How the kidnapping of one of Spain's greatest ever strikers cost Barcelona the league title in 1981
65-year old Enrique Castro González, or Quini, as he is widely known as, is one of the greatest strikers in Spanish football history. Having played for Sporting Gijon and Barcelona, he bagged a staggering number of seven Pichichi awards; the trophy that is awarded to the player with the highest league goals.
It was the year of 1980 when after Barcelona’s several attempts of bringing him to the Catalan club proved to be successful after Quini was roped in by them for 82 million pesetas (the currency used in Spain back then) post-Gijon’s relegation. Quini was already a well-established player by then, having won three Pichichi trophies with Gijon in his 381 appearances for the Asturian side.
The striker was aged 31 when he signed for Barcelona, but he was still very lethal as you would have expected him to be. Over the next two seasons (1980-1981 and 1981-1982), he would go on to be the top goalscorer in the league, scoring 47 goals as he led the team in their 1981 Copa del Rey final win among other accolades.
March 1, 1981: The Kidnapping
It was reportedly around 2’o clock that day when Quini was kidnapped by two gunmen from his own front door in a separate van. This was right after he had scored twice during Barcelona’s 6-0 win against Hercules. Gonzalez was leaving the stadium alone and was on his way to the El Prat airport to pick up his wife and children who were just returning from Asturias.
Worried sick about her husband’s absence, wife Maria Nieves contacted authorities and filed a missing report. Alexanco was the last person Quini had spoken to before his kidnapping when the striker informed her about his plan to pick them up from the airport.
Troubled and tensed, Quini’s father Enrique was as confused as anyone would be in that scenario. "I never had anything to do with politics,” he said while wife Maria Elena cried in agony. Friends and family expressed their discontent while his brothers, Jesus Castro and Phallus travelled to Barcelona as soon as they could.
Two calls were made following the kidnapping; one insisted that the player would be returned home in 11 days if the story was not made public. The other caller, however, spoke to Spanish daily newspaper La Vanguardia, saying that Quini would only be released after Barcelona’s match with Atletico Madrid. The caller was part of an alleged group called the "Catalan-Spanish batallion."
Barcelona, who were on the verge of securing the league title were now left without their best player, and the abduction also had a moral impact on his teammates. Bernd Schuster, who was an important part of the Barcelona setup back then was resolute about not playing in the next match. And, he wasn’t the only one in the team who was thinking that way.
But, there was no backing out from there. Travelling to Vicente Calderón, Barcelona fielded a team without their main striker, and they succumbed to a 1-0 loss.
Quini was kept as a hostage for 25 days, and during this period, the team could amass just a single point from four matches, eventually losing out on the league title.
It was 23 March, three weeks after his abduction, when attempts at rescuing Quini finally turned out to be fruitful. Contact was made with the kidnappers where it was agreed that a ransom sum of 100 million pesetas will be deposited into a Swiss bank account at a certain date. Barca’s José Ramón Alexanko was acting as the mediator throughout the situation.
However, the officials were not having any of that. A trap was set with cooperation between the Spanish and Swiss law enforcement when one of the kidnappers was caught red-handed while withdrawing 1 million pesetas from the bank. He would eventually lead the police to a garage based in Zaragoza where Quini had been held for 25 days. He was unharmed.
The kidnappers were arrested and punished on the 15th January 1982 with a sentence of 10 years. But, surprisingly Quini chose not to press charges against them – never claiming the 5 million pesetas that he was eligible for damages. It was rumoured that he had developed Stockholm syndrome, a psychological case where hostages tend to show sympathy towards their captors. Quini insisted that he was well-treated, and that even though they were kidnappers, overall, they were good human beings.