Stranger Than Fiction: A Look Back at the Time a Barcelona Star Was Kidnapped Before El Clásico

The headline reads “Lionel Messi Kidnapped Before El Clásico.” It’s not real (Messi is safe, friends), but can you imagine browsing through your timeline tomorrow morning hours before the Clásico kickoff to read this?

That was what happened to the FC Barcelona cracks of the 1980s, though it happened a few weeks before El Clásico. It all went down ahead of Barcelona’s meeting with Atlético de Madrid during the 1980-81 season, when legendary coach Helenio Herrera’s team was forced to play without its Pichichi, Enrique “Quini” Castro González.

Perhaps you haven’t heard of Quini. Fear not – few people recognize his name even here in Barcelona. But when you pop into a bar and ask for a Quini, a smile almost instantly appears on the faces of the spot’s older patrons. “Yeah, El Brujo was a crack back in those days,” a bartender once told me in Les Corts, the district that plays home to Barça’s fabled Camp Nou Stadium.

He’s not the only one who considers Quini to be a crack; Barcelona’s official website recognizes him as “the epitome of goalscoring excellence.” He scored a sublime 101 times in 178 over four seasons with the Blaugrana, a performance that led to his nickname, “Quinigol.” The prolific striker – an Oviedo native and Spanish international – scored goal no. 3,000 in Barcelona history, among other outstanding accomplishments.

Barcelona sees Quini as “the epitome of goalscoring excellence.”

While sipping on my second beer, I noticed a visible change in the demeanor of my bartender friend, Rafa. His eyes grew much more despondent and gloomy as he began to recount a far darker chapter in Quini and Barcelona history. “We would’ve definitely been able to win the Liga that year if it hadn’t been for that bunch of gilipollas kidnapping him,” he declared.

1980-81. 35 years ago. El Brujo’s first season with Barcelona. The then three-time Pichichi (Quini went on to win a total of seven Pichichi trophies as top La Liga goalscorer over the course of his career) was on fire. His goal-scoring escapades had his squad just two points back from league-leading Atlético de Madrid. The domestic title was in sight.

Then, the unthinkable happened: Quini was kidnapped. His team was paralyzed. The entire region was in shock. And the game against Atleti was fast approaching.

“Besides my legs, I don’t have a heart. The only thing I want is Quini’s return.”

The date was March 1, 1981. Quini had just scored two of Barça’s six goals en route to a demolition win over Hércules. Upon leaving the Camp Nou that day, the striker was captured by three men in a van no more than a few minutes from his home. Within 24 hours, the entire country was thrown for a loop; this was a kidnapping without precedent, a national hero disappeared for no reason whatsoever.

The abduction felt like one continuous punch to the face for the Catalan club. German midfielder Bernd Schuster declared that he would not play. “Besides my legs, I don’t have a heart. The only thing I want is Quini’s return,” he said.

Other players agreed. But despite their insistence, La Liga officials declared that the match had to go on, and so the team traveled to the Estadio Vicente Calderón the following Sunday (a persuasive letter penned by Quini’s wife, who urged everyone to move forward, helped make the game happen).

Atleti went on to defeat Barça 1-0 that day, amidst an atmosphere of clouded confusion and sadness. A week later, FCB lost for a second consecutive time without its star, this run against Salamanca. A tie vs. Zaragoza the following week meant that the domestic title was effectively lost. This – understandably – was of little importance to the Barça boys at the time.

Finally, good news came on March 24, more than three weeks after Quini’s capture and the week of the Clásico no less. Quini had been released in Zaragoza and his captors – whose list of demands included $2 million dollars, a result of their long-term unemployment – had been caught. The rescued hero was desperate to make his return to the field against Real Madrid, but despite being found in good health by medical staff, he was “physically tired,” La Vanguardia noted at the time. When he was able to make his highly anticipated return 10 days later, the Blaugrana handed Real Valladolid a 2-1 defeat en casa.

Unfortunately, it was too little too late. Twenty-four days in captivity cost Barcelona the league.

Quini later declared that his captors were good people and had not harmed him in any way. “Life is very harsh, we all deserve a second chance,” he valiantly proclaimed after an interview with one of the three men. Although La Liga was lost that year, Quini and his crew had their second shot too; Barça went on to win the Copa del Rey over Sporting de Gijón, and Quini won the Pichichi for two consecutive years, in 1980-81 and 1981-82.