the South American game – both as one of its most glittering ages, and as a stark warning about the consequences of pouring money into ambitious projects which are impossible to sustain over time.