Most legendary football players are associated with one position or broad role. Pelé was a scorer of goals who came to life in and around the penalty box, Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi were and are dribbling wizards, at their best cutting in from wide or operating just behind the strikers. Alfredo Di Stéfano, however, is a different type of footballing icon.
If ever there has been an individual symbol of versatility, Di Stéfano was it. Not only was the Argentine an exceptional footballer from a purely technical, physical and tactical sense, but he was, in many ways, a carrier of great teams. With him in the side, Real Madrid famously won the first five European Cups. Di Stéfano appeared towards the bottom of their team sheet, and entered the pitch with the number nine on his back, but he was much more than that.
In fact, Di Stéfano was so good, and so well rounded, that he could rightly appear on the all-time great lists of a number of different positions. Some would classify him as a striker; like Pelé, a taker of chances and a leader of offensive lines. Others would suggest he was a dynamic, box-to-box midfield type, one capable of driving the team forward having picked up the ball in a deeper area. However, it would be just as reasonable to pay tribute to Di Stéfano as a number ten.
While he eventually followed in his father’s footsteps to play for River Plate, his route into football was fairly innocuous. An electrician who also played for River once visited and, after chatting to Di Stéfano’s mother, found out that the youngster was interested in football. Di Stéfano was swiftly whisked away for a trial, and joined River at the age of 17.
Within two years, he had made his debut for the first team. After a successful spell on loan at Huracán, Di Stéfano returned to River and established himself as a star while just 21 years of age. Finishing the 1947 season with 27 goals in 30 appearances, he was the top scorer in Argentina as River won the league. That same year he scored six goals in six games to lead his country to victory in the South American Championship, the precursor to what is now known as the Copa América.
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In 1949 there was a general strike in Argentine football, and many professional players left the country as a consequence. Di Stéfano was part of the exodus, leaving River for Colombian side Millonarios. There was a strong Argentine presence in that Millonarios squad, which became known as ‘El Ballet Azul’, or ‘The Blue Ballet’ for the quality of their football. Alongside other ex-River attackers such as Adolfo Pedernera and Nestor Rossi, Di Stéfano led the club to three league titles and one cup win, top scoring twice and attracting attention from some of Europe’s finest in the process.
Barcelona believed they had signed the player after agreeing terms with Millonarios, though complications over Di Stéfano’s registration — River believed that, due to the manner of his departure, they still had rights to the transfer fee — the Spanish football association blocked the move from going through. Despite being pictured proudly alongside Hungarian superstar László Kubala in full Barcelona kit, Di Stéfano would soon turn out for the Catalan giants’ fiercest rivals.
Real Madrid were also keen on the Argentine and, having also agreed a deal to sign him, it was ruled that they would share the player with Barcelona. Di Stéfano would spend one season with the former, then one season with the latter. It was a curious arrangement, and one destined to fail given the scale of the rivalry between the two clubs. In the end Barcelona decided against it, and Di Stéfano was a Real Madrid player.
The farcical nature of the transfer led some to believe there was some wrongdoing beneath the surface. But, in truth, Real Madrid were not the elite global powerhouse they are today at that stage in their history. Indeed, they had failed to win a single Spanish league title in the previous two decades. Barcelona, on the other hand, had won four of the previous six championships. But all of this would change upon Di Stéfano’s arrival.
His first season in the pristine all-white kit of Real Madrid was an ominous sign of the dominance that was to come. He finished top scorer in the league with an incredible 27 goals from 28 games, leading Real Madrid to the title. Another title followed in 1955, and in 1956 the run of European Cup victories began.
Di Stéfano top scored for four consecutive seasons as Los Blancos won two titles, and he also found the net in every single one of the five European Cup finals. He scored his side’s opening goals in the wins over Reims, Fiorentina and AC Milan in 1955, 1956 and 1957 respectively, hit the game-clinching second in the victory over Reims in 1958, and scored a hat-trick in the sensational 7-3 win over Eintrach Frankfurt in 1960.
Real Madrid established themselves as the most prestigious club on the continent, laying the groundwork for future success, and Di Stéfano was unquestionably the most influential individual in that achievement. He was more than the team’s most consistent scoring threat; he was also a midfield general, a creative playmaker and a leader. He won the Ballon d’Or twice and ultimately led the club to eight Spanish league wins.
He challenged convention not only in defending from the front, but in his movement off the ball, taking up spaces few defenders were comfortable following him to. His awareness, control and vision made him a connector of plays; he was just as happy linking up attacks with one-twos and through balls as he was taking on, and beating, a multitude of embarrassed markers.
“Di Stéfano,” exclaimed former Milan manager Arrigo Sacchi, “turned still photographs into the cinema.” French sports daily L’Equipe termed the Argentine ‘L’Omnipresente’ on account of his ability to impact the game from anywhere on the pitch.
Decades before the term was widely understood, Di Stéfano was falser than the falsest of false nines. Indeed, the mere mention of a shirt number is almost entirely irrelevant given the role he played and the skill with which he played it. What can be said is that Real Madrid were wise to give him the creative license of a true trequartista, and Alfredo Di Stéfano was perceptive enough to utilise every last inch of space afforded him.