In the modern era, the notion of the professional footballer travelling abroad has become part and parcel of the game, and even Britons get involved. It doesn’t always work out, of course – for every Chris Waddle, who sparkled on the Mediterranean coast for Olympique de Marseille, there has been a Luther Blissett – but more and more players that are unable to find themselves a contract at home are seeking their fortunes abroad, as closely monitored by our friends at Les Rosbifs. Moving abroad, though, wasn’t always as easy as it is now, especially in the era before the abolition of the maximum wage, when players were expected to speak when spoken to and were almost enslaved by the retain and transfer system. That players could wish to up sticks and leave for money was considered, by those in control of the game in England, to be somewhere between an obscenity and an implausibility, yet in 1950, three players – including possibly the finest English defender of his generation – almost completely severed their ties with the English game in search of El Dorado.
A generation of English footballers lost at least part of their careers to the Second World War and, whilst the return of the normal domestic schedule at the end of the conflict brought crowds into the game that had never been seen before and will never be seen again, the players were far from the greatest beneficiaries of this new found largesse. For five British players – three English and two Scottish – the found themselves lured to a new life that promised them riches that were almost impossible for a post-war footballer to be able to believe were possible. Along with Billy Higgins of Everton and Bobby Flavell of Hearts, Charlie Mitten of Manchester United, and George Mountford and Neil Franklin of Stoke City, all left the country in search of riches and their destination was… Colombia. All were accomplished players – Mitten, for example, had won the FA Cup for Manchester United against Blackpool in 1948 and Mountford was a regular in an accomplished Stoke City team – but Franklin’s was the name that really stood out.
Gauging the ability of players of whom little filmed footage survives can be a tricky challenge, but Franklin was spoken of with almost uncommon reverence by those that played alongside him. Billy Wright described him as, “a superb stylist with an instinctive positional sense”, while Tom Finney described him as “the best centre-half I ever played with or against”. Even a player of his calibre (he won twenty-seven caps for England between 1946 and 1950 – a regular fixture in the team), however, was little more than a serf to the directors of Stoke City and when he decided to speak to the directors to request a transfer, he was kept waiting for three hours before they would speak to him. Little did those directors know, however, that an offer was waiting in the wings for Franklin (and his team-mate) from South America.
That Colombia should have been the country with clubs that were in the position to make an offer for such players was something of a quirk of fate. The economic fate of the country had been fuelled by coffee, which was the country’s primary export by the end of the Second World War. With this boom, however, came political instability, and socialist groups in the major cities of the country found a voice in the form of Jorge Gaitan. Gaitain had been due to run as the mayor of Bogota – and was widely expected to win – but his assassination in April 1948 brought widespread disturbances and, in a brutal display of how unprepared the ruling classes in the country were to deal with social change, by the end of the riots 20,000 were dead. With this great economic change came the professionalisation of football. An amateur federation – Adefutbol – had been running for several years, but the formation of a professional league in 1947 brought tensions between the federation and the first of the professional clubs, DiMayor. The president of DiMayor, Humberto Fernandez, was also the man behind the new professional league, and after a series of disputes with Adefutbol, the federation requested Colombia’s suspension from FIFA.
This, however, was good news for the new professional clubs. Under FIFA rules, they would have been prevented from approaching players according to the rules of home associations but, excluded from FIFA, they could act exactly as they wished. The Bogota-based club Millonarios had an Argentinian manager, Carlos Aldabe, who was instructed to return home in 1949 and come back with a star signing. He returned with Adolfo Pedernera, who had scored one hundred and thirty-one goals for River Plate over the previous eleven years. Alfredo di Stefano, who would go on to greater fame with Real Madrid, joined him, and Bobby Flavell became another to join the foreign influx. By 1950, there 109 foreign players in Colombia, most of them earning money that they could never have dreamed of at home.
For Indepentiente of Santa Fe, the destination was Britain, where retain and transfer made players easy targets. Mountford, Mitten and Franklin were all signed for the club in 1950, but it was Franklin, whose signing fee was £1,500 (compared with the £12 per week that he had been earning at the time during the season), whose transfer caused the most outrage. Franklin had been expected to play for England in the 1950 World Cup finals in Brazil, but he withdrew, citing his wife’s pregnancy as the reason for not wishing to travel to play for his country. Upon his arrival in Santa Fe, though, things were not as he had expected. The political situation in Colombia was still unstable, and a 6.30 curfew meant that anything much approaching a social life was difficult. In addition to this, Franklin, Mountford and Mitten had little experience of South American football, and Franklin in particular found it difficult to adjust to the more individualistic style of play that the team’s base of Argentinian players preferred.
Charlie Mitten lasted a full season, and Mountford a few months. Neil Franklin, though, lasted just six matches before returning to England. He was banned for four months by the Football Association but, while his registration was still held by Stoke City, the manner of his departure (Mountford, upon his return, would play a further two seasons for the club) meant that he was effectively persona non grata at The Victoria Ground, and he sat out the remainder of the 1950/51 season before being transferred for £22,500 – a world record fee for a defender at the time – to Hull City, whose manager Raich Carter had played alongside Franklin for England in the years immediately before his sojourn in South America. Injuries – in particular a bad knee injury – meant that Franklin never really recovered his greatness and he slid down the divisions, playing for Crewe Alexandra, Stockport County and Mansfield Town, before winding up in non-league football and fully retiring in 1962. Mitten was suspended for six months by Matt Busby upon his return to Manchester United, before being sold to Fulham. He went on to play for them for five years, before a brief managerial career with Mansfield Town and Newcastle United.
The fabled Colombian El Dorado, then, proved to be a mirage. By 1951, it was becoming clear that more difficult economic times were ahead for Colombia. The country was readmitted to FIFA on condition that they played by their rules, and the foreign influx had dissipated by 1953. A clash of football cultures, a volatile political situation and good old-fashioned homesickness proved to be enough to ensure that the British exodus to South America was a short-lived one. The British have, since then, had a mixed record abroad, but the signs were already there, sixty years ago. South American football was already technically outstripping the game in this country by 1950, and we have never properly caught up since. Neil Franklin would probably not have prevented England’s early elimination from the 1950 World Cup, and Charlie Mitten, even without the stigma that returned from Colombia with, may never have played for England. It’s not difficult to understand, though, why the offer of untold riches in South America held as much appeal as it did for the down-trodden professionals of England in the summer of 1950.
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