It seems bizarre to think that one of the world’s greatest players represented three different national teams yet never played at a World Cup. Alfredo di Stefano, who died aged 88 on Monday, turned out for Argentina (eight times), Colombia (four times) and Spain (31 times) and yet the closest he came to a World Cup appearance was as an unused substitute for Spain in 1962.
Perhaps his name would be in the conversation alongside Pele and Maradona as the world’s greatest if he had performed, and won, the World Cup. He lifted every other trophy in the game, and is best known for inspiring Real Madrid to five straight European Cup trophies between 1956 and 1960.
His signing for Madrid, though, was shrouded in controversy as he originally moved from River Plate, while on loan at Colombian side Millonairos, to Spain to join Barcelona, title winners in 1952 and 1953. He even played three friendly matches for Barcelona. But Real Madrid, then an also-ran in the league, was desperate to keep him out of Catalan hands.
What happened is still in dispute, but Phil Ball, author of White Storm: 101 Years of Real Madrid, writes that the Spanish FA, after mooting that Di Stefano alternate seasons at both clubs, changed the regulations surrounding foreign imports to allow Madrid to loophole its way into signing him. Ball believed that Di Stefano would not have had the same impact at Barcelona because of a personality clash with Ladislao Kubala, one of the best players in its history.
Di Stefano was already a storied player in South America, with two Argentine and four Colombian titles to his name. He was 27 when he moved to Madrid and his quality did not take long to emerge: within a month of joining, he scored four goals against Barcelona. His first season ended with Real Madrid winning a first title for 20 years.
“From that moment on,” said Ball, “the history of Spain was irrevocably changed.”
General Franco had affiliated himself with the club during the post-war years and as Madrid’s success grew, Franco rode its wave, reflecting himself in the club’s image of stylish winners. Di Stefano later admitted his teammates did not want to be associated with the politics of Franco’s regime. On the pitch, though, the trophies kept on coming: eight La Liga titles between 1953 and 1964, and, significantly, those five European Cups. The first came against French side Stade de Reims, who were 2-0 up before Di Stefano’s goal began a remonatada, a comeback, which resulted in a 4-3 win.
He scored in the 1957 final win over Fiorentina (2-0), the 1958 final win over AC Milan (3-2), the 1959 final win over Reims again (2-0) and a hat trick in the famous 1960 final win over Eintracht Frankfurt (7-3). Five finals, seven goals.
“I don’t have the slightest doubt at all that the greatest player of all time was Di Stefano. He was everything. He played everywhere and there was nothing he couldn’t do,” said Francisco ‘Paco’ Gento, a pacy winger from that era who was the only player to stick around after the five wins to play in the 1966 European Cup final too (Gento was talking to my Spanish colleague Ulises Sanchez-Flor as research for the book ‘Match of My Life: European Cup Finals’).
“He would play at the back, in midfield and up front and he loved to win. Oh, how he loved to win! He would go absolutely mad at us if we got things wrong or if people weren't trying and he gave everything for the club. He was supremely talented but completely dedicated too. He was a born winner who made it almost impossible to lose. He wouldn’t let you relax for a minute and you knew that he could produce something amazing at any moment. He was a true leader. He was a beast as a player, and sometimes as a man too, because he certainly had his little foibles and he had quite a temper on him.”
Di Stefano has been called a striker, but as Gento said, he could play anywhere. Helenio Herrera, the coach of Spain’s 1962 World Cup team, told Simon Kuper in Football Against the Enemy, “People tell me, ‘Pele is the first violinist in the orchestra,’ and I would answer, ‘Yes, but Di Stefano is the whole orchestra!’ He was in defense, in midfield, in attack, he’d never stop running and he’d shout at the other players to run too.”
There were reports that Herrera and Di Stefano did not get along well. Herrera told Kuper that the Argentine was obsessed with money, but the coach insisted that the 1962 World Cup snub was because Di Stefano was injured. Di Stefano went on to be part of Madrid’s welcoming committee for new signings, and was on the podium for the Gareth Bale jamboree last summer.
I remember him looking distinctly unimpressed when David Beckham joined Madrid in 2003: the Beckham launch had a Hollywood glamor to it that Di Stefano, despite helping create it, seemed to disapprove of. And yet: “You could say Di Stefano incarnates Real Madrid,” Jorge Valdano told the Financial Times. “Everything that has happened at this club has been influenced by Di Stefano’s spirit.”
Perhaps then, amid the celebration of the life of one of football all-time great players, there should be quiet satisfaction in Madrid that Di Stefano was alive to see the club clinch La Decima, its 10th European Cup title, last May.
There is no way that number would have been achieved without him.