On 5 April 2015, Venezuelan painter and sculptor Paul del Río turned a gun on his own chest and pulled the trigger. A single bullet pierced the artist’s heart, ending his life in Caracas’ San Carlos Barracks at the age of 72.
“Honour and glory to Paul del Río. His hands will continue to sculpt and paint the revolution from the San Carlos Barracks,” Ernesto Villegas, Caracas’ eccentric mayor, wrote in tribute, just one of dozens of glowing homages which accompanied the artist in the days following his tragic demise. Del Río had been an anti-establishment figure almost since the day he was born, with his Spanish Republican parents fleeing across the Atlantic Ocean to escape the reprisals of the Generalísimo Franco’s murderous regime.
Jesús del Río and Dora Canales stopped first in Cuba, long enough for their son to come into the world in 1943. Two years later the couple continued their journey across Latin America, as thousands of refugees from Francoist Spain would do, settling in Venezuela. His father, a baker, was also a militant, active in the clandestine Democratic Action movement against military strongman Marcos Pérez Jiménez. You could say that revolution ran in the del Río blood, and it was in this capacity that the teenaged Venezuelan would leave his mark on the annals of football.
In 1963, the all-conquering Real Madrid – favourites, of course, of General Franco who was still running Spain with an iron fist – found themselves in Caracas for a friendly tournament. One of the star attractions was Argentine hero Alfredo Di Stéfano. Even at 37, the ‘Blonde Arrow’ was still a formidable opponent, having being involved in every one of Madrid’s five consecutive European Cup triumphs between 1956 and 1960, a feat that has never and most likely will never be matched again.
By all accounts he was also a self-centered, immensely driven individual, who in the manner he left first River Plate and later both Colombia’s Millonarios and Madrid’s bitter rivals Barcelona high and dry on his way to the Santiago Bernabéu stadium suggested that solidarity and collective spirit were not among his most pressing priorities. The legendary forward, however, was the man chosen by a group of Venezuelan revolutionaries to bring their cause to the world’s attention.
Di Stéfano had not played in Madrid’s first match of the pre-season tour, which ended in defeat to São Paulo. The veteran did not feel well, struggling once more with the tropical heat as he had during his spell in Colombia, and while his team-mates set out to enjoy the Caracas nightlife he stayed in the hotel and rested. Just before 6am in the Hotel Potomac his slumber was disturbed by a group of individuals claiming to be anti-narcotics police and who requested the Argentine join them at the station. “Do not worry, it is a five minute thing,” he was told and, reassured, changed out of his pyjamas in order to accompany the officers. It was when he was already in the vehicle that the truth suddenly dawned.
“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.”
Di Stéfano had been kidnapped by the Armed Forces of National Liberation (FALN), a left-wing militant group agitating against the authoritarian government of Rómulo Betancourt. The star was blindfolded, while Madrid tour organiser Damián Gaudeka called a number left at the hotel by the captors. He received a similar message, along with protestations that the Argentine would not be harmed, and on contacting the press discovered that they had already been alerted. Di Stéfano, now bound and travelling to an unknown fate, saw his annoyance at the early wake-up call superseded by fear.
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“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,” the former player wrote in his autobiography, Thank you, Mother. It was at that point that he met with the man he identified as the chief of the operation: Máximo Canales, the nom de guerre of the 20-year-old fledgeling revolutionary Paul del Río.
The unlikely pair spent some 70 hours together while Di Stéfano was held captive, playing chess and checkers. An iconic photograph released to the world’s media shows the two together, del Río explaining to a bemused Di Stéfano who his group were and what they were fighting for.
“Nothing is going to happen to you, stay calm, we want the world to recognise us and know who we are. Our country, Venezuela, is exploited by the great powers in the petroleum business,” Canales told his captive, who nevertheless failed to relax and remained convinced that the end was near. “One day, I was offered paella,” recalled the star, who unsurprisingly had lost his appetite.
“’We bought it in El Silencio’. El Silencio is a neighbourhood in the centre 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.”
Interestingly, the football player had not been the first target for the FALN. Canales had originally set his sights on the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky, on tour in Venezuela. But as Di Stéfano himself explains, the octogenarian musician was considered too risky as a political captive. “As he was not in the best of health they did not want to risk [Stravinsky] dying on them. They did not want murders.
To a greater degree than Europe and the United States, 1960s Latin America was a hotbed of revolutionary and counter-cultural movement. The success of Fidel Castro’s Cuban Revolution in 1959 had revitalised resistance to oligarchic, repressive governments across the region, and Venezuela was no exception. The Cuban example of using focos, cells of active militants, to foment revolution both in the countryside and the cities, had been adopted widely in Latin America, with Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara’s example of continental insurrection and often active encouragement and support from Havana giving the young agitators new life and power.
The target in Caracas was President Betancourt, a man whose advances in the petroleum industry and a limited land reform were overshadowed, in leftist thinkers’ eyes, by an iron hand when dealing with communist demonstrators. Barely out of his teenage years, Del Río was already a committed revolutionary and enemy of Betancourt, and had spearheaded in 1963 the daring seizure of a cargo ship on the high seas. But it was the kidnapping of Di Stéfano which brought the FALN to the world’s attention, even though the Venezuelan’s affirmations of justice and equality seemed to have little effect on his taciturn guest.
The Argentine’s ordeal came to an end after three days of captivity, when Canales gave the order for the hostage to put on a clean shirt and be released. “I did not want to take off my green shirt, a really nice one, but in the end they gave me a checked one,” Di Stéfano lamented.
“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.” Di Stéfano was eventually bundled out of the car 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.”
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Despite his ordeal Di Stéfano played that same day for Madrid, receiving a standing ovation as he made the headlines on the pitch, in the manner to which he was far more accustomed. At that point the Madrid star and del Río’s stories diverge. The Argentine left the Bernabéu the following year for Espanyol, although he would later return as coach, eventually taking up the role of honorary president, representative of everything Merengue. His captor, meanwhile, was imprisoned by Betancourt and later stripped of his Venezuelan citizenship, taking refuge in Cuba. In 1975 his nationality was restored, with the armed revolutionary Canales long gone.
The militant turned to canvas and stone in order to make his political views heard, painting in a stark, modernist style that aimed to lay bare the poverty and inequality that afflicted his country. Del Río travelled across the world for exhibitions of his paintings and sculptures, but the young idealist was not quite gone; in 1979, the old flame was still flickering as he travelled to Nicaragua to join the Sandinista revolution, which had unseated the murderous Somoza family and tried, against formidable odds, to install a fairer society in one of the Western Hemisphere’s most impoverished states.
The Venezuelan, however, never forgot about his brush with one of football’s greatest-ever players, laying out a permanent invitation for Di Stéfano to join him for dinner should he find himself in Caracas.
In 2005, a bizarre postscript was added to the already surreal story of the two South Americans. Real Madrid celebrated their centenary that year with 12 months of lavish celebrations and public acts of tribute and homage, which included the hagiographic production Real: The Movie. For the gala premiere Merengue stars past and present were invited, as well as the cream of Madrid society.
Roberto Carlos, David Beckham, Zinedine Zidane … and one Paul del Río. After 42 years, almost to the day of Di Stéfano’s kidnapping, the club president Florentino Pérez had contrived to bring captor and hostage together again in a curious celebration of Madrid’s history and an original way of promoting the new motion picture celebrating a century of Blanco supremacy.
But Di Stéfano refused to play along. The film’s producers did not get the photo of the two reconciling which would have sold so well in the newspaper and posters, although the Argentine did speak briefly with the man he knew as Canales. There was no handshake, just a blunt dismissal typical of the ‘Blonde Arrow’. “You made my family feel great fear. We have nothing to talk about,” he told del Río, before moving swiftly onwards. The long-awaited reunion, a product of Madrid’s always hyperactive marketing machine, was a resounding failure.
The artist returned to Caracas, and would eventually move into the San Carlos Barracks where he had been held as a ‘political prisoner’ by Betancourt’s regime. The space had been converted into a museum by Hugo Chávez’s Bolivarian revolution, which naturally vindicated the armed struggle of the 1960s as an honourable, courageous act. It would be his final home. Del Río died feted by the government, having spent much of his life in a seemingly interminable struggle fighting for what he believed in. He died, moreover, less than a year after Di Stéfano finally succumbed to cancer at the age of 88.
His story may be just a footnote in the glorious history of Di Stéfano and Madrid in that era, but the revolutionary painter and sculptor left his mark on one of the finest players ever to set foot on a football field.
By Daniel Edwards. Follow @DanEdwardsGoal