KEIR RADNEDGE COMMENTARY —- Alfredo Di Stefano, who has died in Madrid aged 88 after a cardiac arrest on Saturday, remains the greatest footballer of all time for many observers. Not only was he supremely talented as a centre-forward who viewed the entire pitch as his domain, but his significance to the modern game is without parallel.
Coincidentally Santiago Bernabeu, as president the other great architect of Real Madrid, also died while a World Cup was being played out in South America, in his case in Argentina in 1978.
Di Stefano, born in Barracas, Buenos Aires, on July 4, 1926, played national team football for his native Argentina and then later for Spain. He was a member of Spain’s squad at the 1962 World Cup in Chile but did not play because of sciatica [Reports that he also played for Colombia – and thus three countries – are erroneous; he played for a Colombian League XI while with Millonarios of Bogota in the early 1950s but not for the national team].
Di Stefano began with his father’s old club, River Plate, though his boyhood hero was Independiente’s Paraguyan centre-forward Arsenio Erico. River sent him on loan to Huracan then recalled him after Adolfo Pedernera – leader of their legendary Maquina [Machine] forward line, decamped to Colombia.
River fans gave Di Stefano the Saeta Rubia [Blond Arrow] nickname which stayed with him throughout his career. He scored 53 goals in 73 games for River up until the infamous players’ strike in Argentina in 1950. The clubs decided to break the strike and force the players back into action by fulfilling fixtures with the youth teams.
However clubs in a new breakaway Colombian professional league took advantage of their independence beyond FIFA to lure the players away. Pedernera came back to persuade Di Stefano and a host of other top Argentinian players to join him in a short-lived footballing El Dorado.
FIFA eventually brokered a peace deal and Millonarios toured Europe to capitalise financially on their fame. It was when their ‘Blue Ballet’ played in a tournament in Madrid to mark Real’s 50th anniversary that Bernabeu decided Di Stefano was the player of his dreams and ambitions.
But Madrid had competition . . . from Barcelona who had already snatched the great Hungarian, Ladislav Kubala, from their grasp. Bernabeu resolved not to be beaten again. So while Barcelona bought Di Stefano from his original club, River Plate, Madrid bought him from Millonarios.
The Spanish sports ministry ruled, in a judgment of Solomon, that he should play two alternate seasons for each club. After a modest first month, Barcelona told Madrid they were welcome to him in return for the $27,000 the Catalans had paid River Plate.
Until then Di Stefano, his wife and three young children, had been staying – and growing ever more impatient – in Barcelona. On the evening of September 22 they took the overnight sleeper train to Madrid. The following morning, when they climbed down at Madrid’s Atocha station, they were met by a driver from Real Madrid and just two journalists.
‘Spot of training’
Years later Di Stefano recalled for this writer: “They took us to the stadium, I was asked to do a spot of training, given a meal and then told I was to play in a game later that afternoon against a French club, Nancy.
“I wasn’t too keen. I’d been sitting around in Barcelona for three months and in all that time I’d only played three friendlies. So I played and scored a goal but we lost 4-2.”
Hardly the most auspicious start in front of critical fans who wondered whether this Argentine centre-forward was worth all the bureaucratic fuss. But weeks later the doubts were dispelled as he scored a hat-trick against Barcelona.
With the hindsight of more than 60 years, it can be argued that September 23, 1953, was the day that changed football.
Two years later the European Champions Cup was launched at the prompting not of the fledgling and uninterested UEFA but by the French newspaper L’Equipe. The advent of floodlighting and the jet engine had opened up a revolutionary potential for international midweek club football.
Madrid won the European Cup for the first five years in a row with a dramatic style and swagger every club and player dreamed of emulating. Di Stefano scored in every final culminating in the legendary 7-3 demolition of Eintracht Frankfurt at Hampden Park, Glasgow when both he and Ferenc Puskas scord hat-tricks.
No other player so effectively combined individual expertise with an all-embracing ability to organise a team to play to his command. He was ‘total soccer’ personified before the term had been invented.
Popularly, no player can ever be bigger than a club but Di Stefano at Real Madrid – as with Pele later at Santos – were the exceptions who proved the rule. Di Stefano inspired his team-mates to climb the international competitive heights and set a benchmark for sporting glamour which rubbed off on the Madrid club and on European football. Television was in its infancy and sponsors were nowhere in sight.
But the Di Stefano-fired success of Madrid and the European Cup – the only label it ever needed – fuelled the mixture which inspired Horst Dassler and Joao Havelange to turn the World Cup into a cash machine and set an example greedily pursued by every other sport.
Sepp Blatter, Havelange’s successor as FIFA president, has always enjoyed rubbing shoulders with great players but he considers Di Stefano the greatest of all and, from the perspective of FIFA, UEFA and the Champions League, he has a point.
Records and awards
Di Stefano, with Madrid, won five European Cups, eight Spanish league titles and one cup, one World Club Cup, two awards as European footballer of the year and was five times Spain’s top scorer. He was European Footballer of the Year in 1957 and 1959 and held, for long years after his retirement, the record of 49 European Cup goals.
He played for the Rest of the World against England in the Football Association’s centenary match in 1963 and received a host of civil and sporting awards around the world.
In 2000 he was appointed honorary president of Real Madrid and in 2003 miniature replicas of all the silverware were mounted in a frame and presented to him by his three grandchildren at the Estadio Bernabeu before Madrid played River Plate in a prestige friendly in his honour.
‘Galacticos’ such as Beckham, Zinedine Zidane and Roberto Carlos all played cameo roles in a 3-1 win.
But, as his old team-mate Francisco Gento said: “Alfredo was the first Galactico. In fact, he was worth any three of them put together.”
Alfredo Di Stefano was not only a true legend for Real Madrid, but one of the greatest football players of all time. May he rest in peace — FRANZ BECKENBAUER
The openness between Latin American players and European clubs is very much due to the work of Alfredo Di Stéfano. He was a trailblazer, and most of all, a legend of the game.– PELE
WHAT THEY SAID:
I don’t know if I had been a better player than Pelé, but I can say without any doubt that Di Stéfano was better than Pelé. I am proud when one speaks of Di Stéfano. Pelé would have flopped had he played in Europe, whereas Alfredo has played very well throughout the world — DIEGO MARADONA to Italian broadcaster RAI in 1997.
The greatness of Di Stéfano was that, with him in your side, you had two players in every position — MIGUEL MUNOZ, Di Stéfano’s captain and then coach at Real Madrid.
To his strength, stamina and electric change of pace, Di Stéfano allied superb ball control on which he put a premium. He score goals in superabundance yet made so many for others. If there was a King in the European Cup, it was surely Alfredo Di Stéfano — BRIAN GLANVILLE
When Madrid fans said I was the heir to Di Stefano’s role in the Real team, I was more apprehensive than pleased. For Di Stefano was the greatest player I have ever seen. The things he did in a match will never be equalled — LUIS DEL SOL, team-mate in the 1960v European Cup-winning team
River Plate (1945–1951): 53 goals in 73 games
Huracan (1946, loan): 10 goals in 25 games
Millonarios (1951-53): 267 goals in 292 game
Real Madrid (1953-64): 307 goals in 396 games
Espanol (1964-66): 14 goals in 60 games
Argentina (1947-49): six goals in six games
Spain (1957-61): 23 goals in 31 games
Elche, Boca Juniors, Valencia, Sporting Clube, Rayo Vallecano, Castellón, Valencia, River Plate, Real Madrid, Boca Juniors, Valencia, Real Madrid.
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