ALFREDO Di Stefano, one of the greatest footballers of all time, has died in Madrid following a heart attack. He was 88.
The Argentinian “Blond Arrow” was the first “Galactico” of football’s television age, the player around whom other superstars – Hungary’s Ferenc Puskas, Spain’s Francisco Gento, France’s Raymond Kopa and Brazil’s Didi – orbited as Real Madrid won the first five European Cup competitions in succession. In Madrid, you fitted in and were subservient to Di Stefano, or you shipped out.
Di Stefano was born in Buenos Aires of international lineage; his paternal grandfather was Italian, his maternal grandparents French and Irish. He was in the River Plate first team at the age of 17 and winning the Copa America with Argentina at 21.
In 1949 the Argentinian players went on strike and Di Stefano decamped to the Millonaros club in Bogota, where, because the Colombian FA was outwith Fifa, players were being paid extravagant wages.
Eventually, Colombia joined Fifa and Di Stefano returned to River Plate. His talent was spotted by the big Spanish clubs and an unseemly spat developed when both Real Madrid and Barcelona claimed to have signed him. Fifa told the Spanish football federation to find a solution and a four-season deal was cobbled together which would have seen Di Stefano play one season for Barcelona, the next for Real Madrid.
However, with the Barcelona board split on whether or not to accept this, Real president Santiago Bernabeu d’Yeste took positive action and signed the player in 1954 and Di Stefano ended up a Madridista for the next decade.
His timing was immaculate. Real entered the inaugural European Cup in 1955-56, beating Rheims of France, who had themselves knocked out Hibs in the semi-final, in the first final in Paris. Di Stefano scored, as he would in each of the first five finals, capping that amazing run with a hat-trick as he and four-goal Puskas monopolised the scoring in Real’s 7-3 win over Eintracht Frankfurt at Hampden Park in 1960.
As the 128,000 mainly Scots who were there in person will tell you, along with the millions more who watched the grainy black and white television pictures, this was the greatest football match ever played.
Di Stefano had won six caps for Argentina, then four for Columbia, by the time he was granted Spanish citizenship in 1957, and he was immediately catapulted into the Spanish national team.
Spain were drawn in a World Cup qualifying group with Scotland and Di Stefano made his first appearance at Hampden in late 1957. His habit of dropping off the front line to play “in the hole” had perplexed the defenders of the time, but at Hampden, Scotland captain George Young had a plan: he played almost as a sweeper, with Tommy Docherty man-marking Di Stefano.
It was a job ‘The Doc’ relished; he left his mark on the great man, and Di Stefano barely got a kick at the ball as Scotland won 4-2 on their way to qualifying for the 1958 World Cup finals.
Di Stefano had missed out on the 1950 and 1954 World Cups because Argentina didn’t enter. He had one final chance in 1962, when his goals played a part in getting Spain to Chile. However, he play in the finals, after sustaining a thigh injury and, alongside Jim Baxter, George Best and Ryan Giggs, he remains one of the greatest players never to have featured on football’s biggest stage.
The following year he captained the Fifa XI, memorably described by Baxter as “a case of too many chiefs and not enough Indians”, which lost to England at Wembley in the FA’s Centenary International. Then, in 1964, he quit Real for a last hurrah with Espanyol, before, in 1967 hanging up his boots after a farewell game, in the Bernabeu, against newly crowned European champions Celtic, whose Jimmy Johnstone stole the show with a display of magic.
Di Stefano, then aged 40, turned to coaching. He returned to Argentina, where he coached both halves of the country’s “Old Firm”, River Plate and Boca Juniors. He then took Seville to success in the Spanish Cup and the European Cup-Winners’ Cup, before returning to the Bernabeu as coach.
He certainly had successes there, as he did with all 12 of the clubs he managed in Argentina, Spain and Portugal, but his managerial spell at Real is perhaps best remembered for the 1982-83 season when Real finished second in five competitions – the Spanish League, Cup, League Cup and Super Cup, and the European Cup-Winners’ Cup, when they were beaten in extra time in Gothenburg by an unheralded team called Aberdeen, managed by a young Alex Ferguson. Di Stefano was presented with a bottle of whisky by Ferguson before the game. It was a psychological ploy dreamed up by legendary Celtic manager Jock Stein, who Ferguson worked under with the Scottish national team, designed to give the impression that Aberdeen were a small team honoured to be in the presence of greatness.
In later life, although beset by poor health (his final, fatal heart attack was his third), Di Stefano became one of football’s greatest ambassadors. In 2000 he was appointed honorary life president of Real Madrid, who later named their second stadium, where they train and their reserve teams play, after him.
When, to mark its golden jubilee, Uefa invited each of its member associations to name their Golden Player – their top one over those 50 years - Di Stefano was Spain’s choice; Kenny Dalglish was Scotland’s. Di Stefano was named in fourth place, behind Pele, Maradona and Johan Cruyff in Fifa’s list of the 100 greatest players of all time, while, in Argentina, he, Lionel Messi and Maradona are considered the Holy Trinity of football.
His records make impressive reading: 485 club goals in 554 games – that’s 0.74 goals per game. His international record is even better: 29 goals in 37 games (six for Argentina, 31 for Spain), making 0.78 goals per game. An average of 0.5 goals per game is the benchmark for a top-flight international striker.
As a player he won 13 domestic league titles, eight domestic cups, five European Cups and one Intercontinental Cup. As a manager, he led his clubs to five league titles, five domestic cups and a European Cup-Winners’ Cup.
He twice, in 1957 and 1959, won Uefa’s Ballon d’Or as Player of the Year, then won a Super Ballon d’Or in 1989. He was four times voted Spain’s player of the year.
Yes, he scored goals, lots of them, but he was just as effective playing in a slightly withdrawn role, creating space and opportunities for others. Many observers have rated him the greatest all-round player ever.