Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The best league in the world? Colombia's answer to the English Premier League

Colombia's answer to the English Premier League.
The rich legend of El Dorado (Spanish for "the golden one") runs deep in Colombia. The story centres on a South American tribal chief who would cover himself in gold dust and leap into the highland lakes of the country's Cundinamarca and Boyaca regions.

Not so memorable is the British soap opera of the same name which was axed by BBC controller Alan Yentob after running three times a week for a year. The show was meant to bring the glamour and beauty of the Spanish Costa del Sol into British homes but flopped badly.

El Dorado is also the name given to a period of prestige for the Colombian domestic league. In the late 1940s and early 1950s the best players in the world plied their trade in Bogota, Santa Fe and other Colombian cities.

The Dimayor league was set-up and immediately broke free of Colombia's existing amateur football authority. A further dispute with FIFA over the rebel league led to sanctions being imposed on the national team.

These potential problems served only to galvanise those running The Dimayor and with the league bolstered by money from Colombian coffee sales soon the best players in South America were lured in.

Aspects with allowed The Dimayor to flourish included a raft of Argentinean players arriving to play in Colombia that were currently on strike in their home country. This meant the likes of River Plate star Adolfo Pedernera were soon signing up for league founder Alfonso Senior's Millonarios in 1949.

Pedernera was greeting at the Aeropuerto de Techo in Bogota by 5,000 fans and made the club a stack of money on the spot. The modern day equivalent would be a club presenting David Beckham and seeing an instant bump in their revenue as a result.

The Dimayor was forward thinking in its approach to making the game an attractive spectacle as possible to the Colombian crowds. Numbers were displayed on the back of the player's jerseys, two substitutions were allowed per team and professional English referees were employed.

Another point which allowed The Dimayor to bloom was that the teams did not have to pay any transfer fees to clubs such as River Plate because FIFA did not recognise the league and therefore it was outside their jurisdiction.

This meant Millonarios were able to return to Argentina and pluck Alfredo Di Stefano, already well on his way to becoming a star in his own right. Indeed, when Millionarios were at their pomp they fielded a team which included 10 Argentineans.

Imagine the stick Arsene Wenger would get if he put out a team of 10 Frenchman in the Premier League. But then again Millionarios did win four league titles during the five seasons of El Dorado so maybe that kind of success would silence the critics.

Other teams took advantage of The Dimayor's anarchic constitution and began affiliations with the players of foreign countries.

Independiente de Medellin were nicknamed Danza del Sol (Sun dance) because of the 12 Peruvian players on their books and over at Deportivo Samarios de Santa Marta there were 15 exiled Hungarians on the payroll.

Two years after its inception The Dimayor feature 320 foreign nationals, Corporacion Nuevo Cucuta Deportivo signing up 8 members of the Uruguay team that won the 1950 World Cup.

Players from foreign countries tended to remain clumped together in same city. As well as the Argentines, Uruguayans, Peruvians and Hungarians turning out for clubs you could find Brazilians in Barranqilla, Costa Ricans in Bogota and the British in Santa Fe

Independiente Santa Fe managed to bring in Neil Franklin and George Mountford from Stoke City as well as the mercurial Charlie Mitten from Matt Busby's Manchester United. Not to be outdone Millionarios reacted by signing Billy Higgins from Everton and Bobby Flavell from Hearts. Of the British imports however, it was only Charlie Mitten who would stay in Colombia for a full season.

In four seasons at Old Trafford Charlie Mitten collected three league runners-up medals as well as winning the FA Cup while part of Matt Busby's first post-war Manchester United side. In 1950 Mitten was offered £50 a week to play for Santa Fe plus a £10,000 signing on fee, the current maximum wage for a footballer in England £8 per week during the season and £6 a week during the summer.

When Charlie told Matt Busby he was going to leave the Scot was obviously upset to lose his highly talented left winger but when he heard the numbers involved he reportedly told Charlie to get in touch if they needed a manager.

On returning to England after his season in the sun Mitten was treated like a pariah by the football authorities. He was suspended from the game for six months and fined six months wages. He was transferred by Manchester United, who still held his registration, to Fulham.

Although The Cottagers were relegated during his four seasons with them Charlie Mitten chipped in with his fair share of goals and formed a deadly left sided partnership with Johnny Haynes.

Mitten's record of 17 successful penalty conversions with no misses remains a record at Manchester United and before his death in 2002 he explained his success from the spot.

“Looking at the number of penalty misses by the supposedly best players in the world during shoot-outs, I wonder how often some of those players practice what is the simplest trick in the whole of soccer. So many players today run at the ball as if it were a bag of sweets and just whack it.

“You must aim, aim always for the corners of the goal. When I was shooting I wasn’t watching the keeper. I was looking for a place, the hole, where I was going to put the ball.

“You can kick it as hard as you like, but try keeping it a foot high as well. A shot like that is impossible to save - it is a certain goal.”

Mitten managed Mansfield Town, Newcastle United and Altrincham before retiring from football. He remains perhaps England's greatest ever uncapped player.

The El Dorado period of domestic Colombian football was eventually wrapped up after five seasons. Events came to a head when Colombian clubs started to refuse to allow their players leave to represent their countries.

The Pact of Lima was signed in 1951 and Colombian football return to FIFA's fold. For his part in proceedings the founder of The Dimayor and Millionarios chief Alfonso Senior bagged a job with the world's governing body.

The Pact stipulated that all foreign recruits had to return to their country of origin by 1954. Argentines Di Stefino and Hector Rial had other ideas though and went on to form the cornerstone of the great Real Madrid team which won the European Cup every year from 1956 to 1960.

Mitten was also feted by Real Madrid after his time in Colombia but did not move due to his family feeling homesick. Di Stefino himself recalled 'Cheeky' Charlie from his playing days and regrets the Englishman not joining him at Madrid.

"Ah, Charlie Mitten, numero uno. If we have him we never need Francisco Gento. Gento he quick, but Mitten, he more clever."

Copyright © Tim Sturtridge & Soccerphile.com

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