Alfredo di Stefano: Footballer hailed as one of the greatest in the history of the game

 

There was little debate about who was the best footballer on the planet in the mid-1950s. At least until Pele exploded on to the world stage with Brazil in 1958, everybody knew it was Alfredo di Stefano. The stocky, balding Argentine was the fulcrum of the incomparable Real Madrid side which won the European Cup in the first five seasons of the competition's existence, between 1956 and 1960, and he was a prodigious goalscorer, netting around 800 times during a sumptuous 22-year career encompassing five clubs and three countries.

Operating as a deep-lying centre-forward, di Stefano exercised an all-pervading influence, an imperious general directing his forces with more than a dash of arrogance. But his personal example was invariably so radiant, his strategy so fiendishly astute, that it was a rare comrade who cavilled at his authority.

In matters of technique he was well-nigh perfect; his control was sleek and deft, he was a master of the sudden sidestep, his passing was precise and perceptive, his shooting savage or subtle according to need. Usually he was not one for the mazy dribble; he would keep the ball, watching opponents as a cat might eye an appealing rodent, waiting for the precise moment to dispatch his delivery to maximum effect, often with uncanny intuition.

His most productive partnerships were with exceptional movers off the ball, the likes of Real colleagues Ferenc Puskas and Francisco Gento, rather than with fellow strategists such as the gifted Brazilian, Didi. His physical attributes were as exceptional as his technical assets. There was searing acceleration from a standing start, the strength to withstand the abrasive challenges to which he was subjected, and the capacity to maintain a punishing work-rate, his boundless stamina having been generated initially by pounding the streets of his native Buenos Aires with obsessive dedication. In addition, and no less important, he possessed a ferocious rage to win, so intense that he could not bear to be bested even at the card table.

He was a box-to-box phenomenon, a multi-skilled schemer and scorer with a hand in every phase of play, harrying opponents by chasing back into defence, beguiling them with his midfield creativity or destroying them at the vanguard of the attack. As Miguel Muñoz, his team-mate and then coach in Madrid, put it: "With him in the side, you had two players in every position."

Di Stefano was of Italian stock, his grandfather having emigrated to Argentina from Capri, and he grew up in Barracas, a poor quarter of Buenos Aires. Like so many of his generation, he learned the game on the streets, though he also honed his skills during practice sessions on his family's farm. His father had played for the famous River Plate club, but the dawn of professionalism prompted him to cast aside his boots, asserting that the game was a leisure pursuit rather than a way of making a living.

So at first he was reluctant for his son to launch his own career, though he relented when he realised his exceptional talent. Di Stefano shone in local competition, dubbed "El Aleman" [the German] in reference to his fair hair; later, before the thinning process had become marked, he was "The Blond Arrow". He played his first senior game as an 18-year-old outside-right in 1944.

Soon, having switched to centre-forward, he was loaned to Huracan, where his development continued before he returned to River Plate and was called up by Argentina, helping to lift the Copa America, the oldest surviving international football tournament outside the Olympic Games – in 1947, as well as that season's domestic league title.

His star continued in the ascendancy over the next two years, but then the game was plunged into crisis when the nation's top players went on strike over pay and conditions. The clubs locked them out, drafting in amateurs, and after much acrimony di Stefano and others joined a lucrative pirate league, outside the auspices of Fifa, in Colombia. With his wages increased 15-fold, he performed magnificently for Millonarios of Bogota, inspiring the so-called "Blue Ballet" to two titles before Colombia was reintegrated by Fifa. Then, on a world tour with his club, he was spotted by Spain two most prestigious sporting institutions, Real Madrid and Barcelona, sparking an epic transfer saga.

Both coveted him and both announced that they had secured his services. The problem was that Real had struck a deal with Millonarios, while the Catalans had agreed a fee with River Plate, who said they retained his registration.

At first the Spanish authorities ruled that he should spend alternate seasons in Madrid and Barcelona, but after di Stefano had made an uncharacteristically pallid entrance for Real, their rivals relinquished their claim. Four days later, he made a dramatic return to form, contributing an exhilarating hat-trick to the 5-0 drubbing of, inevitably enough, Barcelona.

That was in 1953, after which di Stefano progressed into his irresistible prime. Surrounded by other outstanding performers such as Gento, Muñoz, Jose Maria Zarraga and fellow Argentine Hector Rial, he led Real to the first of eight Spanish titles during his time at the Bernabeu – the others were in 1955, 1957, 1958, 1961, 1962, 1963 and 1964 – but it was in the fledgling European Cup that he burnished his reputation most dazzlingly.

With di Stefano a compelling talisman and the inspirational heart of the side, Real Madrid beat Reims to claim the inaugural trophy, followed by final victories over Fiorentina in 1957, Milan in 1958, Reims again in 1959 and Eintracht Frankfurt in 1960. He scored once in each of the first four finals and added a hat-trick in the last, a 7-3 win which has been hailed as the finest exhibition of attacking football in the history of the game. By then he had been joined at Real by the brilliant Hungarian marksman, Ferenc Puskas, and that night at Hampden Park the pair formed the perfect striking partnership, the newcomer scoring four times.

That the duo gelled at all surprised many observers, who believed that no strong personality – and certainly the ebullient Puskas – would be tolerated by di Stefano , who was said to demand total autonomy. However, the canny Magyar defused the situation on the final day of his first season. The two men were joint leading scorers in the league and, with a much-desired individual prize at stake, Puskas found himself in front of a gaping net. But instead of scoring he slipped a pass to di Stefano, who converted, and they were friends for life.

Other major signings, notably Didi in 1958, had allegedly been frozen out by the all-powerful Argentine, though it was a charge he denied vigorously, maintaining that the Brazilian had under-performed. But there was no denying that he exercised a formidable sway and, with his cool, terse, almost contemptuous demeanour towards people who displeased him, would have made a formidable adversary.

Having taken Spanish nationality, the great man did not prosper quite as luxuriantly internationally, though after seven goals in seven games for the country of his birth, he added 23 for Spain, a record until 1990. However, it remained a regret that he never featured in a World Cup finals; Spain failed to qualify in 1958, then injury forced him to miss out in 1962.

The early 1960s were an inevitable anti-climax for the veteran, who had been voted European Footballer of the Year in 1957 and 1959, and featured prominently as Real had become the first holders of the World Club Championship, defeating Peñarol of Uruguay over two legs in 1960. Still, he didn't do badly, helping Real to two more European Cup finals, which were lost to Benfica in 1962 and Internazionale in 1964, by which time he was nearly 38.

Still the maestro would not contemplate quitting, and there followed a valedictory two-season stint with Espanyol of Barcelona, which preceded retirement towards the end of his 40th year in 1966. There was a secondary career as a coach which, though it was never going to reprise his playing glories, had its moments. After a spell with Boca Juniors in his homeland he took over at Valencia in 1970, winning the league in 1971 and the European Cup-Winners' Cup in 1980, beating Arsenal on penalties.

Ahead lay two interludes in charge of his beloved Real Madrid, in 1982-83 and 1990-91, but each time he left with no silverware. Still, nothing could detract from those staggering achievements during the Bernabeu's first and most lustrous golden era.

Alfredo di Stefano Laulhe, footballer and coach: born Buenos Aires 4 July 1926; married (five children, and one daughter deceased); died Madrid 7 July 2014.

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