The Lessons of the Pirate League

At first glance, the three men sitting around a table in the Embajadores restaurant in downtown Bogotá made unlikely companions. True, they were all roughly the same age, in their mid- to late-20s. And, as they traded tales of adventure, their accents would have given away that all three were Argentines, a long way from home.

But that is where the similarities ended. One member of the party was tall, blond and always immaculately dressed. Alfredo Di Stéfano was arguably the most famous athlete in South America; he would go on to become the most celebrated player of his generation. It was a status he took seriously.

His guests, on the other hand, must have bordered on the disheveled. Ernesto and Alberto were both doctors, but they had been traveling for months, tracing the spine of South America on a pair of dusty, beaten-up motorbikes, living out of their saddlebags, often sleeping under the stars. Their faces were bearded and their clothes worn.

A friend of a friend had put them in touch with Di Stéfano. And despite his fame, he had not only agreed to meet with them, but he had come bearing gifts: some yerba maté, the bitter herbal drink that Argentines like for some reason, and — most important — a couple of tickets for a game the next day.

That is why Ernesto and Alberto were in Bogotá, after all. They were both soccer fans, and they had taken a break from their work in Leticia, near the Peruvian border, to make the hourslong journey to the capital so they could watch the most exciting team in the most exciting league in the world. They were here to see the pirates play.

It is only with hindsight, and the knowledge of who was sitting with him at that table, that it is possible to see just how extraordinary a scene — painted vividly in Ian Hawkey’s biography of Di Stéfano — this is.

One of those two doctors would witness such rampant inequality on the journey around South America, and in Colombia in particular, that he became convinced of the need for social change and, eventually, violent revolution. A few years later, the world would know Ernesto, the 24-year-old cadging a ticket off one of his country’s finest players, as Che Guevara.

Inside the Embajadores that day, though, he was just a kid, a doctor, a fan. If anyone at that table was a rebel, it was Di Stéfano.

He had arrived in Colombia three years earlier, lured by the untold riches offered by the country’s soccer clubs, to sign with Bogotá’s Millonarios. He was the biggest name, the greatest draw, but he was not alone: Hundreds of players, largely from South America but a handful from Europe, too, had made the same journey.

In Colombia, the news media called it El Dorado: the golden age. Everywhere else, it had a different name. In England, certainly, they called it the Pirate League, and it is a story worth revisiting this week.

On Tuesday, Josep Maria Bartomeu announced his long-anticipated resignation as president of Barcelona not with a whimper, but with a bang. In his parting speech, he confirmed he and his board had agreed in principle to take part in a forthcoming European super league.

A few hours later, Javier Tebas, the bombastic president of La Liga, accused Florentino Pérez — the president of Real Madrid — of orchestrating Bartomeu’s announcement. This latest incarnation of the super league, Tebas furiously alleged, is something Pérez has been working on for years, but it is a plot that is destined to fail.

ImageBarcelona’s outgoing president, Josep Maria Bartomeu, left, with his Real Madrid counterpart, Florentino Pérez.
Credit…Enric Fontcuberta/EPA, via Shutterstock

That is what is always said about these ideas. They could not work, soccer’s establishment haughtily warns, because renegade clubs would be cut adrift from their national and continental associations. They would become pariahs.

That has, the warning runs, real consequences. Their players would not be eligible to play in FIFA competitions, and good luck persuading Kylian Mbappé to get on board if he can’t play at the World Cup. There could be no mixing with the teams left behind in the national leagues, no domestic cup competitions, no involvement with UEFA, no way back. This is always presented as the final threat, the hurdle no breakaway proposal could ever clear.

Except, of course, that one time when it did.

In the late 1940s, with Colombia on the brink of civil war after the assassination of Jorge Gaitán, its government decided, for the first time, to begin a national, professional league. Before that, soccer in Colombia had been local and amateur. A glamorous new league, starting in 1948, the authorities thought, might help distract a restless population. (This did not work.)

But in 1949, the uneasy truce between Dimayor — the body overseeing the professional league — and Adéfutbol, the country’s federation, broke. The latter cut off the former, in what should have been the end of the experiment. In the event, it did quite the opposite.

The league’s clubs saw excommunication as an opportunity. Because they were no longer affiliated with their national federation, they were no longer part of FIFA. And that meant not having to play by FIFA’s transfer rules.

And so Colombia’s clubs — taking advantage of a player strike in Argentina, as well as poor pay and working conditions for players across South America and in much of Europe — went on an unprecedented shopping spree.

In the next couple of years, hundreds of foreign players arrived, among them the entire Peruvian national team; Heleno de Freitas, the brilliant, troubled Brazilian star; Adolfo Pedernera, one of Argentina’s most famous players; and young talents like Héctor Rial and the coruscating 23-year-old Di Stéfano.

Credit…Fernando Vergara/Associated Press

The lure of outlaw soccer even stretched to Britain, still considered the pinnacle of the game. For players there still earning a maximum wage — which then capped even the highest salaries at only 12 pounds per week — the sums on offer in Colombia were too good to turn down: thousands of dollars in signing-on fees, inflated because the pirate clubs did not have to pay transfer fees, plus hundreds of dollars in salaries.

Accepting the mutineers’ cash was so controversial that the stories of how the players made their way to Colombia seem to be drawn straight from spy novels: Bobby Flavell of Hearts being bundled into a moving car on the runway at Glasgow airport; Neil Franklin, regarded as the best English defender of his generation, being smuggled out of the country incognito.

(Only Matt Busby, the great Manchester United manager, seemed to understand the motivation. When his left winger, Charlie Mitten, received an offer, he told him to accept it. “Go, or you’ll die wondering,” Busby told him.)

It did not last, of course. Few of the Europeans who made it to Colombia settled. Franklin lasted only six games. Within a few years, the league had been forced to come back into FIFA’s fold, and the glittering array of stars it had contracted floated away. Some were welcomed back at the clubs they had deserted. Others, particularly in England, were treated as heretics, scorned for daring to try to earn more money.

Why bring this up now? Partly, in all honesty, because it is a brilliant story, one that has not been told nearly often enough — though Franklin, at least, has been the subject of two books in the past year: “Flight to Bogotá” and “England’s Greatest Defender.”

Partly because, as Europe’s elite clubs flirt with the idea of a breakaway league once again, the days of El Dorado provide a warning: Ultimately, players will go where the money is, and fans will follow. The clubs of the pirate league could pay their generous salaries only because Colombia’s stadiums were packed to the rafters. With a fragmented, international audience, it is probably fair to assume the same would happen with a super league.

Credit…Franck Fife/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

But it is mainly because, for all the fire and fury generated by any mention of a super league, it reminds us that even unwelcome developments can bring unexpected benefits and that, often, it is the breaks with orthodoxy — whether the birth of the Premier League itself or the Bosman ruling — that have changed soccer’s history the most.

The most obvious consequence of the pirate league was the rise of Real Madrid: Santiago Bernabeu, the club’s ambitious president and Pérez’s precursor, snared Di Stéfano when he left Colombia, a transfer that almost instantaneously made his team the sport’s first continental superpower.

But the era’s effects rippled out in countless other ways. In England, it is likely it contributed to the end of the maximum wage — abolished in 1961 — and what was known as the “retain and transfer” system, which was dismantled two years later. More broadly, it may have hastened the arrival of soccer’s superstar era, concentrating more power, and more money, in the hands of the very best players than they had ever enjoyed before.

The day after their meeting with Di Stéfano in the restaurant, Guevara and his companion, Alberto Granado, went to watch Millonarios play. Guevara was not especially impressed: He wrote to his mother complaining that the seats had not offered the best view.

Perhaps it was no surprise Guevara did not take to it: The pirate league was a glimpse of soccer’s slick, corporate, money-soaked future. Granado, though, was much happier. He considered himself something of an expert player, a scheming midfielder, and he was pleased with what he saw, threat to the fabric of the game or not. “It was,” he wrote, “one of the best games I have seen live, and there have been more than a few of those.”


Credit…Pool photo by Oli Scarff

Time, you will have noticed, is different now. It does not work quite as it used to. Why that might be is hard to discern. It could be the distorting effect of the pandemic, when every day is essentially the same, making last week feel distant but March seem somehow close.

Or it could be that living in such a rapid news cycle — the first wave and the protests and the second wave and the election and the President has tweeted what now? — has changed the meaning of immediacy, as though the brain is confused as to whether information needs to be filed in short- or long-term memory.

Either way, all of the familiar measurements of time seem somehow insufficient. A day, a week, a month no longer seem like something fixed, a period of tightly defined length. March lasted forever. April passed by in a flash. Remember when Prince Harry and Meghan Markle stepped down from the royal family? That was this year. Remember when Manchester United conceded six at home to Tottenham? That was 26 days ago.

Since then, of course, things have started to look up for United: a comfortable win at Newcastle, an impressive victory at Paris St.-Germain, a creditable draw at home against Chelsea that went on for several days and, on Wednesday, a 5-0 demolition at Old Trafford of RB Leipzig, Champions League semifinalists last season/two months ago.

United, suddenly, is surging. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has proved his critics wrong. He has solved the midfield conundrum, tightened up the defense, found the right balance in attack. Paul Pogba is back. Harry Maguire is back. David De Gea is back. The troubles of the first few weeks of the season can be forgotten. That was early October! It was ages ago! It’s … late October now.

Sports have always worked a bit like this, of course, even if it seems quicker with every passing week. Reputations and expectations rise and fall roughly once every three days; each game seems to generate sweeping conclusions that can be safely discarded barely a week later.

But it is hard to escape the feeling that United, under Solskjaer, has been here before. His reign — nearly two years old now, though it feels like much less and also quite a lot more — has been characterized by streakiness.

It was a run of 14 wins in his first 19 games that secured him the job on a permanent basis in the first place; United finished third last season after winning nine of its last 14 Premier League games. (In both seasons, it ended up with 66 points.) In between, it has been plagued by inconsistency.

Defeat against Spurs may well prove to have been another of those turning points, shifting Solskjaer’s Manchester United from waning to waxing. The momentum built up over the last few weeks may be enough to carry the team through an arduous couple of months. Indeed, in this curious season, that could yet be enough. If Liverpool and Manchester City continue to stumble, it is not impossible this Manchester United team can keep pace.

But it is worth remembering, even at a time when last week seems a lifetime ago and the world seems to be born anew every day, that it was really not long ago that United was reportedly reaching out to possible replacements and Solskjaer, once again, seemed to be on the brink. Things change quickly in 2020. But often, that just means we get back to where we started faster than before.


Credit…Alessandro Di Marco/EPA, via Shutterstock

Last week’s reminder that one team in every league has to be West Brom prompted Brian LaFatta to get in touch with what is, if we’re all honest, a much more salient point. “The excitement of premier fixtures like P.S.G. against Manchester United or Juventus-Real Madrid is, in large part, due to their rarity,” he wrote. “Funnel these teams into a super league and after a year or two, such matches will be no more exciting than a mid-September game between Liverpool and Spurs.”

This is absolutely right, but I do wonder if we — and by we I mean people of a certain generation — make the mistake of assuming everyone thinks like we do; perhaps, to a younger audience, those games would do just fine as standard, weekly fodder.

I’d also like to thank Shelly Fierston for her eloquent, and understandably angry, email about the deeply unappealing episode in which Sergio Agüero grabbed the neck of Sian Massey-Ellis, the Premier League’s only female assistant referee.

“As a woman, and the mother of 19-year-old daughters, my outrage at Agüero’s ‘nonthreatening’ interaction with Massey-Ellis was instantaneous,” Shelly wrote. “Ask any woman you know who has worked in a professional setting, and they will recognize this behavior instantly as one meant to diminish, demean, and intimidate.

Credit…John Sibley/Action Images, via Reuters

“Professional working women around the world, simply doing their jobs, are constantly required to navigate this repulsive behavior and are asked to ignore it, excuse, to laugh it off. Massey-Ellis is now left in the unenviable position of having to either acknowledge the frustrating encounter or ‘brush it off as unimportant’ — both scenarios providing a no-win situation for her.

“Over and over again, working women are diminished while simply doing their jobs, and not getting institutional support to quash such behavior.”

Shelly is right to say that Agüero should have been reprimanded by the Premier League. She is right to say that Pep Guardiola’s assertion that his striker is a “nice guy” is not really the point, as laid out brilliantly by The Guardian’s Suzy Wrack here. And she is right to say that last week’s column should have highlighted and condemned the incident; it is a week too late, but I hope this goes some way to amending that last one.

That’s all for this week. Thanks, as ever, for all the ideas and tips and suggestions: keep them coming to askrory@nytimes.com. I am available on Twitter if you wish to discuss any 1950s Colombian esoterica, and Instagram if you wish to see the frankly disturbing pictures of the “spooky walk” I took my three-year-old son on this week. Set Piece Menu, on the other hand, is fun for all the family. Have a great weekend, and keep safe.

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