For many the high-tempo, goal-laden English Premier League is the best, other prefer the technical class of Spain’s La Liga or the fan-friendly Bundesliga, while there are plenty who would make a case for Italy’s Serie A, which may not be as glitzy and glamorous as in its 80s and 90s heyday but would give the other two a run for their money in sheer competitiveness alone.
It’s difficult to pick the best league in the world, certainly, but it’s safe to say that nobody would suggest Colombia. These days the most talented Colombian players tend to leave their domestic league early, usually to their South American neighbours Brazil or Argentina. If they go to Europe it’s usually to those leagues viewed as a “stepping stone” to the bigger leagues – Holland, Portugal or Turkey, for example. The county’s teams simply cannot match the continents big hitters, only two Copa Libertadores (the South American equivalent to the Champions League) winning teams have come from Colombia – Atletico Nacional in 1989 and Once Caldas more recently in 2004. Given this it seems to hard to imagine that for a few short years from 1949 to 1954, the league that became known as El Dorado was the best in the world.
It was never supposed to happen. There was no grand plan, no blanket media coverage, no carefully orchestrated PR campaign; rather a series of coincidences and happy accidents resulted in El Dorado, and for a while Colombia could not believe what it had.
It began innocently enough, with a new professional FA being set up to professionalise the amateur Colombian game. Professional football had been established in Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay in the previous decade, so Colombia needed to catch up or be left behind. The new FA, Dimayor, wished to start a new professional league and ten sides had already been hand-picked to join it. The amateur FA, Adefutbol, did not agree with this breakaway league and the dispute between the two was ended by FIFA in their usual diplomatic and subtle way: Dimayor‘s FIFA affiliation was suspended. This meant that not only was the new FA and the new professional league not recognised by FIFA, but the Colombian national team was also banned from all FIFA competitions.
You would be forgiven for thinking that this would sink the new league before a ball had been kicked, butDimoyor president Humberto Fernandez was not so easily deterred. He decided that the league would go ahead even without the blessing of the FIFA overlords. Little did he know that this brave – or foolish – decision and a convenient player strike in Argentina would usher in a golden era for Colombian football: El Dorado.
Argentina in the 1940s was home to some of the world’s greatest footballing talent, much of it showcased in River Plate’s legendary La Maquina (The Machine) team, but in 1949 when the new Colombian league was emerging, player strikes left the country’s football in chaos and many players eager to leave.
It was the President of the Bogota-based club Millionarios, Alfonso Senior, who first made the connection between the player strike in Argentina and Colombia’s FIFA expulsion – world class players were looking for a move and Colombian clubs could offer them that, and because they were no longer bound by FIFA rules there was no compulsion to pay any kind of transfer fee. Money that would have been spent on a fee to rival clubs could go instead on wages to entice some of the world’s best players to a relative footballing backwater.
Millionarios were not the only club to take advantage of this loophole – as we’ll see later – but they were the first. The club’s manager Carlos Adalbe, himself an Argentine, first tempted Adolfo Pedernera away from River Plate to Bogota. The owners of the other Colombian sides watched Millionarios’ experiment with great interest, as no one knew if the club could generate enough money to pay the wages needed to entice Pedernera from his homeland.
“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.”
The money generated by the big names proved that this could be done, and soon other clubs followed suit. It was not long before players from all over the world were flocking to Colombia to enjoy the sunshine and the money.
Club Independiente Santa Fe nabbed Argentine international Hector Rial but mainly raided the British Isles, bringing in the Stoke City duo of George Mountford and Neil Franklin as well as poaching skilful winger Charlie Mitten from Matt Busby’s Manchester United.
Deportivo Samarios provided a home for 15 Hungarian exiles, including Gyula Zsengeller, who had twice been Europe’s top marksman when playing in his homeland for Ujpest. In 1951 Nuevo Cucuta Deportivo signed up eight of the Uruguay side who had won the World Cup in the previous year including legendary defender Schubert Gambetta (the man for whom the Spanish footballing term “gambeta” – meaning to dribble, to elude with skill – is named).
Millionarios remained the club to be at, though, and added more ex-River and Argentine internationals to their squad in the form of Alfredo Castillo, Nestor Rossi and an emerging young talent by the name of Alfredo di Stefano, while Uruguayan international Ramon Alberto Villaverde also joined them. They added a bit of British heart to the South American flair by tempting England international Billy Higgins away from Everton and Scotsman Bobby Flavell from Hearts.
It was during this time that Millionarios earned the nickname El Ballet Azul (The Blue Ballet) and grabbed four championship titles (1949, 1951, 1952 and 1953) during the El Dorado period.
It was unprecedented situation for Colombian football. Some of the world’s best players – internationals, World Cup winners, superstars – were playing in a country that prior to 1949 had been home to an amateur league that could not even make a claim to be the best league on the continent, never mind the world.
Of course, both FIFA and CONMEBOL (the South American Football Federation) were eager to stop the money-soaked madness in the country and bring it back to reality. Many clubs – particularly the Argentine ones that had lost their players because of a strike – wanted the players that had been poached to return home, and matters came to an inevitable head when many Colombian clubs refused to release their players for FIFA’s international matches.
After much negotiation between Dimayor, FIFA and CONMEBOL an agreement was reached and signed in 1951. Called the Pact of Lima, it was decreed that all players tempted abroad during the El Dorado era would have to return to their original clubs by 1954.
In 1954, then, El Dorado ceased to be. Many of the exiles returned from whence they had came, such as Charlie Mitten who returned to Manchester United but soon found himself exiled in a different sense and sold to Fulham but plenty more skipped over to Europe; Rial and the brilliant di Stefano joined Real Madrid and conquered Europe, Villaverde joined rivals Barca and meanwhile the status quo re-established itself in Colombia.
The professional league remains in place to this day, but it will never again experience a period like the few short years from ’49 to ’54. El Dorado, the golden period, was barely believable and will never be repeated, but for a while Colombia undoubtedly had the world’s best league.
By David Fox
This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona