Alfredo Di Stefano was unique. His career spanned eras which linked football’s yesteryear, its today and its tomorrow. Though he died last July his legacy stands supreme because, as a footballer, he was both of his time and ahead of his time.
Di Stefano knew it. He did not do false modesty. But, even in his latter years, growing increasingly grumpy with journalists whose enthusiastic youth betrayed what he considered a lack of insight, he never lost his appreciation of the game.
Not for “Don Alfredo” the chip-on-the-shoulder envy of today’s players, their fame and their earnings. He was satisfied, in his way, to see the goal-laden manner in which Cristiano Ronaldo picked up the mantle of arrogant showmanship laid down by “his” Madrid of the 1950s and early 1960s.
Di Stefano grew up in football in the 1940s. His father played for River Plate during the amateur v professional “war” of the early 1930s, when the two rival championships ran simultaneously. He moved his family to a farm, and legend has it the young Alfredo built up his phenomenal stamina running from farm to city and back again.
He, too, played for River Plate in an era which reached a zenith with its iconic La Maquina (“the machine”) forward line of Juan Carlos Munoz, Jose Manuel Moreno, Adolfo Pedernera, Angel Labruna and Felix Loustau. Di Stefano was a talented young centre-forward, but to find a game in the top division he had to play for River at outside-right or on loan at Huracan. Only when Pedernera left for Colombia did a vacancy at centre-forward arise.
He played in, starred for and conquered the national team, too. But football for Di Stefano was always about professionalism. He only wanted to be a winner and was always prepared to up sticks and follow a pragmatic course in pursuit of victory on the pitch and financial security off it.
In the late 1940s Argentina’s club owners sought as much revenue as possible while paying their players as little as possible. Just as the players went on strike, Colombia’srenegade clubs launched their own professional league.
Pedernera flew back to Buenos Aires and rounded up a host of talented players, with Di Stefano at their head, to move to Bogota and join him at Millonarios. The grounds were packed, the money was good and the football outstanding. Being outside FIFA, Millonarios and others paid no transfer fees, investing solely in the team.
Di Stefano seized the moment. He found he could roam the pitch, barking orders, directing play with both feet and mind, and still find space to score a flood of goals.
He mesmerised Santiago Bernabeu when Millonarios played in Real Madrid’s 50th anniversary tournament in the summer of 1952. Colombia had rejoined FIFA and now the “stolen” players would have to return to their old clubs – but, in the meantime, Millonarios generated as much cash as they could from friendlies.
Bernabeu had built a vast new stadium for Real Madrid. Now he needed to build a team to justify it and fill it. Of all the fine players he bought, none was the equal of Di Stefano, arguably the greatest of all time.
There was, however, a transfer wrangle with Barcelona. Madrid agreed a deal with Millonarios, Barcelona agreed a deal with River Plate. Bernabeu, angry the Catalans had snatched Ladislav Kubala from Real three years earlier, pulled strings.
Di Stefano, increasingly impatient and inactive in a hotel in Barcelona, was just packing to return to Argentina when it was ruled that he should play alternate seasons with the two clubs, starting with Madrid.
Far from fit, his first games were unimpressive. Barcelona sold Madrid their half-share – and were made to suffer immediately when Di Stefano struck his first Spanish hat-trick against them.
For the next 11 years, as Madrid ruled first Spain, then Europe, then the world, Di Stefano was inspiration, commander, creator and leading goalscorer. Then, as now, their greatest rivals were Barcelona, with such stars as Kubala, Luis Suarez, Evaristo, Sandor Kocsis, Zoltan Czibor, Joan Segarra and Antoni Ramallets.
But for Di Stefano, the most outstanding individual of them all, the needs of the team were always paramount. Years later, looking back to the Madrid-Barcelona rivalry of those days, he told me: “They had the better individuals but we had something more important – we were the better team.”
Not that he was oblivious to the aura created around other great players. In the summer of 1959 Madrid bought Didi, the creative fulcrum of Brazil’s 1958 World Cup-winners. When Didi was presented to local media and fans, Di Stefano was persuaded to be pictured shaking hands. Smiling, he told Didi: “They say you’ve come to replace me. Well, you’re too old and you’re not good enough.” Didi lasted just six months before being loaned to Valencia then sold to Botafogo.
Ferenc Puskas was a totally different case. The “Galloping Major” arrived in 1958, badly unfit from two inactive years after fleeing the Hungarian Revolution. But Puskas was interested in scoring goals, not creating them. He was no rival to Di Stefano but an ally, never more than on that iconic day in 1960 when Madrid thrashed Eintracht Frankfurt 7-3 in Glasgow to win the European Cup for a fifth successive time. Puskas scored four goals, Di Stefano three.
From that peak Di Stefano and his club slid gradually from grace. He played two years for Kubala at Espanyol then coached Valencia, Boca Juniors and Madrid among others. It was he who gave a debut to a precocious home-grown kid called Raul.
When Florentino Perez bought control, launching the Galacticos era, he brought Di Stefano back as honorary president. It was no less than “El Viejo” deserved.
He remained a critical observer, but never expressed a preference for the football of his day. The nearest he came, perhaps, was when I asked him about the number of games confronting players today. He replied: “I never got tired of playing. Also, we played all 90 minutes of all our games…”
No player ever committed himself to every minute of every game quite like Alfredo Di Stefano.
OTHER WHO PASSED AWAY IN 2014
Mario Coluna, 1935-2014
Midfielder who captained Benfica to two European Cups and Portugal to third place at the 1966 World Cup.
The first great African footballer who achieved global success with Benfica and Portugal.
Tom Finney, 1921-2014
One of England’s greatest centre-forwards, famed for his loyalty to Preston North End.
Richard Moller Nielsen, 1937-2014
Led Denmark to against-the-odds victory at the 1992 European Championship.
Captain of Brazil’s 1958 World Cup-winning side.
Luis Aragones, 1938-2014
Ex-Atletico Madrid and Barcelona coach who guided Spain to the Euro 2008 title.
Tito Vilanova, 1968-2014
Former assistant to Pep Guardiola, he won La Liga in 2012 in his first season in charge. Stepped down in 2013 due to ill health and died a year later.
Gyula Grosics, 1926-2014
Goalkeeper in Hungary’s golden team of the 1950s.