FORMER Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson has labelled Alfredo Di Stefano as one of the greatest players of all time as tributes continue to flood in for the Real Madrid great following his death.
Di Stefano died yesterday afternoon after suffering a heart attack on Saturday, the day after he turned 88, resulting in him being placed in an induced coma.
Among the many tributes, Madrid forward Cristiano Ronaldo hailed Di Stefano as a “maestro” while Fifa president Sepp Blatter described the Argentina-born forward as “the most complete player”.
Di Stefano won five successive European Cups at Real Madrid between 1956 and 1960, scoring in all five finals – including a hat-trick against Eintracht Frankfurt in front of a watching Ferguson at Hampden Park in 1960.
He sits second on Real Madrid’s all-time goalscoring list behind Raul and was an honorary president at the Bernabeu.
“The great question that always comes up is who are the greatest players,” Ferguson told Sky Sports News. “Obviously there is a list of great ones like (Johan) Cruyff, (Diego) Maradona and Pelé and of course (Ferenc) Puskas and Di Stefano – I thought he was one of the greatest. He had a fantastic balance and poise. If you look at one of the goals he scored in the final against Eintracht Frankfurt it was completely what we are saying about the balance and poise. Unbelievable he was.
“I was very sad to hear the news. Even at 88 it is a bit of a shock. I saw him two years ago before our Real Madrid game and he looked fine and looked full of health so it is disappointing to hear the news.”
An abiding memory for Ferguson was being in attendance as Di Stefano put Frankfurt to the sword in a 7-3 drubbing that ensured a fifth straight European Cup. “The amazing thing about that was, being a Rangers fan, Eintracht Frankfurt had beaten Rangers in the semi-finals 6-3, 6-1 so they were gods,” he said.
“They came to Hampden Park and were annihilated by Real Madrid 7-3. I was there in the schoolboy enclosure, I was playing with Queen’s Park at the time, and it was a fantastic experience..”
The two would cross paths 23 years later when Ferguson, then manager of Aberdeen, met a Real Madrid side managed by Di Stefano in the 1983 European Cup-Winners’ Cup final.
Against the odds, Ferguson’s Scottish underdogs won the trophy that night, and the Glaswegian was impressed by Di Stefano’s grace in defeat.
“My greatest memory is when Aberdeen beat Real Madrid,” he added. “I was honoured to be in the same game as Real Madrid but to come up against Di Stefano was an incredible experience for me. The great players they had were household names. Aberdeen were a team on the rise and after the game he was very generous and he said Aberdeen had a team that money can’t buy, a soul and a family spirit.
“He couldn’t say any more in praise of a football team and that was very generous of him. He had a fantastic life and I was really proud to have been associated with him in a small way.”
Madrid beat Manchester United in the European Cup semi-finals in 1957 and Sir Bobby Charlton, who was on the losing side in the tie, echoed Ferguson’s sentiments.
“As one of the stars of the legendary Real Madrid team, I think Alfredo was one of the best players I ever came across and an extremely intelligent footballer,” Charlton told manutd.com.
“He was somebody I really respected, having watched him from the stands at the Bernabeu and then played against him. I have many fond memories of my time with Alfredo and feel privileged to be able to call him a good friend. The footballing world has lost a great player and a great man.”
One of Real’s current stars also offered his condolences as Ronaldo posted a tribute on Twitter. “It’s a very sad day. For me, for all the madridistas, for the world of football,” he wrote.
“Don Alfredo leaves us, but his memory will last forever in our hearts. Legends never die. Thanks for everything Maestro.”
Blatter also used his Twitter account to give his own tribute: “Sad to learn of Di Stefano’s passing, the most complete player I’ve seen. My favourite player. A legend is gone. RIP.”
Pelé spoke of his sadness at the news, saying Di Stefano was responsible for breaking down barriers within the game. The Brazil great tweeted: “Back when we played, Santos and Real Madrid were for many years primary rivals, for having the best football teams in the world. Today, the openness between Latin American players and European clubs is very much due to the work of Alfredo Di Stefano. He was a trailblazer, and most of all, he was a legend of the game. God rest his soul.”
Argentina-born Di Stefano was admitted to intensive care at Madrid’s Gregorio Maranon hospital on Saturday. He had suffered an 18-minute respiratory arrest, the emergency services said.
Known as ‘La Saeta Rubia’ (blond arrow), Di Stefano joined Real in 1953 and became a naturalised Spaniard three years later.
Di Stefano’s international career was less spectacular and he made a handful of appearances for Argentina and later Colombia, while he was playing club football there, before netting 23 goals in 31 games for Spain.
He had a number of health problems in recent years and was fitted with a pacemaker in 2005 after heart surgery.
Real president Florentino Perez announced that, according to the wishes of Di Stefano’s family, the body would lie in repose at the club’s Bernabeu stadium today.
“Today is a day that we never thought could come, a day of absolute sadness for the Madrid family and the world of football,” Perez told a news conference. “The greatest Real Madrid player and the best of all time has left us. His legend will last forever. Alfredo Di Stefano changed the history of this club. He is a myth and he is Real Madrid.”