The Blond Giant
Among the influx of foreign players to El Dorado was the Lithuanian goalkeeper, Vytautas Kriščiūnas.
If anyone had been expecting to see another dark-haired man with a carefully-trimmed moustache, the blond, 1.90m Vytautas Kriščiūnas must have come as a shock when he finally arrived in Manizales. A few days earlier, when the press announced that the local team, Deportes Caldas, had signed three Argentinian stars there had been no mention of his size, his broad shoulders or his muscular appearance.
Kriščiūnas was certainly not another Argentino. Born in Lithuania in 1925, he had come to South America during the war with his parents. Soon after settling in Buenos Aires, the young Vytautas started training as a goalkeeper with the second-division side Quilmes. By 1944, at the age of 19, he'd made his professional debut and, two years later, he was the first-choice goalkeeper for the team.
When Quilmes achieved promotion to the top tier in 1949, the Lithuanian was no longer the fixture in goal that he had been and was looking to change clubs. He signed for the first-division side Platense but never made an official start for them — no great surprise given Julio Cozzi, Argentina's number one, was ahead of him.
Meanwhile, in Colombia, Deportes Caldas's manager, Alfredo Cuezzo, was worried and had threatened to quit. His team were playing well but they weren't winning matches consistently. In July 1949, they had a lot of work ahead of them if they were to match the third place they'd achieved the previous year. Nonetheless, he'd been confirmed in his position by the team's authorities who'd said they would rather liquidate the club than go on without him. Even the fans had asked him to continue.
He took a flight to Buenos Aires, his second trip of the year, but brought back only the hope that his people in the south would continue to work on signing the players he needed. Weeks later, the sport pages were abuzz with the arrival of Alfredo Di Stéfano in Bogotá. In Manizales, news of their own reinforcements was greeted with much enthusiasm by press and fans alike.
There were delays and paperwork but there was an expectation that the new players would arrive and be ready in time for the home game against Deportivo Cali, but no description of their appearance. The day after the match, two of them arrived: Segundo Tesori, a stylish inside-forward of Italian descent, with a Clark Gable moustache; and Vytautas Kriščiūnas, the robust Lithuanian who would surpass everyone's expectations.
Traditionally, Colombians hold foreigners, particularly Europeans, in high regard and look upon them with a certain respect. Since the time of Carlos Gardel, the glamorous tango crooner who'd featured in several films and died in a plane crash in Medellín in 1935, there was a clear admiration for Argentinians. Anyone coming over from the River Plate would find an open door in the country.
Manizales in 1949 was certainly nothing like Buenos Aires, where the Lithuanian had left his parents and his girlfriend. Despite the welcoming nature of its people and its reputation as a city of culture, it had nothing like the grandeur of the big avenues, the obelisk and the imposing buildings of the Argentinian capital with its three million inhabitants. Indeed, just over 100,000 people lived there.
Up in the midst of green mountains, at 2100m above sea level, and with the impressive snow peak of El Ruiz volcano in the distance, the city had grown around the country's coffee industry. Most activity revolved around the city centre and its few multi-storey buildings. The cathedral dominated the main square from which a sprawl of houses stretched out along the mountain top.
Colombia itself is very different to the mostly flat Lithuania. Just days after his arrival, the team travelled to Medellín, Colombia's self-styled "Mountain Capital" where he would make his first appearance, taking the place of Delio 'The Witch' Londoño, Caldas's regular No 1. "The Lithuanian revealed himself as quite the goalkeeper," a correspondent for Bogota's El Tiempo wrote of Kriščiūnas's performance in a 6-0 away win at Deportivo Municipal. He'd made the perfect start and, as if the city weren't already primed to make heroes of the new arrivals, the local paper La Patria built them up even more in the days leading up to next match in Manizales, against the defending champions Santa Fe.
The players read the papers on a regular basis. They looked for mentions of their names and pictures of themselves to cut out and send home or store away as keepsakes. Deportes Caldas had eight foreigners already, five of them from Argentina.
Days before the next encounter, disturbing news arrived from Bogota: a shootout in Congress after a dispute between rival politicians ended with one representative dead and a couple more injured. Calls for calm and claims that there were personal motives involved in the quarrel dominated the front page of La Patria. Surprisingly, there was also a smaller headline that read, "There was more talk of football in Manizales than anything else." To be sure, while the Caldas department saw regular acts of political violence during La Violencia, the city itself, a Conservative stronghold, is regarded by locals as having been an oasis of peace at the time.
So the stage was set for the match against Santa Fe. This time, despite a man of the match performance from Kriščiūnas, and a standing ovation from the crowd after a fantastic save, the visitors were too much for Caldas and took a comprehensive 3-0 victory back to Bogota. There's a picture in La Patria of Kriščiūnas making a save, and, curiously, an artist's drawing of his face with a football and a pitch in the background. The caption states his name and states, "Best out of the 22." He's captured someone's imagination: this type of drawing is not seen elsewhere, nor is it done for any other player.
It's interesting to note how often the Lithuanian featured in the few pictures printed every Monday on the sports pages. Photographers at the time had limited options and typically stalked the goalmouths at each end for the perfect picture which in part explains his popularity. But his success also kept his file photo in print when La Patria previewed an upcoming home game. It's also remarkable how much trouble the press had in getting his name right. He would come to be known nationwide as 'Vytatutas', with an extra syllable, and was often also referred to as Victor Kriscuonas — Victor being the literal translation of his first name.
Leading up to the next match, at home to Medellín, La Prensa wondered whether there might be a curse behind Caldas's irregular form and occasional bad luck. It referred to a similar case in Argentina where Boca Juniors had supposedly been the victims of the alleged malediction. Curses and football in South America are a familiar theme but Kriščiūnas was the talisman Caldas needed to start winning consistently, and they won the game 2-1 with another solid performance by the keeper.
The following Sunday, the local derby (round 20 of 26) pitted Deportes Caldas, the team of high society, against Once Deportivo, who were associated with the working class. There was city-wide enthusiasm for the clash but no signs of it spilling over into politics. The game took place in a healthy atmosphere, with events on the pitch claiming centre stage. It was to be a close encounter and Kriščiūnas performed well once again in a 1-0 victory. The press talked about "his crowd" being satisfied with the performance and lauded his skills in going out for the ball. The town had quickly taken 'the Phenomenon' into its heart. Caldas, by then in fourth place, awaited the visit of the star-studded Los Millonarios.
Midweek, the local police uncovered a terrorist plot and confiscated a stockpile of small explosive devices. It was the Communists who were behind it, according to La Patria. Still, nothing could distract attention from the match, and, if Los Millonarios' players had any concerns about their safety, it did not show: they played the home side off the pitch and won 5-1. Kriščiūnas was again cheered by the crowd but there was little he or his team could do to stop the visitors.
While the would-be champions were too much for Deportes Caldas, the same could not be said for their remaining opposition. The following Sunday the team started a five-game winning streak to end the season in style and manage a fourth-place finish. In their last match, at home to Deportivo Pereira, Kriščiūnas was knocked unconscious after rushing out for a ball and colliding with another player early on in the game. With the alleged curse broken, he was replaced in goal by Londoño who played his last game for the club that day.
The Lithuanian regained consciousness that same afternoon and, days later, travelled back home to his loved ones. After spending a couple of months in Buenos Aires, he returned to Manizales for the challenge of the new season.
Unlike in Argentina, where the league was, and largely still is, mostly composed of teams from the greater Buenos Aires region, the Colombian championships have never been centred on the capital but have always been truly nationwide affairs. That meant a lot more plane travel and a host of different climates to deal with. For a team from the mountains, flying into the heat and humidity of the coastal city of Barranquilla, where Junior and Sporting play, remains a challenge even now. Wearing a goalkeeper's jersey in the mid-afternoon inferno of the Caribbean coast is unpleasant even with today's high-tech garments. The same goes for playing in Cúcuta in the north-east or against Deportivo Cali or América in the west. Kriščiūnas was a pale giant; for him, it must have been a great challenge to prove himself in conditions he'd never known and a great experience to see the diversity of the country's people and its cities.
The 1950 season saw Cuezzo's men get off to a decent start, collecting four wins and three draws from their first nine games. On the tenth match-day, they went to Bogota to play the league leaders Los Millonarios at El Campín. Reports in the capital suggested that, after winning the derby against Santa Fe, Los Millonarios had been treated to a series of cocktail parties in celebration and were still reeling from the drinks when Sunday came. That day, both teams gave uninspired performances and a brace by Alfredo Di Stéfano was enough for the home side to win. Caldas were five points behind and had let a good chance slip away.
Whether Los Millonarios became overconfident is hard to say. What's certain, on the other hand, is that Caldas bounced back the next week, taking Deportivo Muncipal apart 5-1 in Manizales. It was to be the start of an impressive streak that saw them take 13 wins out of 14 matches, led by solid performances by 'Vytatutas' and his defence, and the goal-scoring prowess of recent addition Julio 'Stuka' Avila.
With things going well, it became common for the players to enjoy a post-match drink or two in the company of Manizales's high society. There was pride in being seen alongside the stars of Deportes Caldas. "Some of them would womanise and take full advantage of their status," said Javier Giraldo Neira, a local radio journalist of national reputation. Kriščiūnas, though, Neira insisted, was more reserved.
By his second season, Kriščiūnas had moved out of the team quarters on Santander Avenue, where most of the squad lived, and into his own apartment in the centre of town. No doubt it was a privilege in keeping with a player of his status but it was perhaps also a sign that he was more at ease on his own.
A special report in La Patria during Caldas's run of success offers a window into their daily lives. Cuezzo had achieved the perfect mixture of discipline and camaraderie. We see Navarro and Tesori, both Argentinians, wearing elegant house coats while the rest of the players sport white shirts. Kriščiūnas, for his part, is the only one wearing braces. In a team made up of foreigners, he seems the most foreign of all. This is illustrated by an anecdote referred to in the article which shows the Lithuanian making a mess of his comeback to a friendly insult.
"Move over Egg-face!" Garrido, a Chilean, shouts at him.
"As you wish, Mirror-face! (?)" is his reply — which the journalist has himself punctuated with a question mark.
Regardless of how he fitted in, he was a competitor who kept showing up for the big matches and putting on man of the match displays. Caldas's streak ended with a 3-2 home defeat to Los Millonarios in what was more a battle than a football game, according to La Patria's scathing attack on the winners. A picture of Kriščiūnas showed him being restrained during one of the more serious scuffles, dwarfing the members of the military police and their rifles as he is held back. The paper asserts that, despite appearances, the Lithuanian had been on the receiving end of a punch and had later tried to calm down his fellow players.
Deportes Caldas would be crowned champions in the end, despite struggling towards the finish-line. A parade made up of "every youth and amateur sports team" followed by marching bands and a caravan of vehicles into the Plaza de Bolivar — the main square — suggested how much the triumph meant to city in general. After a speech from the regional governor, the exclusive Club Manizales held a cocktail party that went on long into the night.
Kriščiūnas never played again. He gave up football after returning to Buenos Aires for the close-season, taking up the family business, a carpentry workshop, at the request of his parents. He married his long-time girlfriend and settled down to start a family but died just a few years later. Daniel Victor, his son, told me his father had very fond memories of Colombia; he wonders whether his dad made the right decision in leaving the game. Indeed, his career could have gone much further. As it was, he did what so few have managed, and went out at the top.