It’s hard to picture a time when being a professional footballer at the highest level did not mean astronomical wealth and lavish lifestyles. Yet, that was the reality for many of the world’s biggest stars in the early days of organised, professional football.
There are bountiful stories of some of England’s biggest stars having to take summer jobs just to pay their bills in the early days as the Football Association and FIFA kept a tight lid on pay. Disgruntlement over finances was a common theme amongst players.
It wasn’t exclusive to England either as Argentina was having its own issues with player wages in 1949. Players in Argentina had gone on strike, infuriated at how little they were being paid despite their considerable talent.
They would soon find a home in, of all places, Colombia.
Now, to explain why this was so surprising, we first must look back even further than 1949. Football was introduced to South America by European expatriates and workers who would play it in their spare time. It was viewed by many as something for the working classes and unimportant.
However, the swelling popularity in the likes of Brazil and Argentina and the success of the first World Cup saw the game go from an amateur pastime to a professional enterprise in many South American countries. This was not something that would come to Colombia however.
Football in Colombia was a working-class sport, irrelevant to the culture of the country and sneered at by those of any standing. The football leagues in the country were, therefore, amateur competitions run by a governing organisation called Adefutbol.
Football pottered long as an amateur pastime until 1948 when those with financial clout took serious notice of the sport thanks to Argentineans. Top Buenos Aires-based side San Lorenzo made the trip to Colombia for a tour and the crowds were enormous. There was an appetite amongst the Colombian people for football and there was money to be made.
So, Division Mayor del Futbol Colombiano (Dimayor) was formed and Humberto Salcedo, their first president, approached Adefutbol with their plans to professionalise Colombian football. Ten teams would form the inaugural season, each paying an entry fee of 1,000 pesos. They included teams from the major cities in Colombia: three from the capital, Bogota; two each from Cali, Manizales and Medellin and a solitary representative from Barranquilla (Itagui and Pereira would play host to Atletico Municipal and Universidad respectively despite the sides being based elsewhere). Standard league rules applied: each team plays each other twice; two points for a win and the team with most points wins the title.
Adefutbol were having none of it.
They refused to work with Dimayor and promptly ran complaining to FIFA who immediately banned Dimayor from running the league. If they were to run, it would not be recognised by FIFA at all.
You would think that would be the demise of the proposed professional league, wouldn’t you?
The inaugural season of the Colombian league ran fairly smooth. The first winners were Santa Fe who cruised to the title, four points clear of nearest challengers Junior. Argentine Alfredo Castillo of Millonarios would be the obvious winner of the golden boot, scoring a remarkable 31 goals which was 11 more than anyone else could manage in the 18 games.
That was nice but the next few years would see Colombian football explode with intrigue.
That 1949 Argentinean player strike came at the perfect time for Salcedo and Dimayor. Aided by lawyer Alfredo Senior (, Fernandez realised that if Dimayor was not recognised by FIFA then they did not have any legal right to pay a transfer fee for any players nor were they capped on pay. They could try and tempt the disgruntled footballers who wanted to play immediately with huge pay packets.
So, they did.
The first to pull this trick was Millonarios of Bogota who splashed out on Argentine star Adolfo Pedernera. A hero of River Plate’s fabled ‘La Maquina’, Pedernera’s arrival in Bogota caused huge surprise across the footballing world and amongst Colombian owners. Millonarios’ owner, a certain Mr Senior, was branded ‘mad’ for giving Pedernera a base wage of $500 and a bonus of $5,000.
He took $18,000 at his presentation, seven times what Millonarios took at a game.
The rush was on.
Here Comes The Money
Pedernera’s arrival caused consternation in Argentina but was a huge coup in Colombia. The problem, though, was that he was so much better than everyone else that there was a disconnect between him and his teammates.
Frustrated, Pedernera convinced Senior to sign strikers from Argentina to guarantee success. It was an inspired move as was the decision to let Pedernera choose the players. He brought back Nelson Rossi and a certain Alfredo Di Stefano.
They promptly began to steamroll the league, averaging four goals a game. Di Stefano bagged a hat-trick on his debut. Everybody else in the league had to act.
Deportivo Cali were one of the first to act, reportedly sending a plane to Peru and getting 14 players back. Independiente Medellin repeated that trick. Goals were aplenty. Deportivo Cali would push Millonarios close, losing the title on goal difference. Santa Fe would finish third, scoring 102 goals. 109 foreigners had arrived in Colombia by the end of the 1949 season with just over half from Argentina.
With the 50s now upon the world, Colombian football went insane, signing any foreigner they could throw money at. Hungarians stars of the 40s were signed en masse; Lithuanian goalkeeper Vytautas Krisciunas would become a league winner with Deportes Caldas; Charlie Mitten would leave Matt Busby’s Manchester United; Billy Higgins, Neil Franklin and George Mountford would be the other Englishmen in Colombia; Bobby Flavell would leave Hearts to earn big money; most of Uruguay’s 1950 World Cup side ended up in Colombia – the list was endless.
The foreign influx was enormous in such a short space of time. In the inaugural season in 1948, 72% of players registered were Colombian. By 1951, 72% of the players registered in Colombia were foreign. The list of nationalities read like a geography quiz: Argentineans, Englishmen, Peruvians, Uruguayans, Brazilians, an Austrian, a Romanian, Chileans, Paraguayans, Hungarians, a Romanian, an Italian, a Spaniard, a Yugoslavian, a Czechoslovakian, Ecuadorians, Costa Ricans and, of course, a Panamanian.
The rush had fully commenced despite the world’s protestations.
Naturally, the world’s governing body was not best pleased by the league’s wanton spending. FIFA promptly expelled Colombia in 1949 but that did nothing to curb Colombia’s excess. In the end, it took some compromise from FIFA to eventually end the protests.
The ‘Pact of Lima’ was agreed upon in 1951 where the players Colombian sides had bought would be allowed to play there until 1954 then return to their clubs as well as Colombia being reinstated to FIFA. The pact was a great win for Dimayor, who could continue profiting from their huge spends and provide some of the most entertaining football on the planet.
Millonarios, led by Di Stefano, were the real profiteers from the huge spending, winning four of the six league titles in the ‘El Dorado’ period and even being invited to tour Spain in 1952. They would defeat Real Madrid on that tour, living up to their moniker ‘Ballet Azul’.
In truth, the novelty had worn off by that point. The mass influx had stopped and many of the ageing stars brought in were beginning to depart and retire. The entertainment was still there but the impending departures meant that the peak had already arrived.
1954 saw the vast majority of the stars return back to their clubs with a few going on to great success. Di Stefano would be central to Real Madrid’s early domination of the European Cup along with fellow Argentine expat Hector Rial while Uruguayan World Cup winner Ramon Villaverde would adorn Barcelona colours with distinction.
The British contingent were mostly shunned. Flavell would be fined heavily by the SFA and suspended from playing football for a number of months for his Colombian dalliance while Charlie Mitten, who had reportedly left with Busby’s blessing, found his old boss had turned on him and would sell him to Fulham as quickly as he could.
And that would be that for ‘El Dorado’. It remains a unique time in footballing history, full of remarkable tales and highlighting the rather grim bureaucracy that players had to live by.
Colombian football never quite was the same after that period with ‘El Dorado’ now revered as a happy-go-lucky jaunt for some footballers looking for a sweet payday. Indeed, the 2015 season saw just 13 foreign players registered in the Colombian top tier. No more signing the top talent for however much you can fit in a briefcase. No more players slinking off in the night.
‘El Dorado’ was many different things to many different people but it will always be one thing to football historians: fun.