BUENOS AIRES, Argentina -- "A kickabout with God." That was the headline on the front of Argentine sports daily paper Ole on Tuesday, with the "DI" of the Spanish term "Dios" (God) highlighted, drawing attention to the two-letter nickname, taken from his surname, that the great man was known by here.
Alfredo Di Stefano might have spent almost all of his adult life outside Argentina, and he might have played four games for Colombia -- not part of FIFA at the time -- and 31 for Spain versus the six caps he won for the land of his birth and upbringing, but Argentines have never forgotten him.
Di Stefano wasn't the first player to leave Argentina and end up playing for a new national team, and he's far from the last -- even in the current century, Mauro Camoranesi has won a World Cup playing for Italy -- but he was surely the greatest to do so. Therein lies one of the reasons Argentines continue to remember him fondly: He might not have played here much, he might have lived out his life in Madrid, but he was a true great of the game.
Di Stefano's relationship with Argentina and Spain remained complicated. He once told Marcela Mora y Araujo: "One is a little bit from where one is born, and a lot from where one is fed." All the same, he never forgot his origins -- he was born in the Buenos Aires neighbourhood of Barracas, and grew up there and in nearby La Boca -- and still spoke with a notable porteno lilt to his accent, even after decades in the Spanish capital.
It's no coincidence that a player of his ability came up through the Argentine league at the point in time he did, or at the club he did. In the 1940s, the Argentine league was going through a golden era -- a strength illustrated by the national team, which won four out of the five Copa America tournaments they took part in during the 1940s. Among the finest clubs of the era were River Plate, where a young Di Stefano took his first steps just as the legendary side known as La Maquina came to the end of their cycle.
Di Stefano was loaned out to Huracan for a season before returning to River, where he played from 1947 to 1949. In 1949, a players' strike in Argentina, combined with money pouring into the newly formed Colombian league, led to an exodus of players to the latter and heralded an era of Colombian football known as El Dorado. Di Stefano was just 23 when he signed, along with River teammates Nestor Rossi and Adolfo Pedernera, with Millonarios of Bogota. Already regarded as one of the finest talents on the continent -- he'd scored six goals in six matches for Argentina -- his career was about to move to a new level.
In the latest episode of my podcast, football historian Esteban Bekerman explains that, prior to Di Stefano's move to Colombia, the star had relied largely on his pace. Playing for counterattacking Huracan, "he got used to taking advantage of his speed," Bekerman says. It was at Millonarios, playing alongside "his masters, Pedernera and Antonio Baez," that Di Stefano first learned to play across the whole pitch, and he began to develop into the extraordinarily rounded player he became, Bekerman says.
"Pedernera -- because of his age, and because he was very experienced, and played as a centre-forward too -- was his real master [teacher]," according to Bekerman. When Di Stefano first broke through at River, it was as Pedernera's replacement; the chance to play alongside the great man in Colombia brought with it a development of talent. By the time Di Stefano led Millonarios to a 4-2 win over Real Madrid in a friendly in the Spanish capital in 1952, he was a true star.
A little-known part of his career that followed his departure from Millonarios gives another hint as to why Argentines, and later Madrid fans, took to him. After his transfer to Madrid had been arranged -- but before FIFA had cleared him to play, owing to the non-FIFA-affiliated status of the Colombian league at the time -- Di Stefano was talked into turning out briefly for Midland, an amateur side in the western suburbs of Buenos Aires.
According to Periodismo y Deportes, in the first couple of matches he played in a relaxed manner, as the big star deigning to put in an appearance as a ringer but not wanting to hurt himself. After learning that money had been on the line in one game, though, he was annoyed and scolded his temporary teammates: "I didn't know that -- I thought it was a friendly! Why did no one tell me?"
In the next game -- the only one he started -- Di Stefano was clearly determined to put things right and scored four goals in an 8-1 win. This might have been an amateur league game, so far down the pyramid the clubs weren't affiliated to the Argentine FA (hence why he was allowed to play while FIFA had him waiting ahead of his move to Madrid). But if a game was even vaguely competitive, Di Stefano took things seriously and wanted to win.
Later on -- much later on -- he would return to Argentina, albeit briefly. His managerial career was far from the glories of his playing career, but he did have some success all the same, and among the most notable is a remarkable statistic: Di Stefano is the only manager ever to win Argentine league titles with both Boca Juniors (in 1969) and River Plate (1981).
Anyone who could manage to please both sets of fans must truly have had the Midas touch. Argentina might not have seen much of Di Stefano up close, but Argentines bid him a fond farewell all the same.