The news broke in Spain just as the Argentina versus Belgium World Cup quarterfinal kicked off in Brazil. Alfredo Di Stefano was in a critical condition in hospital having suffered a heart attack during a meal to celebrate his 88th birthday. Soccer fans worldwide divided their attention between the game in Brasilia, and the developing situation at Madrid’s Gregorio Maranon Hospital. Two days later, the world lost a legend.
Such concern was understandable given Di Stefano is one of the greatest players the sport has ever seen, and the outstanding personality in the history of perhaps its biggest club. The signing of the Argentine in 1955 marked a before and after in Real Madrid’s history. Prior to his signing it had not won the La Liga trophy for over 20 yards, but with him on board the club won eight of the next 10 Spanish titles and, even more famously, five successive European Cup trophies from 1956 to 1960. That team featured many "galacticos" including Ferenc Puskas, Paco Gento and Raymond Kopa. But for many (including the man himself) the winningest club side ever was “Di Stefano’s Madrid."
His transfer to Los Blancos remains the most controversial in Spanish football history. Di Stefano had been playing for Colombian club Millionarios of Bogota, after first coming to prominence at Argentine side River Plate. After impressing on a tour of Europe, Barcelona first thought they had signed the already 27-year-old. But under circumstances still disputed to this day, Francisco Franco’s Spanish government intervened and the player ended up in the capital.
Di Stefano spent 11 seasons at Madrid, scoring 307 goals in 403 games. Although wearing the center forward’s number nine jersey, he roamed all over the pitch and influenced all elements of his team’s play. A fierce captain, he was not shy about bawling out teammates who were not sweating the shirt in a still-used Spanish soccer phrase he coined himself.
“Alfredo has a strong character,” former teammate Amancio Amaro has said. “If he did anything he had to do it well, and he demanded the same of others.”
In the days before FIFA firmed up international allegiance rules, Di Stefano played six times for Argentina, then switched to Spain and won 31 more caps scoring 23 goals. A great disappointment for him — and for fans worldwide — was that he never got to play in a World Cup finals. A large personality off-the-pitch too, he even starred as himself in a popular 1956 Spanish film called “La Saeta Rubia” — a nickname that translates to “the blonde arrow.”
At the club level, Di Stefano spent two seasons at Espanyol (in Barcelona) before his playing career ended in 1966. He then coached Elche, Boca Juniors, Valencia, Real Madrid, Sporting Lisbon, Rayo Vallecano, Castellon and River Plate. Although less successful as a manager, he did win league and cup titles with Boca Juniors, River Plate and Valencia, and these travels mean he is recalled fondly not just by Madrid fans.
In later years he returned to Madrid as a grandfather figure — being made honorary president in 2000. The stadium at the club’s training ground where its reserves and youth sides play their games is now called the Estadio Alfredo Di Stefano. Until very recently, he has a regular presence at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu, where he still maintained his own office, and built bonds with galacticos Cristiano Ronaldo and Zinedine Zidane. He also wrote a regular column for Spanish sports paper Marca, where his strong personality continued to shine through — with unflinching support for the Madrid cause, but also severe criticism when the team or club didn’t reach the standards he set for it (for instance during the 2011 Clasicos, when Jose Mourinho’s side reacted negatively to being outplayed by Josep Guardiola’s Barcelona).
Debates over who is the greatest player of all-time are unresolvable, with his contemporary Pele and countrymen Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi having their backers. But for his unique range of skills on the pitch, his massive trophy haul, and his unrivalled influence on both South American and European club football, Alfredo Di Stefano deserves to be ranked right up there with the best of them.