By Carlo Garganese
“I always say that we have three players on the podium; Di Stefano, Maradona and Messi.”
These were the words of Diego Maradona just a fortnight ago as he interviewed ex-England striker Gary Lineker on his World Cup chat show.
Just like his compatriot Maradona, it was clear from a very young age that Alfredo Di Stefano was destined for greatness. Born on July 4, 1926, he shot to fame with his beloved River Plate as a teenager – scoring 53 goals in 72 games and inspiring Argentina to the 1947 Copa America where he struck six times.
Di Stefano’s club career in Argentina was relatively short-lived. In 1949, Colombia broke away from Fifa to create a rebel league – luring a host of South America’s biggest names including Di Stefano. The forward won three league titles and scored a phenomenal 267 goals in 294 games to turn heads in Europe – including those at the Santiago Bernabeu.
|ALFREDO DI STEFANO CAREER STATS
It is with Real Madrid that Di Stefano will forever be associated. He joined the club in 1953 in what is still one of the most controversial transfers of all time. Despite having already signed for arch-rivals Barcelona, Franco-backed Madrid continued to conduct negotiations with Millionarios – leading to a federative ruling which required the forward to play alternate seasons with both clubs. Barcelona pulled out of the deal, and Di Stefano went on to enjoy 11 incredible playing seasons in the Spanish capital.
He scored 305 goals in 392 appearances for the Blancos – a goal tally only bettered by Raul, who needed over 400 more games to surpass the ‘Blond Arrow’. He won eight La Liga titles, a Copa del Rey, Intercontinental Cup and five Pichichi trophies.
But most memorably he led Madrid to five successive European Cup triumphs, as the Spaniards dominated the newly-formed competition. Di Stefano scored in all five finals, including a hat-trick in the epic 7-3 victory over Eintracht Frankfurt at Hampden Park in 1960. His total of 49 European Cup goals stood as a record for more than 40 years.
Together with Francisco Gento and Ferenc Puskas, Di Stefano formed one of the most unstoppable attacking trios the game has ever seen. The three stars also lined up together for Spain, Di Stefano acquiring Spanish citizenship in 1956 and scoring 23 goals in 31 games for his adopted nation. Sadly, an injury on the eve of the 1962 World Cup prevented him from ever starring at the finals of football’s most prestigious tournament. He actually featured for three nations, having also played four times for Colombia.
Di Stefano was years ahead of his time. Despite nominally being an attacker, he regularly dropped into midfield and even into defence in order to direct the play and organise his team. He was a total footballer 20 years before Johan Cruyff and the great Ajax and Netherlands sides of the 1970s.
In terms of game intelligence, very few can compare. "He saw things others didn't see. He knew the game back to front," the late Puskas said of his former team-mate. Di Stefano identified space and patterns of play, and devastatingly used it to his and his team's advantage. He was the conductor of the orchestra - having him in your team was "like having two players in every position" as his Madrid coach Miguel Munoz put it.
Legendary former Inter boss Helenio Herrera, who masterminded a 3-1 European Cup final win over Di Stefano in one of his final games for Madrid, stated: "Di Stefano was the greatest footballer of all time - far better than Pele. He was, simultaneously, the anchor in defence, the playmaker in midfield, and the most dangerous attacker up-front."
Di Stefano won two Ballons D'Or and played two more seasons at Espanyol before hanging up his playing boots in 1966 at the age of 40.
| Di Stefano was the greatest footballer of all time - far better than Pele.
- Helenio Herrera
He moved into management where he enjoyed less luck with Real Madrid. He earned the reputation as something of a nearly-man as the Blancos finished runners-up for five trophies – including the 1983-84 Cup Winners’ Cup final which was lost to Sir Alex Ferguson’s giantkillers of Aberdeen. But away from Madrid, his coaching career was a success as he won Argentine league titles with Boca Juniors and River, as well as the Spanish Liga and Cup Winners’ Cup with Valencia.
In 2000, Di Stefano was named Real Madrid Honorary President and he had been a very public face of the club over the last decade – particularly during the presentation of superstar signings such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale.
On July 7, 2014, just three days after his 88th birthday, Di Stefano died after suffering a heart attack in Madrid on Saturday. The sport is left with a gaping hole following his passing.
A giant of the game has been lost, a true genius and the biggest name in the history of the Champions League's most successful club.
"Football has given me everything," Di Stefano once replied when asked to sum up his career. He has given football much, much more.