Alfredo Di Stefano: 1926-2014
Perhaps the best summary of the talent of Real Madrid legend Alfredo Di Stefano came from Brazilian star Didí when asked to compare the Argentine and Pelé, both of whom he played with: "Edson is Pelé 10 minutes per match; Alfredo is Di Stefano all 90 of them."
When Di Stéfano arrived in Madrid in 1953, he was already a well-established player. At the age of 28, he had played and impressed in his native Argentina, where he had won the Championship with River Plate and the Copa America with the national team. But in 1949 a players' strike stopped the Argentinean Championship and most stars left for Colombia, including Di Stefano, loaned by River Plate to Millonarios de Bogota.
There, Di Stefano won four titles in four years. In fact, the Blond Arrow and his teammates became as globally popular as it was possible to be back then, as the aptly nicknamed Ballet Azul (Blue Ballet) -- with Di Stefano, Nestor Rossi, Julio Cozzi and Adolfo Pedernera at its heart -- received constant invitations to play abroad. One of those trips, in 1952, took them to the Bernabeu for Real Madrid's 50th anniversary tournament; Millonarios demolished the hosts 4-2 and it was then that Real president Santiago Bernabeu fell in love with Di Stefano for the first time.
He was not the only one, though. Barcelona also wanted the Argentinean and, while Real Madrid courted Millonarios, the Catalans negotiated with the original owners of Di Stefano's rights: River Plate. Thus the most controversial signing in Spanish football history was born, and with it the best known rivalry in Spanish football.
The debate continues nowadays as though no time had passed: both clubs still claim to be right. Each signed their respective contracts with Millonarios and River and, after months of arguments that left the player anxiously waiting in Barcelona, in September of 1953 the Spanish FA decided to have Di Stefano play one season for each team during four seasons, starting in the Les Corts -- the Camp Nou's predecessor. Shortly thereafter, in a move that still sparks conspiracy theories, Barcelona sold its rights over the player to Real Madrid. Di Stefano said several times that Barcelona lost interest in him after his first two matches with the Azulgrana showed the toll that six months of no real football had taken on his legs, but the real reasons for his move to Madrid may never be known.
Once the chance of forging an amazing partnership with Ladislao Kubala in Barcelona was off the table, the Blond Arrow turned a mediocre Real Madrid, who had gone 20 years without winning a single title in Spain, into one of the best teams ever. He gave the club a crash course in winning, and completely changed its status in both Spanish and European football.
In 11 seasons, Di Stefano and the Merengues won eight Liga titles, one Copa del Rey and five consecutive European Cups. He scored relentlessly -- won five scoring titles, reaching 307 goals in 403 matches -- and led by example with amazing dedication, playing every game with unprecedented intensity. On top of that, Di Stefano never restricted his work to the pitch, as he helped to select and hire a handful of players like Jose Emilio Santamaria or Hector Rial, who became instrumental in Real Madrid's decade of dominance.
His continuous success with Real Madrid contrasts remarkably with his frustrating record with his two national teams. Argentina did not play the World Cups of 1950 and 1954 while Spain -- he had become a Spanish national in 1956 -- failed to qualify for 1958 and Di Stefano picked up an injury right before the 1962 World Cup (he made the trip to Chile, but did not play). He ended up scoring 23 goals in 31 matches for Spain, but never made the kind of impact he managed in domestic football with La Furia.
Indeed, goals and titles with Real Madrid made him grow into a national celebrity in Spain, and he expanded his range of activities. Di Stefano became a pioneer in advertising among sportsmen, endorsing several brands and profiting enormously from it. He even took part in three movies -- Con los mismos colores (1949), Once pares de botas (1954), La batalla del domingo (1963) -- always in one of those "as himself" roles, as his popularity skyrocketed.
There are many moments from his career which deserve to be remembered, but its pinnacle could well have happened at Hampden Park, where he scored a hat trick and dominated both offensively and defensively what has become widely considered the best match ever played: Real Madrid's 7-3 win over Eintracht Frankfurt in the 1960 European Cup final.
As his physical decline started, the unforgiving president Santiago Bernabeu -- not that long ago his partner in the construction of a sports empire -- forced him to finish his career somewhere else, leaving the Madridistas angry at the treatment of their former idol. Di Stefano did end up playing his last two seasons in Barcelona, but for Espanyol. He retired at age 40, and quickly started to work as a coach; never as successful as his previous decades as a player, but with an impressive experience in any case. He managed nine clubs, including Real Madrid, twice; Valencia, three times; and amazingly enough both Argentine rivals Boca Juniors AND River Plate, whom he took to national titles.
In 2000, current Real Madrid president Florentino Perez gave Di Stefano the title of President of Honour. The Argentinean became a de facto ambassador for Real Madrid, his first duty being the reception of FIFA's prize to the Best Club of the 20th Century, an award that could have not possibly happened without him. His titles, but especially his will to win -- a trait Real Madrid kept after he left -- transformed the club into the global powerhouse that it has become nowadays.
Di Stefano's greatness can indeed be measured in the amazing amount of trophies he won, in the goals he scored season after season, but especially in the current size of the club he so decisively helped to build. He deserves to be considered one of the best ever; among the very exclusive list that contains the likes of Pele, Diego Maradona and Johan Cruyff.