Tony Stratton SmithComment


Tony Stratton SmithComment

Last year, Alfredo Di Stefano, Spanish footballs famed 'Blond Arrow', starred in a film whose plot hinged on his being kidnapped on the eve of a big match. At six a.m. one Saturday in Caracas, Venezuela, some time later, soccer tourist Di Stefano was roughly awakened to find fiction become all-too-grim fact.

Men forced their way into his room, 219 in the Hotel Potomac, and showed documents purporting to identify them as narcotics police. They insisted Di Stefano accompany them to headquarters as witness to an "investigation".

Team-mate Pepe Santamaria, asleep next door, was woken by the row and came out to join Di Stefano in angry protests. But the Law were firm, and refused to "waste more time" by discussing the matter with directors of Real Madrid, with whom Di Stefano was touring.

Canny Di Stefano, thirty-seven years old, tucked his wallet containing £60 under a pillow and marched out with them. Several hours later a woman 'phoned the Potomac, the police, and leading news agencies with the bombshell news that Di Stefano, the world's No. 1 centre-forward, had been kidnapped!

The kidnappers were members of the tough, para-military Armed Front for National Liberation (F.A.L.N.), a banned organisation whose previous coups included the theft of touring Louvre treasures and an open attack on a Venezuelan Government ship. Now, in Soccer-crazy Venezuela, they were out once again to embarrass President Romulo Betancourt. They succeeded beyond their expectations.

Every available policeman was thrown into the biggest man-hunt in Caracas' history. From Spain, Raimundo Saporta, Real Madrid's 'iron man' who had signed Di Stefano from South America ten years before, flew out to lead the search. But for fifty-seven hours the well organised F.A.L.N. and its moustachioed, debonair young leader Maximo Canales' held their prisoner under lock and key, then released him of their own accord near the Spanish Embassy.

Teammates who had waited up till 3 a.m. two nights running for news of Di Stefano found him unharmed. They gathered round in an emotional reunion with the man who more than any other was responsible for Real Madrid's five European Cup wins, Championships and two World Club Cups.

And Di Stefano? Nervous reaction set in and he broke down and cried. Now he tells the story of his fifty-seven-hour nightmare, the kidnapping which made page-one news throughout the world.

"When we left the hotel we climbed into a black car. I felt uneasy right away. There were no official markings on the car you see. 

"We had gone a little way, and suddenly one of the four men with me turned and said coolly that he was a Revolutionary.

"They had guns, he said, but if I gave no resistance, they would not harm me.

"He apologised for the kidnapping. Their purpose, he said, was political. They wanted to draw world attention to what was going on in Venezuela.

"He tried to talk politics to me, but I said I wasn't interested in politics, only in sport. Next I was blindfolded, and I confess it, I began to feel really nervous." 

The blindfold was not removed until Di Stefano found himself in a small room with a bed, three chairs, a table, and a water closet. He was to remain under twenty-four-hour watch in that room for the next two days. His keepers gave him a box of dominoes and a draughts board.

"Always one of them watched me, but I never thought of escape. I was afraid, and did not want to take the risk.

"In fact, I kept wondering what would happen if the police did in fact trace this hiding place. My captors were young and courageous. They were armed. They would resist, and me, I would find myself in a crossfire.

"We talked a lot and played dominoes. I partnered the best player among them, and we won pretty well every time! 

"They said they had planned my kidnapping some days before, but had had to wait for their opportunity. They had planned to snatch me after Real's match against the Portuguese club Oporto (like Real, in Venezuela for a competition) as I made my way from the ground to the team bus, but as they moved towards me another car had come between us....

"Maximo Canales, the man who planned the Capture of the Venezuelan ship Anzoategui, was behind my kidnapping.

"Canales kept telling me in the house where I was held that I must be sure nothing happened to me!

"'We don't want to hurt you, we will soon release you', he kept repeating, but I still found I could not sleep, and when I did drop off I would 'wake up again, frightened by the menace, real or imagined, around me.

"Oddly, they were very concerned that I should eat and rest properly. My physical condition worried them constantly. 'What will Muñoz (the Real manager) say if you do not eat, do not sleep!' the boys kept saying.

"When I didn't respond, they somehow got a doctor to come and see me. And again, when I felt a pain in my leg, they brought a masseur! Their behaviour to me was wonderful.

"I worried about my family and how they were reacting to all this. You see, my little son was sick, Every minute I thought of them, and grew sadder ....

"My captors had the idea of having me write a note of comfort to my family in my own hand, and having it telegraphed to Madrid through the Press. I was grateful and did it."

On a radio in the house Di Stefano listened to a commentary of a Real Madrid match - a match in which he should have been playing. His sporting captors gave him money to lure them in playing 'Five and Six', a Venezuelan form of betting the horses. He found three winners!

"I began to despair as time passed and I remained a prisoner. When I asked, they always said I would be released 'Soon, very soon', but I ceased to believe them.

"When at last they said they were going to release me, I just nodded, I couldn't believe it. I thought they were just trying to make me feel better, as on other occasions.

"But then, out came the blindfold. 'It's ended, Alfredo,' said one of the boys. I suspected that they were only planning to change our hide-out, even when they bundled me back into a car.

''We will leave you a few blocks from the Spanish Embassy,' they said, and my blood began to race a little. Maybe they really did mean it, this time!

"They put three bolivars into my pocket, to pay for a taxi, and whispered 'Good luck Alfredo'.

"Finally the car stopped, and I was asked to get out. I heard them leaving me, but, as instructed, kept the, blindfold on for a few moments, there in the street," 

The first policeman Di Stefano met refused to believe he was Di Stefano. He could be forgiven for thinking someone was having him on. After all, the entire Caracas police force was out looking for the real Di Stefano, so Alfredo took a taxi to the Spanish Embassy.

"I will never forget my reception there," he says, with a trace of a smile. "The Ambassador, Señor Vega Guerra, embraced me like a long-lost brother.

"In that moment I knew I was safe, really safe. The nervous strain was too great for me. I broke down, It was a nightmare, a bad dream. I just want to forget it."

Di Stefano flew back to Madrid to one of the biggest Press receptions ever at Barajas Airport. Wife Sara and baby daughter Helen were among those meeting him.

Said Helen, "What have you brought me, Daddy?"

"A pretty bird in a cage," he told her softly. "But darling, don't mention I bring you a caged bird-not here..." 

And the ageing star once valued at a quarter million pounds in the world transfer market went back to the palatial Madrid home in whose garden he has erected a granite monument in honour of football - and all the game has done for him!

This article appeared in the May 1964 edition of World Soccer magazine. Subscribe here.