Tales from an author

Alfredo Di Stefano: An Extended Tribute

The football world is saddened by the death today of Alfredo Di Stefano, one of its greatest ever stars. Here is a piece about the great man that I wrote last year.
I was only a toddler when Di Stefano retired, but old film from his playing days, his continued involvement with Real Madrid, and the opinions of other players, enabled me to gain some understanding of his genius. He played for Argentina, Colombia, and Spain, three countries that qualified for the current World Cup finals, but sadly never graced the ultimate stage himself. Di Stefano did, however, light up the early years of the European Cup with Real Madrid. Thank you, Don Alfredo, and rest in peace.

Alfredo Di Stefano: The Blond Arrow

Alfredo Di Stefano was the first superstar of modern football, building a massive reputation during the 1950s and 1960s. After success in his native Argentina, and then Colombia, Di Stefano crossed the Atlantic, and rose to new heights in the fledgling European Cup, scoring for Real Madrid as they won each of the first five finals. Besides goalscoring – his career total was more than 800 goals in first class matches – the strength of Di Stefano’s game was the enormous scope of his play. Although he may be categorised as a deep-lying centre forward, Di Stefano ranged across the pitch. Helenio Herrera, an eccentric Argentinian whose path crossed that of Di Stefano several times in their careers, summed up the stature of the player with the following analogy: “Di Stefano was the greatest player of all time. People used to say to me ‘Pele is the first violinist in the orchestra’, and I would answer ‘Yes, but Di Stefano is the whole orchestra’. He was in defence, in midfield, in attack. He would never stop running, and he would shout at the other players to run too”.
The player explained his role in more prosaic, but equally enlightening, terms. Di Stefano anticipated the theory of “Total Football”, which was to emerge a few years after his retirement as a player, with the following thoughts: “As a centre forward I am always on the move. Up, back, and across, trying not to be fixed in one position and so allowing the defender to see too much of me. Or I may be trying to avoid bunching with other forwards. Or I may be reading what is to come, and be moving quickly to help the next man on the ball. Forwards should accept it as part of their job that they should help the defence. When the opposing attack is in possession, you obviously are out of the game. What do you do? Just accept that position, while the defence tries to come through a difficult time? If the defence fails, the forward’s job becomes that much harder. He has to score more goals. So the obvious thing is to get back quickly and help the defence. It eases your own job over the game. I think nothing of popping up at centre half or full back, to cover a colleague who has had to leave his position. We are all footballers, and as such should be able to perform competently in all eleven positions”.
Di Stefano was born on July 4 1926, at Buenos Aires in Argentina, into a family of Italian immigrants. He had to work on his family farm as a youth, but this had the effect of building his strength and stamina. Alfredo joined River Plate, a club his father had played for, and made his first team debut at the age of 16. During his early years with the club, before he established a regular place in the team, Di Stefano was loaned to Huracan, but soon returned to River Plate, whose fans nicknamed him “the Blond Arrow”, for his ability to dart around the field. Di Stefano helped River Plate to win the Argentinian title in 1947. In that year he also starred for Argentina, as they won the Copa America, which was staged in Ecuador, scoring six goals in six appearances. Apart from that tournament, Di Stefano only played one other match for Argentina.
In 1949 Di Stefano moved to Los Millionarios, a club in Colombia whose very name was chosen to symbolise its wealth. The Colombians had set up a rebel league, beyond the auspices of FIFA. The clubs refused to pay transfer fees, but offered high pay which led many South American footballers, plus some from England, to join them. Los Millionarios dominated the new league, while Di Stefano was even selected to play twice for Colombia’s national team, on the basis of his short residence there.
Real Madrid arranged to buy Di Stefano from Los Millionarios in 1953, but at the same time Barcelona agreed a transfer with River Plate, who officially still held the player’s registration. With Real and Barcelona in dispute over which club Di Stefano now belonged to, the Spanish football authorities arranged a compromise whereby he would play alternate seasons for the two clubs. Barcelona’s enthusiasm for the player soon waned, and they agreed to sell their rights in return for Real reimbursing the paltry fee of USD 27,000 they had paid to River Plate. Di Stefano soon emphasised his real value, by scoring four goals as Real beat Barcelona 5-0.
The arrival of Di Stefano helped transform Real Madrid into a team that dominated the Spanish, and then the European, game. After many years in the doldrums, Real Madrid won the Spanish league in 1954, for the first time since 1933. Real had a fine manager in Jose Villalonga, but the revival of the club owed more to the influence of Santiago Bernabeu, who had been their President since 1943. Bernabeu had launched a membership scheme for the club’s supporters – a novelty in those days – and used the proceeds to build a massive arena. This was opened in 1947, and renamed the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium in 1955. The investment paid off, with the revenues from large crowds financing the further development of the club, and fulfilling the dreams Bernabeu had for Real Madrid. During 1955, a year in which Real retained the Spanish championship, Bernabeu was one of the enthusiasts who did much to turn the idea of a European Cup into reality.
In 1955-56 Real Madrid won the inaugural European Cup. In the Final Real Madrid met Stade de Reims, at Paris. Reims scored twice in the first ten minutes, before Real Madrid got back into the game on the quarter of an hour mark, courtesy of a great goal from Di Stefano, who beat two opponents in midfield, exchanged passes with Marsal, and then scored with a powerful shot. On the half hour Real pulled level at 2-2. Reims regained the lead in the second half, but Real Madrid thwarted them with another fight back, and the Spanish club eventually won a thrilling match 4-3. Ironically Real Madrid’s victory in the first European Cup Final owed much to the performances of two Argentinians. Besides Di Stefano scoring once, and inspiring the team’s recovery, his fellow-countryman Hector Rial had netted twice in the match.
Real reached the European Cup Final again the following season, with their opponents being Fiorentina. Real had the great advantage that their stadium had been chosen in advance as the venue for the Final, in honour of the club winning the inaugural European Cup. Despite being cheered on by a crowd of 124,000, Real Madrid made heavy weather of their 2-0 win against a cautious Fiorentina. Real did not open the scoring until twenty minutes from time, when they were fortunate to be awarded a penalty by Leo Horn, the referee from the Netherlands. Fiorentina’s Magnini fouled Enrique Mateos, but the latter player had been flagged as offside by a linesman when he began his run towards goal. Di Stefano scored from the penalty, and six minutes later Francisco Gento scored the second goal. The home crowd were delighted to see Real Madrid retain the trophy, which was presented to Miguel Munoz by General Franco, the Fascist dictator of Spain, who was a supporter of the victorious club. Besides retaining the European Cup in 1957, Real Madrid won the Spanish league that year. Di Stefano was voted European Footballer of the Year for 1957, and would win the award again in 1959.
Having become a naturalised Spaniard in 1956, Di Stefano was cleared by FIFA to play for Spain, despite having already appeared for both Argentina and Colombia. Di Stefano is one of only two players to have represented three different countries in international football, the other being Ladislav Kubala. Di Stefano scored a hat trick on his debut for Spain, as they beat the Netherlands 5-1 in January 1957. During the remainder of that year Di Stefano featured in the qualifiers for the 1958 World Cup, but Spain were eliminated by Scotland.
Real Madrid retained both the Spanish title and the European Cup in 1957-58. Di Stefano was the European Cup’s leading scorer this season, with ten goals. Four of these goals came in Real’s 8-0 win against Seville, in the first leg of an all-Spanish Quarter Final, and Di Stefano followed this with a hat trick, as Real beat Vasas Budapest 4-0 in the opening match of their Semi Final. Real’s opponents in the Final were Milan, with the match played at the Heysel Stadium, in Brussels. This developed into an exciting contest, but only after a nervous, and goalless, first half. Milan twice took the lead, but Real equalised on each occasion, with Di Stefano, who led the fight-back, scoring his team’s first goal. During extra time Francisco Gento scored to secure a 3-2 win for Real Madrid. Di Stefano subsequently recalled this match as “the toughest test of all” faced by Real in the early European Cups.
In the 1958-59 European Cup, Di Stefano was sent off in the home leg of Real Madrid’s First Round tie against Besiktas. In the Quarter Finals, he scored four times in the 7-1 win at home to Wiener Sport Club. Real required a play-off to beat Atletico Madrid in the Semi Finals, with Di Stefano and Ferenc Puskas scoring in the 2-1 victory. The 1959 Final, played at Stuttgart, brought together Real Madrid and Stade de Reims, in a repeat of the 1956 decider. The match proved to be a disappointing contrast to the excitement of the 1956 contest. Real Madrid won 2-0, with Di Stefano scoring their second goal, but neither team played to their potential.
In 1960 Real Madrid won the European Cup for a fifth successive time, beating Eintracht Frankfurt 7-3 in the Final, which ranks as the greatest match in the history of the competition – indeed it remains among the most brilliant games in any football competition. Prior to this, the Semi Final draw had paired Real Madrid with their bitter rivals, Barcelona. The clash went beyond the confines of football, with a political dimension to the long-established rivalry between the clubs. General Franco’s Fascist dictatorship actively associated itself with the success of Real Madrid. By contrast Barcelona represented Catalan nationalism, and the democratic spirit which had made their city a centre of resistance to Franco during the Civil War of 1936-39. Both legs of the Semi Final were excellent contests, and each time Real Madrid won 3-1, with Di Stefano scoring twice in the first leg. These defeats prompted Barcelona to dismiss Helenio Herrera, their manager, but a few weeks later Barcelona won the Spanish title, finishing ahead of Real on goal average.
The Final was played at Hampden Park in Glasgow, before an appreciative crowd of 134,000 people – the highest ever for a European Cup Final – who had paid ticket prices ranging from 5 shillings (now 25 pence) to 50 shillings (now £2.50). The Real players had been offered a bonus of about £650 per player to win the Final, while Eintracht’s players were offered around one tenth of this by a rather frugal management. It all seems very small money compared to the multi-million pound Champions League we are accustomed to in the present day. Eintracht Frankfurt made a bright start, and took the lead after eighteen minutes. The goal stung Real into action, particularly Di Stefano, who single-handedly took control of midfield, and directed the team’s attacks. After twenty six minutes, Di Stefano met a cross from Canario, on the six yard line towards the far post, and swept the ball, falling as he did so, into the goal, and Real were level. Real took the lead with half an hour played, as Canario’s powerful shot was only parried by Loy, the Eintracht goalkeeper, whereupon Di Stefano thrashed the ball into the roof of the net from three yards. On the stroke of half time, Puskas scored to put Real 3-1 ahead. Puskas was eventually to score four goals in the match, while Di Stefano completed a hat track in the second half, as Real and Eintracht rapidly exchanged goals. Di Stefano’s third goal came as he led an exchange of passes from the re-start after an Eintracht goal, and drove a shot from twenty yards that sped across the turf, and into the bottom right-hand corner of the net. Five minutes from time Di Stefano, set free by a long-range pass from Vidal, flicked a shot out of the reach of Loy, only for the ball to thud against a post. Di Stefano therefore missed out on equalling Puskas’ haul of four goals in the Final.
As the match ended the enormous crowd – most of them native Scots – rose to acclaim the efforts of Real Madrid and Eintracht Frankfurt with a standing ovation. Those lucky enough to be present knew they had witnessed a game almost without equal. The crowd’s appreciation continued for a quarter of an hour, as Zarraga, the Real captain, collected the trophy, following which the players received their medals, and Real ran a lap of honour. Real Madrid had won the European Cup for a fifth successive time, with a golden performance that immortalised the exploits of a team that ranks among the greatest in the history of football. The spectacular football of Real Madrid also gave a great boost to the standing of the European Cup, helping to secure the prominence the competition has always deserved.
In 2005, as the European Cup / Champions League reached its half-century, Di Stefano was interviewed for Champions: The Official Magazine of the UEFA Champions League, and drew the following interesting comparison between the competition he had played in, and the modern equivalent: “It was a real Champions Cup. Every team in the competition had won their league in their own country. Not like now. Today it’s all about business, that’s the way the club want it. For sure it is still a great competition, with a lot of crack players, but it is definitely a business. It all started in the 1950s, with players’ pictures and chocolate bars, and today football is a real industry. Then it was another world. There was no advertising, no sponsors’ names on jerseys, no TV rights. We used to play a huge amount of friendlies all over the world just to make some money. We travelled across Europe and South America and then the provincial teams came to Madrid to play against us, also to make some money. I used to complain that I had signed a contract to play football not to run all over the world”. Di Stefano also recalled that when he arrived at Real Madrid, Bernabeu discouraged the club’s players from owning cars, wishing to avoid an ostentatious image. Di Stefano and his wife Sara, along with their three children, found the cost of taxi journeys around Madrid expensive. Di Stefano was eventually given permission by the chairman to buy a small car, in response to a diplomatic request following the 1956 European Cup victory.
A few weeks after their 1960 European Cup Final, Real Madrid moved beyond the confines of Europe to assert their place in the global game, by winning the inaugural World Club Championship, with a victory against Penarol. After a goalless draw in Uruguay, Real won 5-1 in the return leg, with Di Stefano among the goalscorers. Real Madrid won the Spanish league in 1960-61, twelve points clear of runners-up Atletico Madrid, this being their first national title since 1958, but were eliminated by Barcelona in the First Round of the European Cup. The following season saw Real win the league and cup double. Real had been beaten Finalists in the Spanish Cup in 1958, 1960, and 1961, but in 1962 they defeated Sevilla 2-1 to take the Cup. Real also reached the 1962 European Cup Final, but lost 5-3 to Benfica in a pulsating match, despite Puskas scoring a hat trick – while Di Stefano failed to score in a European Cup Final appearance for the first time.
During 1961 Spain qualified for the following year’s World Cup finals, with Di Stefano scoring in three of their four qualifying matches. Di Stefano travelled to Chile for the 1962 finals, but did not play in the tournament, due to the combination of a pulled muscle and strained relations with Helenio Herrera, who was Spain’s manager. This proved to be an anti-climatic end to Di Stefano’s chequered international career. He had scored 23 goals in 31 matches for Spain between 1957 and 1961, thereby taking his international totals to 29 goals in 40 games. Despite being one of the greatest players in the history of the game, Di Stefano never graced the World Cup finals. Prior to missing out with Spain in both 1958 and 1962, two possible opportunities had failed to materialise. When Di Stefano was an international for Argentina they declined to enter the 1950 competition, and by the start of the 1954 qualifiers he had switched his allegiance to Colombia, who were excluded by FIFA. Di Stefano was also unlucky with the European Nations’ Cup. Spain’s progress in the inaugural 1960 competition was ended by a withdrawal forced by Franco’s government, in order to avoid playing the Soviet Union in the Quarter Finals. Spain, as host nation, were ironically to beat the Soviet Union in the 1964 Final, following the end of Di Stefano’s career with the national team. There was, however, an alternative recognition of Di Stefano’s standing with his selection for the FIFA World XI team that played against England at Wembley in 1963, to mark the centenary of the Football Association. England won 2-1, with Jimmy Greaves scoring the winner in the final minute, shortly after Denis Law had equalised an earlier goal by England’s Terry Paine.
Back in Spanish domestic football, Di Stefano helped Real Madrid win the league in both 1963 – with a repeat of the twelve point margin on second-placed Atletico Madrid from a couple of years earlier – and 1964. Real also reached the European Cup Final in 1964, but lost 3-1 to Internazionale, who were managed by Helenio Herrera. During the Summer of 1964 Di Stefano moved from Real Madrid to Espanol, following a rift with Santiago Bernabeu. It was the end of a remarkable era. During the eleven seasons that Di Stefano played for them, Real Madrid had won the Spanish League eight times, the European Cup five times, the World Club Championship once, and the Spanish cup once. Real had also been runners-up in the European Cup twice, while Di Stefano accumulated a total of 49 goals in the competition between 1955 and 1964. Di Stefano spent a couple of years at Espanyol, before injury forced his retirement in 1966, at the age of 40.
Following the end of his playing days, Di Stefano enjoyed success as a coach, in both Spain and Argentina. He won the Argentinian title with Boca Juniors in 1969, and River Plate in 1981. In between, Di Stefano had a couple of spells as manager of Valencia, leading them to the Spanish title in 1971, and the European Cup-Winners’ Cup trophy in 1980. Across the border, in Portugal, Di Stefano coached Sporting Lisbon during the 1974-75 season. Di Stefano returned to Real Madrid as manager in 1982, and remained in post until 1984. In 1983 Real reached the European Cup-Winners’ Cup Final, but lost 2-1 to Aberdeen, who were managed by Alex Ferguson – who had coincidentally been part of the crowd in his native Glasgow at the 1960 European Cup Final. Di Stefano subsequently acted as caretaker manager for Real Madrid, during the 1990-91 season. Elimination from the European Cup, by Spartak Moscow, led to the end of Di Stefano’s second spell in charge at Real. That proved to be his final coaching role, but Di Stefano has remained a father figure at Real Madrid. He was appointed Honorary President of the club in November 2000, and has chaired an association of former Real players, which meets regularly. When Real Madrid beat Bayer Leverkusen in the 2002 Champions League Final, at Hampden Park, Di Stefano led a reunion of players who won the 1960 European Cup Final at the same venue.
Alfredo’s wife, Sara Freites, died in 2005. On December 24 of that year Di Stefano suffered a heart attack, and was admitted to hospital in Valencia. Following a heart by-pass operation four days later, Di Stefano made a good recovery. His convalescence was boosted by Real Madrid’s decision to name their reserve team ground the Alfredo Di Stefano Stadium. The occasion was marked by a friendly match on May 9 2006, with Real Madrid beating Stade De Reims 6-1, in a repeat of the first European Cup Final, in which Di Stefano had starred fifty years earlier. In 2013 Di Stefano, aged 86, announced his intention to marry Gina Gonzalez, a woman of just 36. Following this Gonzalez claimed that Di Stefano’s children were holding him a virtual prisoner, having taken legal action in an attempt to prevent the marriage, on the grounds that he was no longer of sound mind.
In 2000 Di Stefano surveyed his life and career, with the publication of an autobiography, Gracias Vieja! (the title is Spanish for “Thanks mum”). Di Stefano has remained a great enthusiast for football, and his personal heritage. During the 2005 interview with Champions magazine, Di Stefano explained: “I am mostly Italian, but I have an Irish maternal grandmother and a French grandfather on my father’s side. The Irish side means there is something from the British Isles in me. I am still very grateful for what England have done, and are still doing, for football. Thanks to football and the English who invented it, thousands of people live well today – players, clubs, journalists, managers, agents, coaches, a whole community”. Besides the absence of any appearance in the World Cup finals, Di Stefano’s long-term reputation has been slightly undermined by the relative lack of film of his performances, compared to that of other great players of recent decades – although the BBC coverage of the 1960 European Cup Final is a brilliant document of Di Stefano’s talents. Di Stefano was awarded a Super Ballon d’Or in 1989 as Europe’s greatest ever player. UEFA’s dual poll in 2004 aimed at finding Europe’s greatest footballers saw Di Stefano placed fifth by the players and coaches, and sixth by the supporters, both of which were lower rankings than might have been expected. For many players, Di Stefano was the greatest of all time, with George Best, Johan Cruyff, and Diego Maradona each lauding him as their personal hero. In the words of George Best: “Di Stefano was the best footballer ever. He had everything. I used to pretend to be him as a kid”.


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