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On the night of August 24th, 1963, the great Alfredo Di Stéfano of Real Madrid was kidnapped at gunpoint by the Venezuelan revolutionary group Armed Forces of National Liberation (FALN), from the Potomac Hotel in Caracas, Venezuela while his team were on a pre-season tour of South America. Here Francesco Mistrulli diarises the affair from the point of view of the player and his chief captor, Paul del Rio.
“On the flip side of everything we think we absolutely understand lurks an equal amount of the unknown… Understanding is but the sum of our misunderstandings.”
Murakami Haruki, Sputnik Sweetheart.
Caracas. Saturday, 24th August. Afternoon.
We planned everything. Every detail. Even the smallest, most insignificant one. On the other hand, what we are about to do is not a joke. Moreover, we have limited time, so everything must work perfectly. Like clockwork. We are looking over the plan for the umpteenth time, in my house, in the area of Cumbres de Curumo. My house has become like a sound stage. Just a little smaller. I do not know how many times we put the plan on stage. What is clear from the first moment is that my comrades and I do not want to hurt anyone. Our goal is very simple: a demonstrative action and protest against Venezuelan President Rómulo Betancourt, canvasser of the United States, oppressor of the people. And while we’re at it, condemnation of the barbaric execution of Julián Grimau, member of the Spanish Communist Party shot by the Francoists the previous April. In fact, with a lot of imagination we decided to baptize our operation as “Operation Julián Grimau”.
Real Madrid will play in Caracas. Sorry, the great Real Madrid. “La Casa Blanca” is in Venezuela to play the “Pequeña Copa del Mundo” against the Portuguese of Porto and the Brazilians of Sao Paulo. Since nineteen hundred and fifty-two has this invitational football tournament been played in Caracas. In the ranks of the “Blancos”, the football team “El Caudillo” Francisco Franco fell in love with, plays the best and most famous player in the world, Alfredo Di Stéfano, already winner of five European Cups and two Ballon D’Or! And me? I am me, Paúl del Río, a Cuban guerrilla transplanted in Venezuela. Battle Name: Máximo Canales!
Caracas. Saturday, 24th August. Hotel Potomac. Night.
The room is at the end of the corridor. We walk firmly on the red carpet that muffles our steps. We have to wait for the signal behind the door. That is the plan. The phone rings. “Hello? Hello? Hellooooooooo? God. You gotta be kidding me, cabrones!” Here is the signal.
My comrade partner in crime and I are behind the door number two one nine of the Hotel Potomac between Avenida Vollmer and Avenida Caracas in San Bernardino. We entered without problems in the hotel that houses Real Madrid. We wear military uniforms. It was not easy to get them but we did it. As expected, wearing the uniforms nobody asked questions. I knock at the door. Just under the number two one nine. After a few moments, but it seemed an eternity to me, he opens up, Alfredo Di Stéfano, the “Saeta Rubia”. He still holds the telephone receiver in his hands. He seems disoriented finding two soldiers at the door of his hotel room. He looks at us perplexed, but politely asks how he can help us. He will have thought that we are there as beggars just to have photos taken. I’m excited. Briefly I realize that, my legs almost give up.
On one side I find myself in the presence of the best player in the world, and the other there is the adrenaline shot from the execution of our Machiavellian plan.
“Police!” I summon with a firm voice, while in sync with my comrade partner in crime we salute, banging the heels of our boots and raising hands to our temples. “I see.” He answers quietly. “What can I do for you?” I have some police stamp headed documents in my black leather bag. Counterfeit, naturally.
I take the document concerning him from the bag and I open it so that he could see everything, headers and stamps. I ask him: “Are you Señor Alfredo Stéfano Di Stèfano Laulhé, born in Buenos Aires, Argentina on July 4th of nineteen twenty-six, profession footballer?” I read it all at once, like an old lullaby. He looks at us even more amazed. He moves his gaze first on me, then on my comrade, hoping to receive a sign. “Are you kidding, right? Of course that’s me!”
“Well,” I say, “then follow us to the barracks!”
“But, sorry! What are you saying! I do not understand?”
“There is nothing to understand, Señor Di Stèfano. You must follow us for simple checks. Nothing that cannot be solved in a few minutes. But it is mandatory that you follow us to the barracks.”
“But sorry, tell me at least what it’s about?”
“Your name came up in a drug case we are investigating.”
“How is it possible?! There must certainly be a mistake. A homonym!”
I detect from the tone of his voice that he is getting nervous. We cannot allow him to start screaming. We cannot waste time because there is no time. I look at the comrade partner in crime, I nod at him and we pull out the guns from the leather holster. In the end, the guns were the easiest thing to get in the whole affair. At the sight of the weapons, he backs away just a few steps. “Señor Di Stèfano” I say “do not force us to be rude please. We do not want to have to take you out of the hotel in handcuffs!”
The sight of the guns …The idea of being handcuffed …
He would have thought that photographers and reporters would be in their element to see him taken away like a common villain.
He goes white as a sheet. Blanco like the jersey of Real Madrid. We have got him, I think.
I’m certain when, in a whisper, he says to me: “At least give me time to warn someone…!”
“No!” I reply, “Take only the bare necessities and let’s go!” It started to feel nice being a copper! He takes a suit. He closes the door. He looks at us. He feels afraid but does not want to show it. We are moving. Di Stéfano between us. Calm and peaceful as if nothing had happened. The hotel is a hive of activity, of comings and goings. Bellboys. Guests. Employees of all kinds. Nobody pays attention to us. I wonder how this is possible? We are with the most famous football player in the world!
Finally, we are out. I take a deep sigh of relief. I need some fresh air to expel the warm and sticky breath in my mouth. I have to stay focused. We are almost there. We walk without arousing suspicion, with slow but determined steps. Here is the car that awaits us. The comrade partner in crime goes around and enters from the opposite side. I open the car door for Di Stéfano and let him enter so that he is seated in the middle. I would not want him to try and bolt when I tell him what’s really going on. The car leaves. No hurry. The hard part is over.
“Señor Di Stéfano” I say, taking off my cap and rubbing my hand over hair smeared with sweat. “We are members of FALN, the Armed Forces of National Liberation, Venezuelan pro-Castro revolutionaries whose goal is to overthrow the presidency of Romulo Betancourt, re-elected President in nineteen fifty-nine following the deposition of former dictator Marcos Perez Jimenez, an election that the FALN contest openly for fraud. You are our hostage. Let’s not do anything rash here and I promise you bad things won’t happen to you.”
He is speechless. In fact, he remains silent throughout the journey. He did not expect such a thing. I did not expect it to be so easy. We arrive at the den that we have chosen for the imprisonment of our illustrious hostage in less than twenty minutes. Obviously, the den is my house.
Caracas. Saturday, 24th August. The Den. Night.
We have issued the press release. Now they know what happened to Alfredo Di Stéfano. It is in our hands. It is in the hands of the FALN.
Caracas. Saturday, 24th August. Miraflores Palace. Deep night.
Someone knocks on the bedroom door.
“I’m so sorry Mr. President Betancourt if I have woken in the middle of the night, but something bad has happened, in fact I would say something shit has happened!”
I open my eyes. What the fuck! I was sleeping like a baby.
“Come in.” I answer angrily. “Tell me!”
I won’t get back to sleep now.
“Mr. President … umm … someone kidnapped Alfredo Di Stéfano!”
“Shit.” I jump up from the bed. “Right under my nose it had to happen!”
How bitter is my awakening!
Caracas. Sunday, August 25th. The Den. Afternoon.
Newspapers and radio do not talk about anything else. The kidnapping of Di Stéfano was really a big hit. Our acronym is now on everyone’s lips. We are interested only in this. We did not ask for a ransom and we never even thought about it. We needed only a striking gesture that would act as a sounding board to make ourselves known and to make known our claims. Alfredo Di Stéfano is the biggest sounding board we could hope for.
Here he is, sitting quietly on the couch reading newspapers. We played checkers and chess almost all day. And believe me, he is a champion even in this. I think he was very worried at the beginning. I cannot blame him. Of course, he did not know we were not going to hurt him. But his initial fear helped us. That initial fear made our game.
“Señor Di Stéfano” I say, “are you ready to give me a revenge? Yet another?”
He looks up from the newspaper and with a smile says to me: “Can I finish reading this article? In the meantime, prepare chess.”
Caracas. Sunday, 25th August 1963. The Den. Evening.
“You know” he says casually addressing everyone, “I should have been on the pitch tonight in the match against Porto. The newspapers say the match will be played even without me. Could we listen to the commentary?”
In an attempt to govern the events and not suffer the emotionality of the situation it was decided that the match should be go ahead. We look at each other. We love football. So much.
Being able to listen to the commentary, sitting on your sofa is priceless. I’m going to turn on the radio. Just in time for kick-off.
“Good evening from the Olympic Stadium in Caracas, ladies and gentlemen radio listeners” crows the commentator, “the football match that opposes the Portuguese champions Porto with the Spanish champions of Real Madrid is about to start. As you know, dear radio listeners, the great Alfredo Di Stéfano cannot be on the pitch tonight because he is in the hands of the kidnappers of FALN … “.
We all look at each other.
Di Stéfano is pleased by the compliments he received, and we are satisfied because our gesture is reiterated. The match ends with the result of two to one for the Spaniards. Di Stéfano seems almost disappointed for the victory of his teammates without him on the pitch.
Caracas. Monday, August 26th. The Den. Early afternoon.
The situation is now unsustainable. Newspapers and radio say there are about eight thousand coppers and soldiers on our trail. On the other hand, we got what we need.
“Señor Di Stéfano” I say “take your stuff because we free you.”
He does not seem too surprised. We treated him well. Let’s say he was our welcome guest. He gets up suddenly, dons his suit jacket and we all get out. We enter the car, the same as the outward journey, and we travel more or less the same route we did fifty-seven hours before. An hour more or less…
“We shall leave you near the Spanish Embassy, Señor Di Stéfano, in a side alley.” I tell the comrade chauffeur to pull the car over. “You go ahead.” I tell him without getting out of the car.
He opens the door of the car, before alighting he nods to us with his head. I look at him walking slowly. Of course, look at him running with the ball at his feet under close control it’s another thing.
Shit! I forgot something.
“Backtrack and reach him” I say firmly to the comrade chauffeur. I lower the window of the car while the tires cling to the asphalt to stop right at his side.
“I forgot to give you this” I say, “the chessboard and the pennant of the FANL.”
He takes the objects that I offer him, again with disbelief, and he walks back slowly to the corner of the street. But this time he shakes his head. And I kept thinking to myself, satisfied: “What a great move, the pennant!”
And he kept thinking stunned to himself: “What a jerk, guerrilla!”
Caracas. Monday, August 26th, 1963. Spanish Embassy. Late afternoon.
The hall where the press conference is held at the Spanish Embassy is packed. The bulb flashes of the cameras are incessant.
“Señor Di Stéfano” asks a journalist, “Were you afraid? How did they treat you?”
“They treated me very well, I could listen to the football match radio commentary. They gave me a chessboard and a pennant of their organization. And yes, I was scared!”
“President Santiago Bernabéu” presses another journalist, “Did you pay a ransom?”
“No ransom has been paid, our Alfredo is fine and in the next match against the Brazilians of Sao Paulo he will be on the pitch as normal!”
I turn my face to Santiago Bernabéu. I look at his fat face. I think: “Great son of a bitch … You never give me a moment’s peace!” He turns to me and looks at me and then he smiles at me.
I hope he understood I think he is a son of a bitch!
Caracas. Wednesday, August 28th, 1963. The Den. Evening.
We are at my house.
The “Saeta Rubia” is no longer sitting on the sofa. But nobody wanted to sit in his place, as if he were there. As if he, Alfredo Di Stéfano was still sitting there, in all his elegance with his legs crossed.
I turn on the radio.
“Good evening from the Olympic Stadium in Caracas, ladies and gentlemen radio listeners” the usual commentator bellows, “the roar that you hear is for Alfredo Di Stéfano the great, just released by the FANL …”
Well! Very well! They said it again.
Caracas. Wednesday, August 28th, 1963. Caracas Olympic Stadium. Evening.
“Who knows if those assholes are listening to the commentary of the match” I think while in shorts and jersey I enter the pitch.
Then a roar of applause.