Spanish and Argentinian football were plunged into mourning yesterday with the death of the legendary Alfredo Di Stefano. The 88 year old former River Plate and Real Madrid front man suffered a heart attack at home on Saturday, one day after his birthday and never recovered. Di Stefano is widely regarded as one of the greatest players to have ever graced the game and will be sorely missed. Di Stefano was a fundamental part of the Real Madrid team that dominated European football during the mid to late 50’s. His partnership with Hungarian Ferenc Puskás struck fear into opposing defences who were unsure how to handle the deadly duo. Described by many as the most complete footballer in the history of the game, Di Stefano forged a reputation as a winner of the course of his career, guiding Real Madrid to five consecutive European Cup victories, a feat that has never been matched again to this day. His prowess in front of goal, especially in Europe 49 goals in 58 matches ensured that his place in football folklore was secured.
Born in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1926, the young Argentine began life with a ball at his feet and it wasn’t long before he joined is home club of River Plate, aged 17. Over the next four years, D Stefano scored goals for fun, hitting 49 in 66 appearances as River Plate won 2 Primera División titles, before a strike in Argentina forced him to move to Colombia with Millonarios. Success followed him as Millionarios dominated Colombian football for the next four years, winning three titles along the way. It was Di Stefano’s continued form in front of goal for Millonarios (100 goals in 112 matches) that attracted suitors from Spain in the form or Barcelona. Whilst Di Stefano would eventually transfer to Real Madrid where he became an icon, things could have been very different if his proposed transfer to Barcelona had been recognized by the Spanish FA. They argued that the deal struck between Millonarios and Barcelona was invalid as River Plate needed to consent to the transfer, given they still had part ownership of the player. That mistake gave Real Madrid the window they needed who swooped in to steal Di Stefano away from their bitter rivals. It would turn out to be one of the best deals ever made by Real Madrid with Di Stefano going on to become the all time record goalscorer for the club, with 216 goals in 284 games. He would hold this record until 2003 when Raul finally overtook him. The Blond Arrow as he was affectionately known would lead Madrid to 8 Primeria Division titles as well as the European successes before departing from the club in 1964 for Espanyol.
Remarkably Di Stefano played for three different countries during his career – 6 times for Argentina, scoring 6 goals along the way, 2 appearances for Colombia that were never recognized by Fifa and 31 times for Spain, scoring 23 goals. Even more remarkable was that the world never managed to see Di Stefano at a World Cup. He missed out in 1950 and 1954 with Argentina who failed to participate and again in 1958 with Spain who despite a good qualifying campaign slipped up at the end and failed to make it. After retiring from playing in 1966, Di Stefano made the seamless switch into coaching taking the reins of a variety of clubs over the next twenty five years including three spells as manager of Valencia, two stints at Boca Juniors and returns to his beloved River Plate and Real Madrid. His time in Madrid was not quite as planned with his teams finishing runner up in every competition they entered, including a European Cup Winners Cup final defeat at the hands of Alex Ferguson’s Aberdeen. After bowing out of the job of manager, he became Real Madrid’s Honorary President, a role he held up until his death.
Tributes have poured in from across the footballing world with many expressing their deep emotional regret at his passing. Current Madrid star Cristiano Ronaldo proclaimed that legends never die and that the maestro, Don Alfredo will never be forgotten. Barcelona and Argentina star Lionel Messi echoed those words and added “Until forever, Don Alfredo. A legend and a great both on and off the pitch”. Sir Bobby Charlton, who played against Di Stefano, called him one of the best players he ever came across and an extremely intelligent footballer whilst Sir Alex Ferguson remembers being in awe watching Di Stefano single handedly rip apart Eintracht Frankfurt at Hampden during the 1960 European Cup final. He stood in the terraces and watched as Di Stefano hit 5 goals in the 7-3 victory before embarking on a lap of honour. Brazilian legend Pele summed up what many were feeling with a poignant tweet:
“He was a trailblazer, and most of all, he was a legend of the game. God rest his soul”