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Jul 7, 2014

Alfredo Di Stefano - a tribute

Alfredo Di Stefano had the power to change a generation of young players.

When I was a child, my mother used to take my sister and I to her parents' house every Thursday afternoon. My grandfather Joaquín, a lifelong Madridista and socio since time immemorial was a man of few words and borderline grumpy, but his face lit up when asked about his favourite topic: football. Mostly Real Madrid's golden age in the late 1950s, when the Merengues dominated the European Cup and Alfredo Di Stefano earned his legendary status in world football.

Those like Joaquín, lucky enough to have watched Di Stefano play, never fail to touch upon two things: The first was his amazing talent around the ball. "He created new dribble, ways to strike the ball, and performed tricks I've never seen again, like the goal he scored with his backheel, jumping while facing the goal," he once told me. Carried away by his memories, my grandfather then tried to imitate the move -- something vaguely similar to Rene Higuita's signature scorpion kick -- pretending to hit the ball only with one leg. It was by no means the sort of exercise a 70-something-year-old should try, but Joaquín would go any length to impress his grandson and instil the Di Stefano creed in him.

The second and probably most remarkable characteristic repeated by Di Stefano's legion of admirers refers to his ability to impact a match in endless ways, one tireless display after another. Despite wearing a very traditional number No. 9 shirt, he refused to occupy one specific position and preferred to roam around the pitch, choosing the areas where he could hurt most the opposition. "He took football from still photos to motion pictures," former Real Madrid player and fellow Argentinean Jorge Valdano once said.

Alfredo Di Stefano (July 4, 1926 - July 7, 2014)

• 308 goals in 11 seasons for Real Madrid.
• Two-time Ballon d'Or winner (1957, 1959).
• Eight La Liga titles, five European Cups with Madrid.
• Scored 50 goals in 60 European Cup matches.
• 31 international caps for Spain, scoring 23 goals.
• Argentina born, he also played six times for the Albiceleste
• Also played for River Plate, Millionarios (COL). Espanyol (ESP).
• Coached eight teams, including Real Madrid and Valencia.
• Real Madrid Castilla play at Alfredo di Stefano Stadium.

Don Joaquín mentioned Di Stefano's 'Total Football' approach [long before it had been coined as a term] often enough. My grandfather could spend hours talking about how la Saeta Rubia (the Blond Arrow) appeared omnipresent in the match and carried the side on his shoulders from the moment the ref first blew the whistle; he did so by taking control of the whole stadium as well as by imposing a work ethic that defined the profile of the type of player the Bernabeu still favours 60 years later: the one that, alongside their considerable talent, makes a point of showing effort and commitment in every play.

Di Stefano's winning obsession took him to recommend players to be hired by President Bernabeu -- "I know a good player as soon as he steps on the pitch," the Blond Arrow stated in his autobiography "Gracias, vieja" (Thanks, old woman; in reference to the football). Indeed, he preferred to play with his own people as he was often accused of exerting a quite demanding type of leadership in the dressing room.

"He was as nasty as they come with his teammates, because of his competitiveness," my grandfather used to say. "I remember a sequence of five matches at the Bernabeu during which he managed to yell at every single member of the team every match. All of them! A friend and I were keeping count. And the squad ended up winning every single one of those matches by a three-goal difference!"

Joaquín's -- and most Madridistas' -- only regret regarding the Blond Arrow involved the national team. An Argentinean national during the World Cups of 1950 and 1954, he could not play in those two as his country of origin declined to participate. After he became a Spanish national in 1956, Spain failed to qualify for 1958, and then Di Stefano picked up an injury right before the 1962 World Cup (he made the trip to Chile, but did not play).

"A shame, a complete shame. Terrible luck. Thank God I'll always have Hampden Park to remember": Joaquín remembered the epic 1960 European Cup final against Eintracht Frankfurt in Scotland almost every Thursday. Many believe that to be the best match ever played, and Di Stefano's complete domination of proceedings and his incredible hat trick, together with the final 7-3 scoreline, put him on the pantheon of greatest players ever.

Alfredo Di Stefano scores one of Madrid's seven goals against Frankfurt in 1960
Di Stefano scores in the 1960 final against Eintracht Frankfurt.

When he left to play for Espanyol in 1964, Joaquín could not forgive Santiago Bernabeu, saying: "We Madridistas don't know how to bid farewell to our idols." When Di Stefano moved into coaching, my grandfather followed his career closely, but a hint of disappointment when speaking about those years always showed: "He was never a Di Stefano of the bench, neither he enjoyed having players of his level at any of the clubs he coached".

Sadly, when current Real Madrid president Florentino Perez declared Di Stéfano President of Honour in 2000, my grandfather had passed away a few years earlier. He never had the chance of seeing his idol occupy the place he deserved in the club's hierarchy. That said, I couldn't help an emotional moment six months ago, while reading Di Stefano's autobiography. At some point, remembering his favourite goals, Alfredo didn't hesitate: "The best? In my second season with Real Madrid I remember one I scored hitting the ball with my back heel, while I was in the air facing the goal." As I was reading these words I could picture my grandfather 30 years ago jumping on one foot to make his almost incomprehensible impression of the best goal he ever saw, the best one the Blond Arrow himself ever scored. And only then I completely understood how much those Thursdays with Don Joaquin fed my interest in football, and how important a man I never saw play live was for this passion of mine.

Now that he's gone, Di Stefano's feats will stay alive in the stories one generation tells the next; inspiring newcomers to learn to love the game in the same way that one of its idols did so much.