Sports and politics are inseparable. Throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, tracks, fields, and courts have hosted numerous protests, rebellions, and tragedies. Whether pursuing social change or political revolution, athletes and politicians consistently use glorified recreation as the rallying cry for their ideas and beliefs. One must briefly flick through a season of 30 for 30 to appreciate that more sporting controversies and scandals are rooted beyond the pillars of administrative buildings, deep in the halls of judicial and legislative systems. The defining moments of this intense relationship include horrifying tragedies like the Israeli hostage massacre at the 1972 Munich Olympics and groundbreaking moments of social progress such as Jackie Robinson’s debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Buried deep in the intersection of politics and sports, however, lies a select group of events that transcend the momentousness of such instances - events like the kidnapping of Alfredo di Stefano on the night of August 24th, 1963.
Though Wikipedia reduces the event to six sentences buried far down in Di Stefano’s page, the kidnapping relies on a series of bizarre individuals whose ideas, incompetence, and, ultimately, ineffectiveness characterizes the event as more of a Cohen brothers fever dream than a biographical footnote. Imagine if the greatest athlete in the world - say, Lebron James or Cristiano Ronaldo – was abducted by a group of revolutionaries while traveling with his team to a foreign country. That story would knock Donald Trump from the headlines and dominate every news cycle for months. Well, in August of 1963, that happened. Alfredo Di Stefano, then Real Madrid’s star striker – a player who was later made honorary club president and remained one of football’s greatest ever players – was kidnapped by a group of Venezuelan Revolutionaries.
To understand the shockwaves the event scattered around the glove in ’63, one must first understand the scale of Di Stefano’s legacy. At the time of his kidnapping, Alfredo Di Stefano was the greatest footballer in the world. Even at the age of 37, Di Stefano remained a force for his Real Madrid side that had won five consecutive European Cups – a feat that has not and likely will not be repeated ever again.
In the eleven seasons Di Stefano wore a Real Madrid jersey, he won eighteen trophies, scoring 308 goals along the way. The Argentinian won the Balon d’Or in ’57 and ’59 and then the Super Balon d’Or in ’89 – a special award given to him for his outstanding achievements in football. Basically, he was good.
His reputation, however, was not. Alfredo Di Stefano had only one priority in life, his football. His sharp departure from his home club of River Plate and his transfer from Colombian side Millianaros to Real Madrid – which Barcelona fans still insist was influenced by Spanish dictator Francisco Franco – paint the Argentinian as a man with little concern for solidarity, respect, or loyalty. Though Di Stefano never won fans’ hearts with his mouth – he preferred to do so with his feet – he still carried a massive reputation as the iconic footballer of his generation – a status that made him the perfect target for Venezuelan revolutionary Paul del Rio.
Paul del Rio had been a revolutionary since the day he was born. His parents, Jesus del Rio and Dora Canales were Spanish Republicans who had fled their home country to escape the revenge of the violent and unforgiving Franco regime. After a brief stint in Cuba, the del Rio family found themselves with many other Spanish refugees in Venezuela where they settled to rebuild the lives they had lost. Paul del Rio’s father, a baker by day, even served as a militant in the Democratic Action movement against military leader Marcos Perez Jimenez. There was a supernatural element in the del Rio blood that refused to settle for tyranny and oppression. This rebellious gene was responsible for Paul del Rio taking the actions that would forever mark both him and the man he was destined to meet, Alfredo Di Stefano.
In the summer of 1963, Real Madrid had arrived in Caracas, Venezuela to take part in a friendly tournament against South American and European clubs. Unlike his teammates who spent their nights partying in the city, Alfredo Di Stefano kept to his hotel room. Struggling with the heat of the Venezuela summer, Di Stefano had fallen sick and was unable to compete in his team’s first match, a defeat to Sao Paolo. On the night of August 24th, Di Stefano was locked in his room at the Hotel Potomac, trying to sleep off his prohibitive illness. At 6 am, a firm knock on his door arrested di Stefano's sleep.
In the hallway outside, Di Stefano found a group claiming to be anti-narcotics police who politely asked that he accompany them to the police station for a routine procedure. “Don’t worry, it’s a five-minute thing,” they claimed. Only after Di Stefano had changed out of his pajamas and climbed into the back of their van did he realize that whatever he was now involved in was not routine and would certainly not be a “five-minute thing.”
Alfredo Di Stefano had been kidnapped by the FALN – the Armed Forces of National Liberation – a left-wing group that opposed the tight-gripped, authoritarian regime of president Romulo Betancourt. Shortly after capturing Di Stefano, they warned their prisoner, “We do not have anything against you; we are doing this only, so the press pays us attention. The government forbids the newspapers to talk about the FALN. You are going to stay with us a few hours, and then we will bring you back. We do not want to hurt you.”
As the revolutionaries drove Di Stefano deep into Caracas to an unknown hideout, the Real Madrid staff were walking around the Hotel Potomac, checking to make sure that the players were prepared for the day's activities. Upon approaching Di Stefano’s door, Real Madrid tour organizer Damian Gaudeka found a number phone number left by the captors. He dialed the number and soon found himself negotiating for Di Stefano’s release. Though the FALN told him that Di Stefano would not be touched, the news sent the hotel and city into a panic.
Alfredo Di Stefano was a wreck. No longer was he concerned with getting back to full fitness; now, he feared for his life. In his autobiography Thank You, Mother, Di Stefano recalls, “A day went by, and I thought they were going to liquidate me, kill me. My head gave in, it believed everything I was thinking, and I believed that at any time someone was going to come in and shoot me in the head.”
Thankfully, no one came in with a gun. The man who did arrive at Di Stefano’s captive location, however, was a man who identified himself as the chief of the operation. The man’s name was Maximo Canales, or so he said. Maximo Canales was just a pseudonym. His real name – Paul del Rio.
At just 20 years old, del Rio had successfully kidnapped the most recognized and accomplished footballer of the era. Del Rio, however, was not one to gloat. Instead, he spent the next 70 hours chatting with the man he had kidnapped who was near twice his age. The two played chess and checkers – an event that was photographed by a revolutionary and sent to the press, instantly becoming the front page image of every newspaper in Venezuela, Argentina, and Spain.
Del Rio talked Di Stefano through their plan and why they had decided to kidnap him. Di Stefano learned that the FALN had meant to capture Russian composer Igor Stravinsky after a concert in Venezuela but worried the shock would kill the frail musician. Paul del Rio stressed – the FALN did not want a death on their hands; they only wanted change.
Alfredo Di Stefano was not convinced. At one point, the revolutionaries bought him a meal of Paella from the surrounding neighborhood. An offer of nourishment meant to calm Di Stefano’s nerves, the paella frightened him most of all.
He recalls, “One day they offered me Paella.”
“’We bought it in El Silencio.’ El Silencio is a neighborhood in the center of Caracas. ‘But how can you go all the way there if all the police are around,’ I asked them. ‘Do not worry; we have 500 or a thousand men inside the police’. When I heard that I also thought they were going to do away with me.”
In 1963, Central and South America was a hotbed for revolution. In 1959, Fidel Castro staged his uprising in Cuba with the help of counterculture revolutionary Che Guevara. The events in Cuba sparked resistance to oligarchy, authority, and dictatorship that millions of other Latin Americans encountered within their governments.
Inspired by Castro and Guevara, Paul del Rio became a zealous revolutionary from an early age. By 1963, Betancourt’s government had already identified him as an enemy of the state after del Rio seized a cargo ship off the coast of Venezuela.
After three days in captivity, Alfredo Di Stefano was given a hot meal, a clean shirt, and driven into Caracas to be released.
“They wanted to leave me near the hotel, and I said that was worse, there was a lot of press and police, and it was better for them to leave me near the Spanish embassy.” The revolutionaries eventually dumped Di Stefano on the Libertadores Avenue. “I said goodbye to them, and I made a massive jump to hide behind a tree. I crossed the street at 100 miles an hour, dodging the traffic like I dribbled past defenders and I stopped a taxi. I almost threw myself on top of it.”
Even though he had just been kidnapped and released by enemies of the state, Alfredo Di Stefano took the field for Real Madrid that very same day. As he stepped onto the pitch, he received a standing ovation.
Del Rio’s fate did not include a standing ovation. Instead, del Rio was captured by Betancourt’s government, imprisoned, and stripped of his citizenship as a Venezuelan. He fled to Cuba where, in 1975, del Rio learned that his nationality had been restored. After kidnapping Di Stefano, Paul del Rio continued his revolutionary lifestyle for his remaining 52 years. In 1979 he joined the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua that had removed the Somoza family from power. Eventually, he returned to Caracas to become an acclaimed sculptor and painter. There he kept an open invitation that, if Di Stefano ever found himself in town, Del Rio would like to take him to dinner.
The two did cross paths once again. In 2005, as part of Real Madrid’s celebration of their century of existence, the club held festivities throughout the year including the premiere of a film, Real: The Movie. Florentino Perez, thinking he had come up with a brilliant event to kick off the red carpet flew Paul del Rio from Venezuela to Spain to attend. So, when Alfredo Di Stefano walked down the red carpet the night of the premier, he saw David Beckham, Roberto Carlos, Zinedine Zidane, and one Paul del Rio. Furious, Di Stefano refused to take a photo with his captor. In an attitude typical of the “Blonde Arrow,” Di Stefano required few words to convey his feelings directly. He told del Rio, “You made my family feel great fear. We have nothing to talk about.”
Del Rio and Di Stefano went their separate ways. On July 7th, 2014, Alfredo Di Stefano died from cancer at the age of 88. A year later, on April 5th, 2015, Paul del Rio turned a gun on himself. In the Caracas barracks, aged 72, Paul del Rio ended his life.
For three days in 1963, the two men crossed paths as a part of an outlandish plot to kidnap the greatest football player in the world. Even though the outcome did not include bloodshed, the event should not be excluded from the annals Venezuelan politics or international football. The events of 1963 may take up only six sentences of Di Stefano’s Wikipedia page, but the intricacies of his kidnapping reveal a bizarre episode in the romantic relationship between sports and politics.