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The kidnap of Di Stefano

Jonathan Molyneux-Carter, ESPNsoccernet
August 25, 2011
Alfredo Di Stefano talks to journalists upon his release © Getty Images
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Ever since they became global icons, footballers have always been the target of criminals and terrorists. In 1963, one of the finest players ever to lace up his boots, Real Madrid's Alfredo Di Stefano, was kidnapped in order to attract publicity for the Armed Forces of National Liberation (FALN) campaign against government corruption in Venezuela. After 56 hours, on August 26, he was released unharmed.

When Argentine striker Alfredo Di Stefano chose Real Madrid over FC Barcelona in one of the world's most controversial transfers in 1953, few would have guessed that he would have such an impact on the global game.

Di Stefano, born into a family of Italian immigrants on the streets of Barracas, had become an icon in South America after his goals for River Plate, Huracan and Colombia's Millonarios ensured he would leave with six league titles in his 12 years on the continent. But questions remained over whether he would be able to live with the hype surrounding his arrival in Spain and continue the fabulous success that he had enjoyed in his career thus far.

The doubters need not have worried as Madrid's fortunes took a sharp increase as soon as Di Stefano's feet touched the Bernabeu turf. Voted European Footballer of the Year in 1957 and 1959, Di Stefano helped his side win five consecutive European Cups (scoring in each final) and he also claimed eight Spanish league winners' medals in an 11-year association with the club.

But, like all famous people in times of political uncertainty, Di Stefano was a target. And when Madrid arrived at the Potomac Hotel in Caracas, Venezuela for the 1963 Pequena Copa del Mundo (a three-team predecessor of the Intercontinental Cup against Sao Paulo and FC Porto), four armed men broke in on the night of August 24 and led Di Stefano away at gunpoint, ahead of the second game against Porto.

The striker later revealed that he was not sure where he was being taken, saying: ''I was blindfolded when the gang took me from the hotel on Saturday and kept locked in a bedroom." It soon became clear that guerrilla group FALN were responsible and were not looking for a ransom, rather the publicity that the kidnapping would bring them.

The lead kidnapper, Maximo Canales, had, the February previous, seized a Venezuelan cargo ship named 'Anzoategui' to draw attention to his operation. The focus of FALN's efforts was to raise awareness from 'spectacular feats' as a means of informing the world of what they termed 'our struggle' - a reference to the 'electoral fraud' that the group believed was about to be perpetrated by Venezuelan President Romulo Betancourt in the upcoming presidential and congressional elections.

FALN had attempted to assassinate Betancourt in Ciudad Bolivar in July, while a Guardian report revealed that a campaign of FALN terrorism had preceded the tournament in Caracas, in which pipelines were blown up, three policemen were kidnapped and three others killed in retaliation for a police raid on a group meeting that had ended with ten arrests.

With a desperate desire to raise awareness for their cause, the global press coverage that would accompany the capture of Di Stefano - the operation was codenamed 'Julian Grimau' after the Spanish communist who had been executed by firing squad in April - would be FALN's main motivation.

"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," Canales told sports daily AS in 2005 under his new identity, artist Paul Del Rio.

It made front page news in England and the act was called ''a gesture of defiance by the Venezuelan Reds'' by the Daily Express's Andrew Fyal, who also wrote: ''The Communists kept big-match coccer nerves taut in Venezuela's capital tonight'' as Madrid readied themselves for their game against Porto.

Alfredo Di Stefano eventually returned to playing action © Getty Images
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But as detectives mingled with the crowd in case Di Stefano was released at the stadium and some 8,000 police looked for the kidnappers, the striker's wife Sara told the Daily Express: ''The terrorists have achieved their purpose in attracting attention. Now I plead with them to let my husband go.''

Di Stefano himself, explained in his autobiography Gracias, Vieja that at first: "I thought they were going to kill me." But he soon realised that the group were not out to do him harm and revealed later that he played dominoes, cards and chess with them; ultimately calling them caballeros (gentlemen).

Two days after he had been taken, Di Stefano was released unharmed and was brought before the world's media. ''My position was uncomfortable,'' he said. ''I am not a politician so I'd prefer not to try to explain why they kidnapped me. All I know is that they never mistreated me."

Described as 'nervous' and 'haggard' by a Guardian article in his first press conference since the ordeal, he added: ''The commander of the rebel group, Maximo Canales, directed the kidnapping and was with me all the time. He apologised 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.''

Di Stefano had always maintained: "I don't want to be idolised, I just want to play,'' and it spoke volumes of the character of the man that just a day after his release, he took his place in the starting line-up to play Sao Paulo in the final game of the tournament.

What happened next? Venezuelan football chief Damien Gaubeka fought off a kidnap attempt on the day of Di Stefano's release, but President Betancourt still managed to set a democratic precedent for the nation that had been ruled by dictatorships for most of its history. Di Stefano left Madrid in 1964 and joined Espanyol for two years before retiring as one of the greatest players the game has ever seen. More than 40 years later, Del Rio (as he is now known) and his illustrious prisoner were bizarrely reunited for the premiere of a film entitled Real, La Película (Real, The Movie) which recounted these events and was released in August 2005.

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