Alfredo Di Stefano quite nearly became a Blaugranes.
Indeed, the fissure created over his transfer exacerbated the enmity between Barcelona and Real Madrid, although in retrospect it was only natural that El Clasico should grow in prominence and hostility because of him.
Di Stefano spent a career at the forefront of history—both making it and watching it unfold around him. It was never a coincidence.
Whether by being the preeminent figure of the Argentines’ northward pioneering of football, further driving a wedge between the capitals of Spain and Catalonia, or by helping turn Real Madrid into a superpower, there was something almost pre-destined about the modest son of Italian immigrants to Buenos Aires—a sort of Tolstoyan sense that he embodied the forces of football history.
That Barcelona and Real Madrid nearly came to blows over him is only the beginning, or close to it.
By 1952, when Madrid were celebrating their 50th anniversary, club president Santiago Bernabeu had already become enamoured with Argentine football. San Lorenzo’s tour of Spain in 1946 had introduced him to the short passes and lateral buildup of the South Americans, and over the next decade he would do his best to transplant the more calculated, tactical style of football to Spanish shores.
At the time, as Jimmy Burns writes in his book La Roja (Nation Books, 2012, p.155), Di Stefano was at the vanguard of a popular, attractive brand of football known as “La Nuestra.” And when he left River Plate for Colombia’s Millonarios in 1949, he brought the best elements of Argentine football along with him.
It was during his time with Millos that Di Stefano traveled to Spain. He and his teammates had been invited to play a friendly against Madrid as part of the club’s semicentennial, and it was at the New Chamartin stadium (later to be renamed Estadio Santiago Bernabeu) that he caught Bernabeu’s eye.
The die was cast. Only, Barcelona had already acted—agreeing to terms with River Plate, who still maintained a stake in the player. But consent was also required from Millonarios, and it’s here that Madrid began their tricks.
As described in a Duke University study, the bribable Josep Samitier was dispatched to conclude negotiations on behalf of Barcelona, and at the “indirect” request of Generalissimo Francisco Franco. Samitier and co-conspirator Joan Busquets “low-balled” Barcelona’s offer, and Real Madrid swept in and snuck Di Stefano from under their noses.
Bernabeu’s plan to acquire the world’s best footballers, and thus create a juggernaut while projecting a positive image of Spain, was now underway. It had begun with Di Stefano, who would now be making history in Europe.
With his prized asset under wraps, Bernabeu went on to sign Hector Rial from Uruguay’s Nacional, and the two South Americans combined to score three goals in the first European Cup Final—a 4-3 win over Stade Reims in June 1956.
It was the first of five consecutive continental titles claimed by Madrid, and during the unprecedented period of dominance Bernabeu would also acquire French playmaker Raymond Kopa, Uruguayan defender Jose Santamaria and Hungarian attacker Ferenc Puskas.
Di Stefano, who found the back of the net in each of Los Blancos’ five successful finals, and Puskas both scored hat-tricks in the 1960 dismantling of Eintracht Frankfurt at Hampden Park—a match widely regarded as one of the best played ever.
In September 1960, Di Stefano scored in the 5-1 drubbing of Penarol that represented the inaugural Intercontinental Cup, and over the course of his 11-year career at Real Madrid he also won eight league titles and the 1962 Copa del Rey.
Known affectionately as the “Blonde Arrow” (his first nickname was “Mayhem”), Di Stefano won admirers near and far, and following his passing on July 7, many were quick to offer tributes.
“Di Stefano was the most important player in the history of Real Madrid and the best player of all time,” wrote current Madrid president Florentio Perez, according to Goal.
“Don Alfredo leaves us, but his memory will last forever in our hearts. Legends never die. Thanks for everything Maestro,” tweeted Cristiano Ronaldo.
Even Barcelona, jilted in their pursuit of the forward, were gracious in his death, tweeting, “FC Barcelona expresses its condolences for the death of Alfredo Di Stefano, honorary president of Real Madrid. Rest in peace."
“Of all the stars of Real Madrid’s Golden Age, it was unquestionably that of Di Stefano that shone the brightest,” writes Burns (p.157). “Without him there would have been stars but no firmament.”
That Di Stefano will shine on even in death is testament to both his ability and stature as a footballing pioneer. And even for those who never saw him play, his career—the legend and magnitude of it—will remain a touchstone of the history in one of the most formative periods of the sport.