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Alfredo di Stéfano was the driving force behind Real Madrid's domination of the European Cup in the late 1950's. Real won the trophy five times in a row, with the Saeta rubia (blonde arrow), as the Argentinean was called because of his speed, scoring in each of the finals. Di Stefano was an incredibly versatile forward, who combined speed with a superb technique, stamina, tactical insight, and an ability to score goals. It is not surprising then that many believe him to be the best all-round player in history, if indeed not the best player out right.
Di Stefano got his start at River Plate, the club his father had played for, but competition from a very successful established attacking line-up meant that he played his first full season in 1946 on loan at Huracán. Legend has it that his first match for the club was against his employers, River Plate, and that Di Stefano scored within seconds of the start of the game. Next season room was found in the team for the young forward at River Plate. Di Stefano did not disappoint, producing 27 goals in 30 matches and finishing top scorer as River won the league. It earned him a place in the Argentinean squad for the 1947 Copa America. Di Stefano went as a reserve, but injuries saw him make the team and again he did not disappoint those that had placed trust in him. He scored six goals in six matches as Argentina won the tournament.
It soon became clear that Di Stefano's future would lie in Spain, with Barcelona seemingly on their way to signing the South American star. But Di Stefano's arrival in the country in May of 1943 proved to be the start of an unparalleled farce that ended in him joining Real Madrid. Barcelona followers have since been convinced that their club missing out on what would turn out to be one of the greatest players in the history of European club football was the result of the backstage shenanigans of the hated Franco regime. In fact Barcelona had made a complete mess of the transfer talks with Millonarios all by themselves, and ended up signing a transfer agreement only with River Plate. Turning to a club the player hadn't played for in almost four years wasn't as strange as it seemed. Because of the curious circumstances of Di Stefano's move to Colombia no transfer fee had changed hands and River Plate were within their rights to claim that it was they who still held the transfer rights to the player. However, by leaving out Millonarios from the deal it seemed as if Barcelona were poaching Di Stefano from the Colombians, who's FA had by that time rejoined FIFA and who were quite willing to share the transfer fee with River Plate. Consequently, the Spanish FA decided not to approve the transfer.
In the commotion that ensued, Real Madrid chairman Santiago Bernabéu was able to interest Di Stefano in signing for his club instead and concluded a transfer agreement with Millonarios. Now both clubs could claim to have bought Di Stefano. More than three months after the Argentinean's arrival in the country, the Spanish FA Solomonically decided that the clubs would just have to share the player. Di Stefano would play the 1943-1944 season for Real, and then switch to Barcelona for the next season. The clubs reluctantly agreed and in september 1943 Di Stefano made his debut in the Spanish league. When the deal became known in Catalonia, an uproar ensued that ended in the Barcelona board resigning their positions. The interim board decided that is was best to just forget about Di Stefano and sold their share of his transfer rights to Real. Their decision might have been influenced by the fact that Di Stefano, who had hardly played a match in months, had not been all that impressive for Real Madrid yet. They might have scratched their heads when the Argentinean striker scored a hat-trick against Barcelona only days after the deal was penned.
That Real Madrid's renaissance started when Di Stefano arrived at the club was no coincidence. The Real of the late fifties harboured more stars, like Gento, Kopa and Puskas, but none had the impact of Di Stefano. He was much more than just a goal getter. Far from content to spend is time poaching goals, he would often drop back to direct play or help defend. However thanks to his speed and incredible stamina he could always be counted on the make it back up front when it mattered. His approach to his role was revolutionary. He may well have been the first ever striker to actively defend when the opposition were in possession. It spoke volumes of his firm conviction that football was a team sport and no-one should imagine himself greater than the team. The flip-side of his willingness to subjugate himself to the team interest was the fact that he expected his team mates to show the same effort and desire to win that he exhibited. It is telling that in an interview a few years ago, Di Stefano spoke of his irritation at the habit in today's football of thanking a fellow player with applause or a little gesture for passing the ball, even if the pass proves to be inaccurate. In the days of the great Real Madrid a player who botched up an important pass would have gotten an earful instead receiving thanks. The bar can never be raised too high.
In 1964 Alfredo di Stefano left Madrid and finally ended up playing his football in Barcelona, albeit at Espanyol. He would play for two more seasons before retiring at the age of 40. After hanging up his boots, Di Stefano embarked on a managerial career that would see him coach such clubs as Boca Juniors, Valencia, Sporting Lisbon, Rayo Vallecano, River Plate and Real Madrid. He was more successful at it than most, winning the European Cup Winners Cup and the Spanish league with Valencia, and the Argentinean League with Boca and River, but reproducing his successes as a player was a task Di Stefano was never going to manage.
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|#01:||Alfredo di Stefano played 6 internationals for Argentina (scoring 6 goals), 4 for Colombia (scoring 0 goals), and 31 for Spain (scoring 23 goals).|
|#02:||Often the 1943 Colombian Championship is also listed among Di Stefano's achievements, but in fact he did not play any games for Millonarios that season. He was in Spain trying to get his transfer to Real or Barça sorted out.|