A cloudy day for the beautiful game
Alfredo Di Stefano, one of the greatest players of all time, died today at the age of 88 due to complications from a heart attack suffered on Saturday. Known as “La Saeta Rubia” (The Blonde Arrow) Di Stefano was best known for leading the Real Madrid side that won five European Championships in a row in the 1950s.
It’s hard to overstate the impact that Di Stefano had on global soccer. He was considered the first complete footballer. Nominally he was a center forward, and he certainly scored a lot of goals (418 goals in 510 games for Madrid), but he was also known for defending, creating, and assisting. The great Bobby Charlton described the first time he saw him play: “He takes the ball from the goalkeeper, he tells the fullbacks what to do, wherever he is on the field he is in position to take the ball. You can see his influence on everything that is happening….I had never seen such a complete footballer.”
In an interview with El Pais in 2008, Di Stefano remembered the first time he played center forward when he was still a youngster at River Plate. Originally a winger, Carlos Peucelle, the coach at the time, moved Di Stefano to the middle because the starter, Adolfo Pedernera, got injured. Peucelle told him not to run forward all the time, but to come back and help the team. River won 7–0 that day, and Di Stefano didn’t score any goals. Frustrated as he walked off, he was surprised to hear the coach tell him “that’s exactly how you’re supposed to play.” It obviously stuck with him.
He came to Spain after a long and controversial transfer saga that pitted Real Madrid against Barcelona. The story of how Di Stefano ended up at Madrid is clouded in controversy and has become a political issue over the years. He undoubtedly altered the course of history at Real Madrid. Before Di Stefano arrived, Real Madrid was not one of the big clubs in Spain, having only won two league titles. In the years after Di Stefano arrived, Real Madrid have won more than half of the leagues it has played in and ten European Cups/Champions Leagues.
Di Stefano was also first international superstar in the sport. His arrival coincided with a growing globalization in soccer, especially with the creation of the European Cup in 1955. For the first time, the best European sides would compete against one another. Often, it was the only time that fans could see teams from other nations play. With Di Stefano leading Real Madrid to victory in the first five editions of the tournament, he became a household name all over the world. He was even confident enough to advertise women’s pantyhose, a remarkable thing in conservative, Francoist Spain.
His magnum opus came in the 1960 European Cup final in Glasgow’s Hampden Park against Eintracht Frankfurt. Real Madrid won the game 7–3, with Di Stefano scoring a hat trick. It is widely considered one of the greatest matches of all time. A young Sir Alex Ferguson was in the crowd of over 130,000 that day. It was a thrilling display of attacking football as Di Stefano led one of the most famous forward lines of all time alongside Francisco Gento and Ferenc Puskas. It was Di Stefano’s fifth and final European Cup, and he scored in every single final he played in.
He started his career at his boyhood club River Plate. Even at the end of his life, after receiving countless honors in Spain and around the world, Di Stefano was most proud of being able to put on River’s iconic white shirt with the red band on the mythical “La Maquina” side of the 1940’s. He would win one league title with River in 1947, and after a battle with the club over a players’ strike, he was forced to leave to Millonarios de Bogota in Colombia. He had just started his international career with Argentina, scoring six goals in his first six games, but after the controversy surrounding his departure for River, he would never again play for club or country. As a result, he never played in a World Cup (as an injury left him out of the Spanish side for the 1962 tournament).
Despite his unprecedented success and universal admiration, Di Stefano always remained unfailingly humble. He never forgot his working-class roots. Even at the end of his life, when asked where he was from, he’d never say “Argentina” or “Buenos Aires,” but instead reply “Barracas,” the working-class neighborhood where he grew up. When asked to summarize his own greatness, he said, “No one is as good as a everyone playing together.”
He’s left us with an endless amount of wisdom. Amancio, the great Real Madrid winger who led the side that replaced Di Stefano’s generation at the club, recalls one of the most famous Di Stefano anecdotes. Amancio arrived at the club in 1962 as a young hot shot from Deportivo la Coruña. At this point, Di Stefano was already 35 years old and at the twilight of his playing career. When Amancio walked into the locker room just before his debut match in a pre-season friendly, he was surprised to see that his white jersey didn’t have the club’s badge on it. Confused, he looked up at Di Stefano who told him, “Kid, you earn this badge only after you’ve sweated in this shirt.”
After a successful career as a manager with River Plate, Valencia, and Real Madrid, among others, he was named Honorary President of Real Madrid for life. He served as a sort of conscience for the club during the period of excess and glamour that has marked Florentino Perez’s presidency. He frequently tried to bring everybody at the club back down to earth, just as he did with Amancio back in 1962. It was his duty to welcome all new signings at the official presentations, and he served as a constant reminder of a different era at Real Madrid, when the club was quieter, more workmanlike, less interested in glitzy pharaonic pursuits.
One of Di Stefano’s immortal phrases was, “A football match without goals is like a Sunday without sun.” You could say the same about this sport without Di Stefano. La Saeta Rubia’s sun has finally set. It’s a cloudy day for all of us.