The Blond Arrow Alfredo Di Stefano talking to the press. ©Getty Images
Kidnapping in the world of football is more common than one would think. Just recently Chelsea midfielder John Obi Mikel's father was abducted and held for ransom in Mikel's home country of Nigeria on August 12. The kidnappers were located and taken into custody. And that's just a recent kidnapping.
The year was 1963 and Real Madrid had traveled to Caracas, Venezuela to take part in the Pequeña Copa del Mundo. A tournament featuring three teams--Real Madrid, FC Porto and Sao Paulo. Di Stefano was no stranger to South America, having spent twelve years playing for teams like River Plate, Huracan, and collecting six league titles in the process. So this was to be a homecoming of sorts--that was until four armed men broke into his hotel room in Caracas ahead of the tournament.
It was a time of political unrest and being a famous footballer made him a easy target.
It was the night of August 24 when the armed gunman charged into his room, the night before the second game of the tournament where Real Madrid were set to take on FC Porto. The reason for the kidnapping was to bring attention to the FALN (Armed Forces of National Liberation), a group that had set forth a campaign against the corruption going on in Venezuela. Di Stefano would later say he wasn't sure where he was being taken at the time.
''I was blindfolded when the gang took me from the hotel on Saturday and kept me locked in a bedroom."
It wasn't long before someone realized that the FALN weren't looking for ransom in exchange for the Real Madrid striker; instead, they were looking for the publicity that kidnapping one of the worlds greatest footballers would bring them. This wasn't the first time the group had taken action to shed some light on their cause; Maximo Canales, the lead kidnapper, also hijacked a Venezuelan cargo ship in February of that same year--again with the purpose of drawing attention to their cause.
This wasn't the only thing the FALN had their hands in. They attempted to assassinate President Romolu Betancourt in July. The group believed that the president (who was up for re-election) was going to commit election fraud on both the presidential and congressional level. And they believed that actions like this would expose these plans to the general public.
They also led a campaign of terrorist acts that led up to the tournament. According to reports, pipelines were blown up, and three police officers were kidnapped. Three others will killed in the line of duty, in retaliation for a police raid and arrests during a FALN group meeting. They named the operation to kidnap Di Stefano "Julian Grimau," named after a Spanish communist who had been executed by firing squad in April.
In 2005 Canales, under the new name of Paul Del Rio, who was now an artist, told AS the reason why the group singled out Di Stefano.
"We kidnapped him because of his fame. His prestige and fame in Real Madrid helped us achieve our ends. The team came to play a friendly and we, sadly, pulled out a red card on him at six in the morning,"
Some thought that he would be released at the stadium, since it was a large crowd. Though police and detectives mingled through the stadium, and his wife pleaded with the kidnappers through the media to let him go, they had achieved their goal of attracting attention to their cause.
In his autobiography, Gracias, Vieja, Di Stefano explained that at first he thought they were going to actually kill him. But when he realized that they weren't going to harm him, he ended up playing chess, dominos and cards with his attackers, and finally calling them "gentlemen." Two days after his kidnapping, he was released with not a scratch on him, and had to face the press.
Which is not an exciting task after being held against ones will.
''The commander of the rebel group, Maximo Canales, directed the kidnapping and was with me all the time. He apologized a thousand times for the inconvenience. I was worried because of the anguish it was causing my wife and my eight-year-old son. The day after the kidnapping they let me listen on the radio when my team beat Oporto of Portugal. They let me out of a car [with sticking plasters over his eyes] on the Avenida Libertador this afternoon. I took a cab to the Spanish Embassy.''
Just one day after his release, he was in the starting XI in the last match of the tournament against FC Porto. He had said that he didn't want to be an "idol" and that he just wanted to play football.
On the day of his release, Venezuela Football President Damien Gaubeka avoided a kidnapping attempt as well. Di Stefano would leave Real Madrid a year later and join Espanyol for two seasons before hanging up his boots and calling it a career. Maximo and his prisoner would be reunited for Real, The Movie which was released in 2005 as they recounted the tale of his kidnapping.