While not as modern or famous as previous entrants Scholes, Maldini and Ronaldo, the fourth living legend is more important and remarkable than them all. After all, not many players are capped for three different countries…
Only second to Ferenc Puskas, who sadly could not be added to this series as he passed away in 2006, Alfredo di Stefano Laulhé is possibly the greatest player that Real Madrid, European and World football has ever seen.
On 4th July 1926, in Buenos Aires, di Stefano started a journey that would forever define the history of Real Madrid and the European Cup.
River Plate were the first club to experience his talents, picking him off the streets at the age of 13. It was here he learned to hone his natural skills fast, as first coach Carlos Peucelle, recalled:
I had never seen a player with such physical strength and determination. No one improved as quickly.
It was this determination and use of strength that helped him break into the first team, where he scored 49 goals in only 65 appearances. He was a hit with the River fans, only for a players strike to halt all games in Argentina, so in 1949 he moved onto Columbia’s CD Millonarios Bogotá. It was through this team that he would catch the eye of Europe’s elite.
In 1952, Real Madrid organised a match to commemorate their 50th year. Alfredo di Stefano played, wowed the crowd at the old Chamartín stadium and both Barcelona and Real moved for him. With the confusion over who owned his registration – River or Millonarios – both teams claimed they had sealed his transfer. Both sides argued their case and the Spanish Federation stepped in. They ruled that the player would spend four seasons in Spain, alternating between the teams. It caused such an outrage that the Barcelona president, Marti Carreto, gave up their share in di Stefano and resigned. So, finally, di Stefano was a Real Madrid player. And European football would never be the same. The next week, to add salt to the wounds, di Stefano scored twice against Barca.
Barcelona, who had until then been the dominant force in Spanish football, were to be plunged into the shadows of Los Blancos, as di Stefano helped them become near-invincible, winning La Liga in his first season. They went on to retain the title in 1955 and then turned their attention to the compeition that would define them as a club.
The newly formed European Champions Cup was the showcase for Europe’s top teams. Real were joined by teams like Sporting Lisbon, Hibernian (who reached the semis), Anderlecht and PSV Eindhoven as they all battled it out to see who would be crowned “kings of Europe”. It was to be Real Madrid, who defeated Stade Reims 4-3 in Paris. With di Stefano, of course, amongst the goals. This set the trend for the next half a decade as they won the trophy in 1957, 1958 and 1959. di Stefano stood out from this outstanding Madrid side, winning the European Player of the Year award in 1957 and 1959, only missing out in 1958 to fellow Madrid player Raymond Kopa.
The 1960 European Cup Final, held in Hampden Park, Glasgow, was the pinnacle of di Stefano’s Real Madrid career. Together with Ferenc Puskas, they tore Eintracht Frankfurt apart 7-3. What makes this scoreline more remarkable was that all Real’s goals were scored by di Stefano and Puskas. The Hungarian managed four goals, whereas di Stefano grabbed a hat-trick. The result was testament to the stamina, power and all-round ability of di Stefano as Real Madrid became the first, and only, team to win the European Cup five times in a row.
Barcelona brought that run to an end as the two met in the first round of the 1960/61 season, but Real’s history was set. di Stefano had made his mark. He had made himself a legend. His 216 goals in 282 league matches is still a Real Madrid record. He is alo still the third highest ever scorer in La Liga.
So much was his contribution to Real Madrid that he was made Honourary President in 2000 and in 2006 they revealed the Alfredo Di Stéfano Stadium, where the first team now train.
With all of his trophies and accolades (8x La Liga titles, 5x European Cups, 4x Colombian Championships, 3x World Player of the Year, 2x European Player of the Year, Named in FIFA 100) he falls into the category of some of the Worlds greatest players to have never played in a World Cup, despite playing for World Cups greats Argentina and Spain, and appearing for Columbia also. However, his greatness is still recognised among his peers, even if he was never able to showcase his skills on a global stage, with a certain Diego Armando Maradona once saying:
I don’t know if I was a better player than Pelé, but I can say without any doubt that Di Stéfano was better than Pelé. I am proud when one speaks of Di Stéfano… I can say that Maradona could be worse than Pelé. But I emphasise Di Stéfano was better.
Could praise come from anywhere higher?