To which El Dorado do I refer, you might wonder? The one that fascinated the Spanish Conquistadors and compelled explorers like Francisco de Orellana and Gonzalo Pizarro to begin their fateful expedition towards the Amazon Basin? The BBC’s infamous failed attempt to replicate the sun-drenched glamour of Home & Away and Neighbours?
Thankfully neither, I’m in fact referring to the golden era of Colombian football between 1949 and 1954. For a fleeting period of 5 years the South American republic, hitherto famous only for coffee and banana production, eclipsed the homeland of football and the already highly professionalised River Plate region with a professional league that brought together some of the finest talent on the planet.
Colombia’s football history began like many other countries in the region, as the pastime of British sailors, engineers and railway workers who introduced the sport to the port of Barranquilla, where the country’s first (amateur) football association and first FIFA affiliate Adefutbol came to be based.
This state of affairs remained for some 30 years, with football viewed as a vulgar and thoroughly working-class pastime, until a tour by Argentina’s San Lorenzo in 1948 attracted significant audiences and alerted the Bogota-based Colombian elite to the commercial potential of the sport. They set out to launch Dimayor, the first Colombian professional league.
The organisation of this, like many things in Colombia, was far from simple and a tense stand-off between Adefutbol (the amateur FIFA affiliated association) and Dimayor (the nascent professional league) began. At the height of this tension Adefutbol appealed to FIFA to suspend Dimayor and all of its players from international competition and friendlies. FIFA
The opening of the new league, threatened not only by FIFA’s sanction but delayed further by the chaos unleashed by the April 1948 assassination of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, the liberal elect of the time was remarkably only delayed four months starting in August 1948 amidst political turbulence. The Liberals boycotted the 1949 Election, civil liberties were suspended and a curfew was put in place. The ensuing struggle for power triggered a ten year period of political violence.
Against this chaotic backdrop, a shrewd lawyer, Alfonso Senior Quevedo, seized an opportunity that had enormous repercussions. The suspension of Dimayor from FIFA meant that the league was no longer subject to FIFA’s jurisdiction and thus didn’t have to abide by strict FIFA transfer regulations or even pay transfer fees for players.
This allowed Millionarios manager Carlos Aldabe to return from Buenos Aires boasting a groundbreaking coup. He had signed Adolfo Pedernera, one of the leading lights of River Plate’s La Máquina, offering extravagant wages and a signing-on fee beyond the player’s wildest dreams.
Argentina was in the midst of a players strike which left players feeling encumbered by contractual obligation and frustrated at being unable to play. Senior Quevedo realised they were ripe for the picking. This lack of freedom was also felt in England, where players were tied to the archaic retain-and-transfer system which meant clubs more or less owned them. Not to be outdone Millionarios’ city rivals Santa Fe unveiled exotic signings like Neil Franklin and George Mountford from Stoke City and Manchester United winger Charlie Mitten. Millionarios responded in turn bringing in Bobby Flavell from Heart of Midlothian and Billy Higgins from Everton.
The European establishment looked on horrified. By the end of 1949 no less than 109 players (57 Argentines) had joined Dimayor: Deportivo Cucuta brought no less than eight of Uruguay’s 1950 World Cup winning squad, other sides raided Paraguay, Peru and Argentina too.
The project reached its zenith in early 1950s as Millionarios added Alfredo di Stefano, Nestor Rossi, Hector Rial, Rene Pontoni and Jose Jacuzzi to their ranks, and swept all before them winning four out of five titles. The team’s allure was such that they were invited to tour various countries winning in Spain against Real Madrid and Valencia, in Argentina against River Plate and in England against Everton.
For a fleeting period, El Ballet Azul (Millionarios) were arguably the best club side on the planet. A question that remains unanswered (and interesting for fans of certain modern-day English clubs built on foreign imports) is whether Colombian football reaped any long term dividends from the ‘El Dorado’ era?
In 1954 Di Stefano et al left for their respective destinies. Di Stefano went on to spearhead the irresistible Real Madrid side of 1956-60 to five consecutive European Cup triumphs. Charlie Mitten was suspended for six months by then Manchester United manager Sir Matt Busby and ended his career at Fulham.
The legacy of El Dorado for Colombian football has been a strong Argentine influence both on the field and in the dugout. Some of the best football Colombia has produced in fits and starts since that period bears more than a passing resemblance to the Argentine-driven success which lit up the El Dorado era and introduced professional football to Colombia.
Many of Colombia’s most successful exports have built their reputations playing their football in the Argentine League, which is stylistically and culturally similar to the Colombian league, before moving on to Europe. The list includes Iván Ramiro Córdoba, Juan Pablo Ángel, Luis Perea, Mario Yepes and most recently Radamel Falcao and James Rodriguez of Atletico Madrid and Porto respectively.
The national team's greatest achievement in the ensuing six decades post-El Dorado (bar the 2001 Copa America triumph) came in Buenos Aires, when buccaneering follically-outrageous No.10 Carlos Valderrama led Colombia to a deserved 5-0 romp beating the Argentines at their own game with a captivating range of passing, albeit with a distinctly Colombian flamboyance and unpredictability. As the fifth goal goes in the Argentines stop whistling their own players for a moment and applaud the masterful display of the audacious visitors. The result catapulted Colombia to immediate international recognition and caused Pele’s fateful prediction of a Colombia victory at USA 94.
Fitting then, given the almost symbiotic relationship the two countries have stumbled into, that an Argentine, Jose Pekerman, who coincidentally played in Colombia, is now entrusted with taking Colombia to their first World Cup of the 21st Century, and that the World Cup will be in the most emblematic football nation of all, Brazil.
Pekerman’s Argentina dazzled in the 2006 World Cup in Germany with their confident and slick short-passing game only to be cut short by a resolute Germany side in the quarter-finals. This kind of football should a nice fit with the Colombian understanding of the game.
The Colombian Federation (as is the case across the continent at both club and international level) has a habit of lacking patience with managers. The last Argentine to fill the post, Carlos Bilardo was sacked after one year after failing to qualify for Spain 82. He went on to reach two World Cup finals with his home nation, winning one.
Pekerman is Colombia’s 11th manager since France 98. Let’s hope the Colombian Federation give him time to shine.