Quini: A Tale of Kidnap, Ransom and Forgiveness in Barcelona
Monday, 5 March, 2018 - 08:00
Quini at the Camp Nou in 1981, the year he was kidnapped in an ordeal that lasted for 25 days. Photograph: Alain de Martignac/Icon Sport via Getty Images
London - Sid Lowe
Enrique Castro, ‘Quini’, left the Camp Nou, drove home, set the video to record the highlights of the night’s games, got back into the car and headed to the airport. It was 1 March 1981, and Spain’s top scorer at the time, who passed away on Tuesday after a sudden heart attack aged 68, had just scored two more goals and was going to collect his wife and children, who were flying back into Barcelona from Asturias. It is there, at Sporting Gijón’s El Molinón ground, that his body lies in rest and where the funeral was held on Wednesday, a stadium that will now carry his name, but his loss was felt all over Spain.
As the tributes came, it was not just about a wonderful footballer who was the top scorer in Spain’s first division five times, plus twice more in the second; a striker who played for Spain, Barcelona and Sporting, but a man who was universally admired; warm, generous and kind, with time for everyone. He had been diagnosed with cancer and lost his brother, a goalkeeper at Sporting, when he died saving an English boy from drowning, but Quini overcame both, guiding kids who came through at Sporting. The tribute paid to him by David Villa, in which Villa apologised for never being a better striker than the man who said he would be when he was just a small boy, is particularly heartbreaking.
What happened in March 1981, though, may be the most telling portrait of all. On the way to the airport that night, Quini pulled in to a petrol station on Plaça de Comas; a DKW van, its number plate M9955AX stolen from a Seat, pulled in behind him and two men got out. Eduardo and Fernando walked slowly up to Quini, showing him a rusty Colt 45, and whispered: “Not a word: get in.” They climbed in alongside him and as he pulled away, gun pressed into his neck, the van followed his Ford Granada towards Les Corts, where he was made to get out and climb into the back of the van. The following day, the police found his car abandoned with the doors still open. By then Quini, head covered with a hood, had long since been imprisoned in an improvised cell under the floor in a lock-up in Zaragoza. It measured barely a metre and a half.
The kidnapping lasted 25 days. The three men who took Quini were on the dole and desperate. They had slept rough on the hill of Montjuic as they planned the kidnapping, and when police finally liberated Quini, a magazine article on him was among the things they found. Yet the planning was far from perfect. They demanded a ransom for Quini’s return but had not agreed on how big it should be, eventually settling on 100m pesetas. During one telephone conversation they began making demands over how the 10m should be paid – in used, non-consecutive bills – only to be asked: “Excuse me? Didn’t you ask for 100 million?”
“Oh,” came the reply, “yeah, the 100 million, that’s right. Erm, well, how much have you got ready for us?”
“Right, 100 million. That’s what I meant.”
The kidnappers also had no idea how to arrange for the ransom money to be delivered. No account had been set up – Barcelona had to do that for them – and they had no idea how to make good their escape. They did not have the phone number of the club, their president, any directors or players. Quini was the one who suggested that they phone his wife at home – and the one who gave them the number. Every time a suggestion was made, they panicked and feared a bluff and changed their minds constantly over who should deliver the ransom, eventually settling on the Barcelona captain Alexanko.
That did not go to plan either. Followed by police motorcyclists, Alexanko was sent on a long and ultimately pointless journey from Barcelona into Girona and towards the French border, where the journey was aborted when it dawned on Spanish police that they had not contemplated being forced out of the country and had not cleared anything with their French counterparts.
The kidnappers made the occasional threat, even though one of them promised Quini that nothing would happen to him, adding: “I’m even a Barcelona fan.” At one stage, they even complained that Quini was costing them a fortune in sandwiches, to which his wife, María Nieves, snapped: “You kidnapped a sportsman for god’s sake, next time kidnap a Hare Krishna.” They were kids, amateurs, and they were scared, but that did not diminish the fear and the impact on Barcelona was enormous.
Bernd Schuster had refused to play the first game after the kidnapping, against Atlético Madrid, saying: “As well as legs, I have a heart.” Barcelona’s directors lied to Schuster, telling him they had had good news on Quini to try to encourage him to play but, demoralised, they lost 1-0. They lost three of the next four, drawing once. “For 25 days we didn’t win a game,” recalled Quini’s team-mate Charly Rexach. “It was impossible to concentrate on football. The league slipped out of our hands.”
Eventually, the police were tipped off about the van outside the Zaragoza lock-up where he was being held. Specialists were called in, carrying Magnum revolvers. When one policeman kicked the metal shutter, his foot went straight through it, getting stuck. One of the kidnappers was cooking an egg on a butane stove. Guns pointed at his face, he gestured silently at the floor. The trap door was opened, a policeman wriggled through into the small, damp space below. Quini, unshaven, dirty and grey, had heard the noise and was hiding under his mattress, shaking. “Quini?” came the voice. “Quini, I’m a policeman. I’m here to rescue you.”
Barcelona had a game four days later. “I want to play on Sunday,” Quini told them, but he was not allowed; in his absence, they lost 3-0 to Real Madrid. He later scored twice in the Copa del Rey final against his former club Sporting. He had a kickabout with the police after he attended one of their games on Montjuïc. The kidnappers were sentenced to 10 years in prison and ordered to pay him 5m pesetas. He refused the money and refused to press charges. “It wasn’t that uncomfortable, if you knew how to move into the right position,” he said. “One day they brought me down a copy of Marca so that I could see the football results and in the end they gave me a television and everything. And a chess set. I played on my own, but I like playing on my own.
“My kidnappers are good people who did me no harm; I forgive them,” Quini said, which said it all.
The Guardian Sport