by Andrew Godsell
Alfredo Di Stéfano 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 Stéfano crossed the Atlantic, and rose to new heights with Real Madrid in the fledgling European Cup. Di Stéfano is perhaps the player mentioned most often as a rival to the claim that Pelé was the greatest ever footballer.
Besides prolific goalscoring – his career total was more than 800 goals in first class matches – the strength of Di Stéfano’s game was the enormous scope of his play. Although he may be categorised as a deep-lying centre forward, Di Stéfano 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 Stéfano 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”.
Di Stéfano explained his role in more prosaic, but equally enlightening, terms. He 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 Stéfano was born on July 4 1926, in Buenos Aires, 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 Stéfano was loaned to Huracan, but he soon returned to River Plate, whose fans nicknamed him “the Blond Arrow”, for his ability to dart around the field.
Di Stéfano helped River Plate to win the Argentinian title in 1947. In that year he also starred for Argentina, as they won the South American championship, which was staged in Ecuador, scoring six goals in six appearances. Apart from that tournament, Di Stéfano only played one other match for Argentina.
In 1949 Di Stéfano 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 Stéfano was even selected to play twice for Colombia’s unofficial national team, on the basis of his short residence there.
Real Madrid arranged to buy Di Stéfano 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 Stéfano 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 Stéfano soon emphasised his real value, by scoring four goals as Real beat Barcelona 5-0. The arrival of Di Stefano helped transform Real Madrid from one of Spain’s leading clubs into a team that dominated the domestic, and then the European, game. During the eleven seasons that Di Stéfano played for them, Real Madrid won the Spanish league eight times, taking the title in 1954, 1955, 1957, 1958, 1961, 1962, 1963, and 1964. Real also won the Spanish cup in 1962.
Towering over these achievements, however, was Real Madrid’s record in the European Cup. They won the first five Finals, from 1956 to 1960, and were the runners-up in 1962 and 1964. Real also won the inaugural World Club Championship in 1960. Di Stéfano scored in each of the first five European Cup finals, and accumulated a total of 49 goals in the competition between 1955 and 1964. Di Stéfano’s brilliance was twice recognised with the European Footballer of the Year award – in 1957 and 1959.
Having become a naturalised Spaniard, Di Stéfano was cleared by FIFA to play for Spain, despite having already appeared for both Argentina and the unofficial Colombia. Di Stéfano scored 23 goals in 31 matches for Spain between 1957 and 1961. Di Stéfano was included in the Spanish squad for the 1962 World Cup 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. Di Stéfano left Real Madrid in 1964, moving to Espanol, with whom he played for a couple of seasons, before injury forced his retirement in 1966.
He went on to be a successful coach, winning the Argentinian title with Boca Juniors in 1970, and River Plate in 1981. In between these successes, Di Stéfano led Valencia to the Spanish title in 1971, and the European Cup-Winners Cup trophy in 1980.
He also twice acted as caretaker manager for Real Madrid, during the 1982-83 and 1990-91 seasons. Di Stéfano remained a father figure at Real Madrid, and was appointed Honorary President of the club in 2000. Alfredo’s wife, Sara Freites, died in 2005. On December 24 of that year Di Stéfano suffered a heart attack, and was admitted to hospital in Valencia. Following a heart by-pass operation four days later, Di Stéfano made a good recovery. His convalescence was boosted by Real Madrid’s decision to name their reserve team ground the Alfredo Di Stéfano Stadium.
In 2013 Di Stéfano, aged 86, announced his intention to marry Gina Gonzalez, a woman of just 36. Following this Gonzalez claimed that Di Stéfano’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.
This situation had not been resolved by the time that Alfredo Di Stéfano sadly died, on July 8 2014, in Madrid, following a second heart attack. On the following day, a minutes silence in his memory preceded a World Cup Semi Final between Argentina and the Netherlands.
Di Stéfano was always a great enthusiast for football, and his personal heritage. During an interview in 2005, he 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 Stéfano’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.
Di Stéfano 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 Stéfano 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 Stéfano 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”.