The very notion that a high-profile contemporary international footballer could be kidnapped and held for ransom is a risible one, yet just a few short decades ago this was a very real risk that players faced. Venezuelan urban guerrillas seized Alfredo Di Stefano in 1963 at gunpoint from the Caracas hotel in which his Real Madrid team was based. He was released unharmed.
Only quick thinking by his wife averted a kidnap attempt on Johan Cruyff in Barcelona in 1977, but less fortunate four years later was another Barcelona player – the international forward Quini. At the beginning of March 1981 after scoring twice in a 6-0 home win over Hércules, the striker was apprehended at gunpoint by two men as he left the stadium and forced into a van. It was a game he might not even have been at had he not passed a late fitness check.
No-one seemed aware he had been kidnapped until he failed to turn up at the airport to meet his wife who was returning from a visit to relatives in the north west of the country. She phoned his best friend in the Barca squad, Alexanko, and when he too had no knowledge of Quini’s whereabouts then the alarm was raised.
Shortly afterwards a ransom demand for $500,000 was received, the same amount that Barcelona had paid Sporting Gijon for the striker the previous summer. Now aged 31, while Quini struggled for regular international recognition he was one of the most respected players of his generation, well known for his good humour and sportsmanship on the field as he was for his prodigious goalscoring output.
He had made his top flight debut with Gijon a decade earlier and had on only one occasion failed to score in double digits over the course of a season for them. His unerring striking instincts made him a regular target for bigger Spanish clubs, but Sporting repeatedly refused to sell him and the player himself had few ambitions to move away from a club where he was worshipped as an idol.
Thanks chiefly to his efforts in front of goal, by the end of the 1970s Sporting Gijon was achieving unprecedented back to back finishes in the top three positions of La Liga. With no further advancement seen as attainable, finally club and player relented and he joined Barcelona in 1980. Wasting no time in settling into his new environment, at the time of his abduction he was, predictably, La Liga’s top scorer with 18 goals and those goals had looked set to inspire his new club to a first title success since 1974.
Communications between police and Quini’s kidnappers continued over the next three weeks and the Spanish authorities agreed to deposit the requested money in a Swiss bank account. This was the part of the process the kidnappers hadn’t really thought through and as soon as they tried to withdraw the money they were arrested by Swiss police who were working with their Spanish counterparts.
It transpired there were three men behind the audacious, if feckless, money-making scheme and they led police to the basement in Zaragoza where Quini was being held. The player had lost 10lbs in weight but otherwise had suffered no ill effects from his captivity.
Barcelona had collapsed during his absence taking just a single point from fixtures against Atletico Madrid, Salamanca, Real Zaragoza and Real Madrid. Morale played a significant factor in this slump with Quini’s teammates worried for the safety of their colleague and for themselves. The West German international Bernd Schuster feared a similar personal outcome and initially refused to travel to Madrid for the Atletico game before relenting.
Coach Helenio Herrera tried to reverse the sharp downturn in results in any way he could and the club instigated legal proceedings to try and have the results of the games played during Quini’s absence annulled and replayed – without success. Quini’s return to the field of play couldn’t come quickly enough but even he could not turn things around and the title was spectacularly squandered to Real Sociedad.
A curious aside to the affair was Quini’s refusal to press charges against his kidnappers, nor claim the sizeable personal damages award he was entitled to. If the kidnapping had brought on unwelcome psychological side effects they certainly did not manifest themselves when he was in front of goal. He stayed at the Camp Nou until 1984 and during his four eventful seasons there he scored a respectable 77 goals in 142 appearances.