Millonarios 3-2 Deportivo Cali (4 December 1949) Estadio El Campin, Bogota
It seems hard at times to imagine that Colombia once had a claim to the world’s greatest football league. For at a time when the country’s international image is largely confined to the drug trade and, at a push, the FARC guerrillas, it seems strange that such a situation could ever have existed. That it did was due to an equally unusual set of circumstances.
The creation in 1948 of a new, professional league would not ordinarily have led to immediate ascension to the forefront of the world game. Colombia’s Dimayor (Division Mayor del Futbol Colombiano) in fact faced early and potentially fatal difficulties. Chief of these was the opposition of the existing amateur league, Adefutbol, to the presumption of the clubs that they were entitled to create such a league. That opposition manifested itself in the amateur league’s successful petitioning of FIFA to refuse to sanction the newcomer.
This meant in effect that the league was isolated from international connections, and while that would have been expected to prove a hindrance it was actually its greatest advantage. Unconstrained by the rules and regulations which governed leagues affiliated with FIFA, the Colombian league was able to acquire players without paying a transfer fee. In an era in which clubs still treated players like chattels, not only did this vastly widen the pool of players to recruit from, it also allowed Colombian clubs to pay these superstars handsomely.
The first to arrive in Bogota was the Argentine legend Adolfo Pedernera. With the Argentine league at the time gripped by an ongoing player’s strike he sensed the opportunity to cash in with Millonarios. Pedernera’s role though was not just as a player. His reputation unlocked doors throughout Argentina and he was shrewdly perceived as a man who could bring still more great players to Colombia.
Before long all the clubs were following Millonarios’ lead in chasing foreign talent. Deportivo Cali, like Millonarios, concentrated their pursuit in Argentina, while others cast a wider net over the rest of South America. The most unusual recruiting policy was that of Santa Fe. They pulled off the audacious capture of Neil Franklin, arguably England’s greatest ever central defender, along with his Stoke teammate George Mountford and Charlie Mitten of Manchester United.
Somewhat predictably, given the now well deserved reputation of English players abroad, the Anglo invasion did not turn out as might have been hoped. Homesickness quickly accounted for Franklin and only Mitten really made a lasting impression, though that didn’t deter Millonarios from recruiting more British players. On his return to England Franklin found himself banned from the Football League, but even after that was lifted he appeared to have been blacklisted by the top clubs.
While the English may have struggled, many of South America’s finest talents prospered. Pedernera’s contacts in Argentina allowed Millonarios to acquire a raft of young stars, most notably Pedernera’s successor at River Plate, Alfredo Di Stefano. Though not yet the legend he would later become, Di Stefano had already won six caps for Argentina, scoring six goals and winning the 1947 Copa America at the age of 21. His prodigious goalscoring feats for both River Plate and Huracan pointed to a perfect recruit for Millonarios.
Such was the calibre of the players that were attracted to Colombia in the era that it came to be known as “El Dorado” in recognition of the monetary rewards on offer. Pedernera arrived on a salary of $5,000 a year and money was certainly the only motivating factor behind Franklin and Mountford’s brief South American sojourn. Yet while the players may have arrived for purely financial reasons the fans and club owners could well reflect on what was a golden age in Colombian football.
In Bogota neither Di Stefano nor Pedernera disappointed. Millonarios came to dominate the league in those El Dorado years, with a brand of football that imitated that of River Plate’s La Maquina team. No wonder then that they were named El Ballet Azul (The Blue Ballet) for the grace and poise with which they played the game.
Di Stefano’s first season in Colombia was undoubtedly the campaign which saw the tightest race for the title. With the “Blond Arrow” joined in the team by his compatriots Nestor Rossi, a superb defensive midfielder, and the prolific Pedro Cabillon, Millonarios looked set to cruise past the opposition. Instead they were pushed all the way by Deportivo Cali, with the championship finishing level after 26 games. That forced a play-off for the title which saw Millonarios win the first leg in Cali, and clinch the championship at home in a pulsating 3-2 finale.
|El Ballet Azul|
Yet almost as soon as Colombia’s golden age had begun it was over. In 1950, besieged by deputations from FIFA and their South American neighbours, the Dimayor agreed that they would, in four years time, return to the international fold. That meant allowing foreign players to return to their original clubs and, in turn, to pay transfer fees for the acquisition of future players. While it provided a temporary stay of execution, the agreement effectively removed Colombia’s competitive advantage when it came to recruiting players. With parity restored Colombian clubs were no longer in a position to pay their players a king’s ransom, and the players now had little incentive to stay.
Colombia’s time in the sun may have been fleeting, but they had much to be thankful for. In a tumultuous five years they had played host to a cast of the game’s greatest players and seen a quality of football the nation could not hope to witness before or since. The players soon departed (Di Stefano was already gone by the time 1954 rolled round), but they had left a lasting memory in the minds of Colombian football fans. El Dorado was truly a golden era.