Club Desportivo Los Millionarios stand tall in the history of the game. But they also stand on the verge of collapse. Welcome to IBWM, Juan Arango.
El Dorado for many was a legendary city of gold that had lots of promise and even more riches. In Colombian football, it was the best of times for fans that had a tremendous passion for the game. To this day you can speak to people that watched games in the Colombian league then and they all tell you that it was truly the greatest show on earth. It was a league way ahead of its time, a blueprint for the modern day super team.
From 1949 to 1957, some of the best talent in the world plied their trade in Colombia. For many it was a place to continue their craft at the highest level. For Argentine players, it was a place where they could continue their careers after the players’ union there locked horns with president Juan Domingo Perón, something which led to the expulsion of Colombia from FIFA.
This move turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The Colombia exclusion meant that they would not have to pay international fees for player transactions. This would allow them to pay higher salaries to players, meaning that competing with some of the top European clubs of the age was a realistic possibility.
That was part of the reason players from some of the biggest leagues in South America as well as England, Italy, Spain, and many other countries began to head to Colombia to try their luck.
Millonarios were the flag bearers of a pirate league. The Blue Ballet were looked at as one of the best teams on the planet during that time and they had the firepower to back up such lofty praise. The Real Madrids, Athletic Bilbaos, Barcelonas, AC Milans, Manchester Uniteds, as well as some of the other great clubs of the time would not dare thumb their noses at the collection of stars that donned the blue and white.
The team had the best player on the planet - Alfredo DiStefano. He also played alongside River Plate and Huracán superstar Adolfo Pedernera. His incredible technique and pace placed him on such a pedestal that he earned 12th place on the IFFHS South America football of the century list. Nestor Rossi and Amadeo Carrizo were legends as well in Argentina. Uruguayans Raúl Pini, Victor Lattuada, Antonio Baez were pat of a superbly solid team. The team was a United Nations of stars if you include Peruvians and Chileans assembled.
Their tours were the stuff of legends. Their victories against Real Madrid and the like drew attention as the Blonde Arrow and the rest of the Blue Ballet left their mark in various international tournaments they played in, not to mention domestically, where they led a list of fine sides.
Independiente Medellín had José Charro Moreno, a burly Argentine midfielder that made a name for himself playing for River Plate and Boca Juniors as well as a quick stint with Mexican side Real Club España in Mexico; and who would be honored as the fifth best player in South American history.
There was also Junior’s legendary Brazilian scorer Heleno De Freitas, the second biggest idol at Botafogo behind Garrincha. De Freitas was a man with deft skill with the ball as well as with the ladies and was even rumored to have an affair with Eva Perón while playing with Boca Juniors.
Millonarios’ run was mighty impressive, and included a 4-0 victory over a Rapid Wien side stocked with players like Ernst Happel, Gerhard Hanappi, Max Merkel and even Walter Zeman. Their greatest moment of grandeur was in 1952. Millos secured a 4-2 victory against the mighty Real Madrid at the Estadio Chamartín, as part of the tournament being held for the Spanish giant’s golden anniversary.
Despite being the guests of honor, they treated their hosts to an exhibition that Madrid fans would never forget. Di Stefano scored a brace, whilst Pedernera and Baez would leave the Merengue faithful running out of superlatives to describe the performance. When you consider the talent housed in the Real side at the time (Pahiño, who the year before had beaten Barcelona’s Ladislao Kubala for the Pichichi title with twenty-eight goals and Spanish number one Luis Molowny to name just two), the magnitude of Millos' achievement becomes clear.
In case there are still individuals who considered that showcase to be a fluke, the history books tell us that Madrid travelled to South America twice more, only to be defeated, 2-1 and 2-0. These two performances would officially bring Real Madrid to sign Alfredo Di Stefano and he would then begin his brilliant career in Spain.
The list of teams they played (and defeated) was endless. Santos. Corinthians. Flamengo. São Paulo. Valencia. Sevilla. Las Palmas. Espanyol. River Plate. Independiente. Boca Juniors. Ferrcarril Oeste. Everton. Charlton. Nationality and prestige meant little to this most dominant of teams..
This is why, sixty years later, it is truly sad to see how such a proud club has become the utter shambles it is now. Twenty-three years and seven presidents have passed since Millonarios last won a domestic title. Their last trophy at any level was the 2001 Copa Merconorte title. The trophy cabinet stands as a reminder of what once was. It is a barren piece of land, neglected by the rains of success.
Greed and the illusion of Colombia’s “riches” drove this team to the ground. In recent years, they bought players that were in a good run of form only to see some of them crash in spectacular fashion. After leaving the club, they regain a second wind and resurrect their careers.
The economic and administrative implosion reaches new heights (or should that be lows?) every day. Millonarios is currently owned by two corporations- Nuevo Millonarios is the group run by business mogul and Harvard graduate José Roberto Arango. His business resume is quite extensive and he made a living off of doing two things - buying and then saving big corporations.
Arango is one of the shining stars of the Colombian entrepreneurial landscape as he was the integral cog in the salvation of Coltejer, Colombia’s largest textile corporation. In effect he was able to help the biggest player in that country’s fashion industry remain afloat. He also helped other big corporations such as Rápido Ochoa (transport), Gravetal, Acerías Paz del Río (both steel), Acueducto de Cúcuta (water) and Emcali (energy and telecommunications). All of these corporations were on the edge of bankruptcy and he was able to prevent that from happening. In many cases, he made them profitable against all the odds.
He was also the minister of housing in his native Medellín. His reputation became so great within business circles in Colombia (as well as in the United States) that he became an advisor in the Álvaro Uribe administration. A rabid Millonarios fan, he decided to put his money where his heart was and looked to eliminate the debt that ravaged the club he loved.
His biggest problem was finding out that the club had more debt than anyone knew about, most of which was swept under the rug by previous president Juan Carlos López. But the battle is not only financial - it’s political. For starters he still has to deal with the mess left behind by López as well as the former national team coach and investor Luis Augusto García. García threatened to sue Nuevo Millonarios as has his son, Luis, for monies owed to him dating back to 2002 when he was a player on the squad. He threatened to take them to court for $90 million, mainly because the club wants to settle things with a $15 million payment.
On the pitch, their success (or lack of it) has been the butt of many jokes in Colombia. Bringing in a coach with a resume like Richard Paez was an important first step, but realizing that Richard Paez is not the coach that they were looking for slowly became evident in the past few months. Simply put, Paez has been an artful dodger. Add that to his gift for the gab and he could be a world-class snake oil salesman. But not a world-class coach.
The main problem is that he is not a fan of criticism. Ask Venezuelan fans. After two World Cup cycles where there was significant success with minimal pressure all was well. As soon as there were expectations in place and criticism landed in his direction he decided to back down. Paez knows that the noose could be getting tighter if results do not start to appear. By results, I mean the demands that a fan base the size of Millos' places on any coach: a championship.
Thus, Arango’s problems are looking dire and he has already admitted that he would like to step down. Talking to people within the Colombian media, the consensus is that he is the final string keeping the club together. If he goes, the club will definitely go into liquidation.
It is truly sad to see a club possessing a history that is the envy of many around the world slipping into the abyss. The royal blue shirt that several legends wore proudly onto the pitch for generations is a distortion of the reality that Millonarios fans face every weekend. The thirteen stars on their crest are now just memories of their glorious past, with a cruelly ironic numerological tinge. At the same time those stars also serve as hope for the few that haven’t given up.
Juan is a journalist at Gol TV, where he hosts La Liga 360. You can follow him on Twitter @Simply_Juan.