Philip Barker ©ITG

The prospect of an international club "Super League" has been the talk of football again in the last few days, but those who take part have been threatened with a World Cup ban.

FIFA President Gianni Infantino warned: "Either you are in or you are out. This includes everything."

For more than a century, International Federations have been quick to claim sovereignty over their sport and mete out punishment to any athletes who stray into unauthorised events. 

The powers that be in rugby union came down hard on anyone who infringed the amateur code by playing professional rugby league. It was a similar story in tennis.

The likes of triple Wimbledon champion Fred Perry were banned from Grand Slam tournaments once they played for money and when Kerry Packer set up World Series Cricket in the 1970s, players were described as "disapproved" and initially banned from Test matches.

For their part, FIFA were confronted by a breakaway league 70 years ago. It offered such riches that it became known as "El Dorado" - The Golden.

In Colombia, ambitious officials wanted to develop a professional football league. They called it the "Division Mayor" or Dimayor for short.

The Colombian Government were supportive. They saw football as a means of calming the volatile political situation. In 1948, Jorge Eliecer Gaitan, a popular politician who had been Mayor of Bogota, was assassinated. The next few years proved to be violent and politically unstable.

The league was soon outlawed by FIFA and Colombia had their membership suspended. That decision meant Colombian clubs were not obliged to pay transfer fees to clubs. Instead they were able to approach players directly and talk "telephone numbers".

In the 1940s, River Plate were the giants of Argentinian football.

FIFA President Gianni Infantino has warned players against competing in any unauthorised competitions ©Getty Images
FIFA President Gianni Infantino has warned players against competing in any unauthorised competitions ©Getty Images

They were known as "La Maquina" - The Engine. Their "maquinista" - or engine driver - was a striker called Adolfo Pedernera who was born exactly 100 years ago this week.

He made his debut as a teenager in the mid 1930s and by the late 1940s he was the star. One newspaper wrote: "With him, everything is possible." Not for nothing was he dubbed "El Maestro".

Yet all was not well with the game in Argentina. Players were unhappy that wages remained low and strikes were common. The situation was watched closely by Alfonso Senior Quevedo, the ambitious founder and club President of Millonarios in Bogota. They were the pace setters in the new league. Such was their play that they earned the nickname of "El Ballet Azul" - The Blue Ballet.

Senior moved to sign Pedernera and offered $5,000 (£4,000/€4,400) as a signing on fee and a substantial salary. Huge crowds welcomed him at Bogota airport.

"They called me mad," admitted Quevedo later. "If we go bust, I will pay him myself."

Senior certainly had an eye for a player. Among his other recruits was the legendary Alfredo Di Stefano, one of nine from Argentina on their books.

"It was a very good and well balanced team in which we enjoyed playing and were very good friends," Di Stefano later said of his time there.

Other teams soon followed the example. Deportivo Pereira signed Paraguayans, Cucuta recruited Uruguayans and Medellin went for Peruvians. Santa Fe cast their eyes towards England.

In the immediate post-war years, English grounds were packed but this was not reflected in the pay packets of the players. Their employment was strictly controlled by the clubs. The maximum wage was £12 ($15/€13) per week with a win bonus of £2 ($2.50/€2.20).

Neil Franklin, Stoke City's central defender, was expected to play a major part for England at the 1950 World Cup in Brazil, but was an unhappy man and had unsuccessfully requested a transfer.

At around the same time he received a telegram from Luis Robledo, an urbane senior official of the Santa Fe club.


Franklin later said: "It all seemed most attractive. So attractive, in fact, that only a fool would have turned it down without going into the matter more fully."

As the English domestic season came to an end, Franklin flew secretly to Colombia to discuss the deal and another Stoke player, George Mountford, joined him.

"It is a shock," said Stoke City manager Bob McGrory. "Franklin never mentioned a word to me about the trip."

When they touched down in Bogota, a huge crowd was waiting to greet them as they made their way to the hotel.

England's Neil Franklin was among those who went to play in Colombia ©Getty Images
England's Neil Franklin was among those who went to play in Colombia ©Getty Images

"We travelled by car and were accompanied by a whole procession of vehicles all sounding their sirens and blowing their horns," wrote Franklin later.

There was a swift reaction from Sir Stanley Rous, secretary of the Football Association (FA) in England.


Within days, Franklin and Mountford had made their debut and helped Santa Fe to a 3-2 win over Medellin.

Charlie Mitten had been a key figure in Manchester United's 1948 FA Cup winning team. He was on a tour of the United States with his club when the call came through to join Santa Fe.

He signed what he described as an "excellent contract" which was to pay him £2,000 ($2,500/€2,200) with bonuses of £25 ($32/€28) for a win and £8 ($10/€9) for a draw.

The football authorities back home reacted to the exodus. Football League secretary Fred Howarth solemnly announced the ban of Ephraim "Jock" Dodds, a player with Blackpool who had played a big role in recruiting the players.

"The Management Committee consider that by his recent action, Dodds has brought the game and the competition into disrepute," it was ruled.

Then came the verdict of the FA.

"For leaving clubs whilst under contract and for playing in unaffiliated football in contravention of FA Rules and Football League rules and club regulations, the players have been suspended forthwith," they said.

There was a degree of sympathy for the rebels from Billy Meredith, one of the greats for Manchester United and Manchester City in the early years of the 20th century.

"If there had been chances like this when I was playing, I would have walked to Bogota," he said.

The contrasts with home were striking. Bogota is 2,640 metres above sea level.

"Almost everything could happen in football matches there and invariably everything did," said Franklin later.

Planes flew above the stadium trailing advertising banners and, to heighten the impact, parachutists came down into the stadium itself.

"I thought I was going to a pleasant country, to live and work under pleasant conditions and to earn the sort of money which is far beyond a professional footballer at home," Franklin added. "It was not long before I learned that everything in the garden was not quite as lovely as we had been led to believe.

"The political situation is charged with dynamite. Never a day passed without a political demonstration."

The foreign players also realised that their presence was resented by some of the South American players, a fact not helped by the tendency of the local press to refer to "the English masters".

Franklin only played six matches in Colombia. He accompanied his pregnant wife back to England on what was intended to be a temporary visit, but after Santa Fe had announced to the local press that he had walked out on their contract, he decided it was too dangerous to return.

After their return, the players were forced to go cap in hand to the authorities to have their bans rescinded.

The panel which heard Franklin's appeal included two future FIFA Presidents, Arthur Drewry and Rous.

Legendary Argentinian Alfredo Di Stefano played for Millonarios and then Real Madrid ©Getty Images
Legendary Argentinian Alfredo Di Stefano played for Millonarios and then Real Madrid ©Getty Images

Franklin was allowed to return to football from January 31, 1951, but his old club Stoke announced that "it would be better if we parted company". He eventually joined Hull City.

Mitten discovered he was no longer welcome at Old Trafford and signed instead for Fulham.

Colombia did prove a more successful adventure for Di Stefano. In 1952, he travelled to Spain with the Millonarios club to play a match in celebration of  Real Madrid's 50th anniversary.

Di Stefano made his own impression as Millonarios won 4-2. He was soon on his way to Madrid for good as Colombia rejoined FIFA and their star teams were broken. The Colombians never forgot his contribution and in 2012, Orlando Sardi de Lima, the Colombian ambassador in Spain, greeted Di Stefano, who was then 86-years-old, and paid tribute to "the joy he had given to the fans of the club".

Over the next few years, the flow of players was reversed as South Americans now sought their fortunes in Europe.

There has been talk of an breakaway Super League in football for many years and in other sports, there are talks of breakaway events. The first event in a rival International Swimming League was scheduled for December but has now been cancelled.

Like FIFA, the International Swimming Federation had threatened its star performers with a World Championship ban if they should dip their toes in the water.