As the final few disappointed Colombia fans file out of the Estadio Sausalito in Viña del Mar, Chile, Colombia’s exit from the 2015 Copa America was complete. The majority of Colombia’s players flew back to their various homes outside of the country, a symbol of the Colombian leagues’ inability to match the might of other worldwide leagues and hold onto their finest talents.
It seems an apt time to reminisce about the fleeting few years when Colombia stood as the football capital of the world and its league glittered with the prestigious talents of the some of world’s greatest players. The story of Colombia’s “El Dorado” league was one that my Great Uncle Stan had told me, as he remembered the British players who left for Colombia, but one that I didn’t fully grasp until I arrived in this country.
The South American football landscape in the 1940s was on the brink of change. Like all other football nations of the world, the sport was making strides from being simply an amateur past time to a becoming a professional sport. South America started following the example of Europe with countries such as Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina installing professional leagues towards the end of the 1930s.
Colombia found itself needing to change in order to keep up with its South American neighbours. Football in Colombia remained an amateur game throughout the 30s, predominately played by the working classes and not considered socially important. But all that changed when giant crowds, from all social spheres gathered to watch touring Argentine team San Lorenzo in Colombia in 1948. From this moment the Colombian appetite for football was clear.
Those with enough financial clout set about forming Colombia’s first professional football league with Humberto Salcedo Fernández as. Dimayor (Divison Mayor del Futbol Colombiano) approached the previously established amateur association Adefutbol with their plans to professionalize the sport in Colombia. But Adefutbol refused to be part of any such development and convinced FIFA to back their refusal and outlaw Dimayor from being affiliated to their federation.
The expulsion from FIFA, however, proved to be an opportunity rather than a problem. Fernández, with the help of plucky young lawyer Alfonso Senior Quevedo, realised that their FIFA exclusion also meant an exclusion from having to obey FIFA regulations; in particular, regulations regarding transfers. Colombian clubs involved with Dimayor were no longer obliged to pay clubs transfer fees, and so instead were able to offer players huge pay packets to join their clubs. So in a precursor to today’s financially driven football world, Colombian clubs in this league were able to pursue players by flexing their financial might.
However, it wasn’t without some luck that this was all possible. Professional football players in Argentina had also decided to go on strike over their own pay demands and so Colombian clubs were able to take advantage of this and sign disgruntled players who wanted to play again.
First it was Bogotá’s aptly named Millionairios who were first to launch a raid in Argentina, with the club bringing Adolfo Pedernera, a star of the fabled River Plate team nicknamed “La Maquina.” The news of the giant wage deals and signing on fees began filtering across the entire footballing world.
“They called me mad,” Millionarios President Alfonso Senior Quevedo later said, “they asked me how we were going to pay a $5,000 bonus and a salary of $500… but when we presented him to the fans…we took 35,000 pesos at the gate, which was seven times what were getting for the average game. That was $18,000, so it turned out to be a great deal.”
The spending of the Colombian clubs went on. By the 1951 season, which featured 18 clubs, 287 of the 440 players in the league were foreign, the majority were Argentinian, including the legendary Alfredo Di Stefano, and many were part of the Uruguayan team that won the 1950 world cup. Teams took players from Europe as well, including several of Hungary’s great team of the 40s, including Gyula Zsengeller, who had twice previously been the top goal scorer in Europe. British players Charlie Mitten, who left the famous Matt Busby´s Manchester United team, and George Mountford and Neil Franklin who left Stoke City to venture across the Pacific, were all part of the incredible league.
Of course the unregulated spending of Colombian clubs could never continue unopposed. In 1951, the “Pacto de Lima” was created, and Dimayor clubs agreed to return players purchased during the years without affiliation so long as they completed their contracts up to 1954. This change brought the end of the league’s hold on the world’s greatest talents and the so-called golden age of Colombian football.
Still remembered today are the “Blue Ballet” of Millionarios, who won four league titles during the El Dorado years, and who were invited to tour Spain, and even beat giants Real Madrid in 1952. Lead by Argentina’s Alfredo Di Stefano and Adolfo Pedernera, who went on to establish themselves as two of the greatest players ever. The Millionarios team of the El Dorado years is considered by many to be the greatest ever side to compete in front of Colombian football fans.
This year, on June 7th Deportivo Cali lifted the Liga Aguila title in the league’s 68th edition. The league, having just completed its 68th season in its current format, is a direct continuation from what began as the El Dorado years in 1948. Though few would argue that the current league has much in common with its editions of the past. Star players tend to be more attracted to the leagues of Argentina or Brazil, and home grown talent heads abroad when considered good enough.
This year’s league began the season with only 13 foreign players. Unable to attract outside talent and significant marketability worldwide, the Colombian domestic league operates now as a breeding ground for the bigger leagues of South America and Europe. However, the stories and memories live on as the passion for football in Colombia burns as brightly as ever. And with a bid for the 2026 World Cup in Colombia in sight, it could be about to receive a new kick-start to its game that could go some way to recapturing days of glory.