Alfredo Di Stefano- Remembering the Blonde Arrow
Last month saw the sad passing of one of world football’s greatest ever players, Alfredo Di Stefano. Since the introduction of the game to the medium of television, the likes of Pele, Diego Maradona, Johann Cruyff and George Best have consistently been regarded as among the greatest players ever to grace a football pitch.
All of these players had a creativity and style about them that endeared them to millions of fans around the world and what they could do on a football pitch at times seemed to be beyond the realms of possibility.
Comparisons of playing styles are always difficult, especially with players who played in different eras, and as a result the debate of who was truly the greatest of all time is a never ending one. One player who is often unfairly overlooked in this debate is the late, great Di Stefano. However it could easily be argued that there has never been a more influential footballer than the Real Madrid legend.
Di Stefano, who died last month aged 88, never played in the World Cup but there can be no doubt that he was the king of club football. Rinus Michels, the former Netherlands manager, is widely credited with inventing total football with Ajax Amsterdam in the late 60’s and early 70’s, but the truth is that Di Stefano, or the “Blonde Arrow” as he was known, had been an early practitioer of the style more than 20 years earlier.
There is a strong argument to be made for Di Stefano as the ultimate football player. Attack, defence, goalscoring, goal prevention, goal creation and joining up the midfield dots, Di Stefano could do it all. A supremely tactically aware mixture of vision, skill, pace, power and controlled aggression, he routinely proved an opponent’s worst nightmare and was instrumental in helping Real Madrid secure an astonishing five successive European Cups after the competition’s inception in 1955-56.
Di Stefano was born in Buenos Aires on July 4th 1926. His father Alfredo Sr. played for the River Plate in the Argentine capital. Di Stefano learned to play football in the streets of the suburb of Barracas.
At the age of 19, Di Stefano helped River Plate win the Argentinean championship as top scorer in 1947, where he was nicknamed the Blond Arrow as a result of his phenomenal speed. The same year he helped Argentina win the 1947 South American championship, scoring six goals in six matches. These appearances were his only ones in an Argentina shirt.
In 1949, a footballers strike in Argentina resulted in Di Stefano along with many other Argentinean players to defect to a breakaway Colombian league that was outside the remit of FIFA. This meant that they were not obliged to pay transfer fees, but able to pay big wages to some of the world’s best players.
Di Stefano joined Millonarios where he won three league championships in four years. Despite the controversial status of the Colombian league at that time, Millonarios was considered one of the best teams in the world at that time.
When the Columbian league rejoined FIFA in 1953 Di Stefano suddenly found himself without a club. Luckily for him Real Madrid had begun to take notice of his talent and coveted him for a long time. Di Stefano did get his move to Europe but it was far from straight forward. His move to Spain was one of the most acrimonious and bizarre transfer deals in football history. Real Madrid had made it very clear that they wanted to sign him and had agreed a fee with Millonarios.
All appeared in order until it emerged that their bitter rivals Barcelona had also agreed a fee for Di Stefano. The Catalans tried to outflank Madrid by agreeing the transfer with Di Stefano’s former club River Plate, who still held his official registration, claiming his move to Colombia had been illegal.
He eventually signed for Barcelona but the Spanish football federation failed to recognise the transfer and bizarrely proclaimed that the two clubs share him and that he was to play alternate seasons for the bitter rivals. Crucially, the federation gave Real Madrid the first year of his services. When Di Stefano started his first season slowly, Barcelona was persuaded to sell their rights to the player. This was a decision they would soon come to regret.
Four days later he scored a hat-trick against Barcelona in the derby. In just 30 games in the 1953-54 season he scored 27 goals and lead Real to the Spanish championship for the first time in 21 years and sparking an unprecedented era of domestic and European domination. In 11 seasons at Real he won eight Spanish titles (he scored 218 goals in 282 games and was the league’s top scorer in four seasons straight); five consecutive European Cups (scoring in all five finals); the inaugural Intercontinental Cup in 1960, played between the European and South American champions; and was named European Footballer of the Year in 1957 and 1959.
While the Blonde Arrow was dominating the club game, at international level the accolades did not come as easily. While he was still eligible to play for Argentina, their football federation withdrew from the 1950 and 1954 World Cups. In 1949, at Millonarios, he played four games for Colombia but they were not recognised by FIFA. He took Spanish nationality in 1956, but his adopted country failed to qualify for the 1958 World Cup and after helping them reach the finals in Chile four years later, at the age of 35, he was injured and did not play in the tournament. He also never played for Spain again.
When he left Madrid in 1964, aged 38, Di Stefano did finally go to play in Barcelona. He chose to go to the city’s “other” team, the royalist Real Club Deportivo Espanyol rather than Barcelona, one final rebuff for the fiercely partisan Catalan club.
His sad passing has meant that the world has lost another one of football’s living legends. Di Stefano scored more than 300 goals for Real Madrid, winning eight La Liga titles in 11 seasons which is a record even other club legends like Zinadine Zidane struggle to rival. His achievements in Madrid unquestionably went a long way into turning Real Madrid into the world wide economic powerhouse that it is today.
Meanwhile no modern footballer can expect to break Di Stefano’s phenomenal record of scoring in five different European Cup finals. At a time when world football debates if Ronaldo or Messi are the best on the planet, it is important to remember and pay respect to a man whose extraordinary talents on a football pitch was capable of eclipsing both men’s.Alfredo Di Stefano fully deserves his place in the footballing pantheon.
Alfredo Di Stefano: 1926-2014