The Blond Arrow Shoots Away
At a time when everyone is gearing up for clash of the heavyweights in World Cup Semi-finals, the world has lost one of its most illustrious footballers – one who is arguably the best the world of football has ever seen. Alfredo di Stefano, the man whom Real Madrid placed at the top of its numerous legends, has passed away from a heart attack just 4 days after celebrating his 88th birthday. The fact that he passed away after having witnessed his beloved club win its much coveted La Decima of European triumphs, half of which he himself had won in the ‘50s, would have given him a huge satisfaction.
There are footballers. There are great players.There are legends. And then there is one Alfredo di Stefano. Debopam Roy pays tribute to him through Goalden Times.
In many ways this is a story of indomitable will and a sense of adventure coupling together to produce the finest and most refined skill one can dream about in any profession. Alfredo Stéfanodi Stéfano Laulhé was born to Alfredo Di Stéfano, a first-generation Italian Argentine, and Eulalia Laulhé Gilmont, an Argentine woman of French and Irish descent on July 4, 1926 in Barracas, a neighbourhood of Buenos Aires. He was from a farming family and had a gruelling upbringing. This probably ensured his physical prowess and stamina was supremely developed even before his footballing skills could bloom.
His footballing apprenticeship was with the amateur club Los Cardales with whom he won the amateur championship at 12. Within three years, he was included in the youth sector of the famed River Plate who were in the midst of their golden “La Maquina” generation. Di Stefano was a rising star and led them to a stunning championship win in 1947 scoring 27 goals himself.
His next footballing stop was in Colombia with the Millonarios. Over four years, he scored 267 goals for them in just 292 games. So much so that he was also included in the Colombian national team for 4 unofficial matches. This would in turn come back to haunt him as FIFA found him ineligible for the 1954 World Cup team of Argentina since he had made those appearances with Colombia. Earlier he had missed the 1950 world cup as Argentina had refused to participate.
His next footballing stop was Spain and this probably was his most glorious phase. But the start was not glorious as there were controversies galore concerning his transfer from Millonarios to Barcelona and finally to Real Madrid. There are many stories about his transfer from Millonarios to Real Madrid – most outrageous among them is how the Spanish football federation had asked Barcelona and Real Madrid to share the player for four seasons – two seasons each. Ultimately sanity prevailed and he was probably the lead Galáctico in the first set of Galácticos that Real Madrid had hired. And what a set it was. Di Stefano was joined by the likes of Ferenc Puskás, Paco Gento, Raymond Kopa, Jose Santamaria, Francisco Gento and Hector Rial. Together they would combine to give Real Madrid the first five European Cups. Di Stefano has the unique achievement of scoring four goals in four consecutive winning finals, and then a hat trick in the fifth. His record of seven goals in European final matches is only matched by his partner Puskás, but even his tally came from only two finals. The last of those finals, where Real Madrid played a 7-3 humdinger with Eintracht Frankfurt is still widely regarded as the best European Cup final ever.
Despite the club level achievements, Di Stefano couldn’t feature in the biggest stage of them all – the World Cup. Having been disqualified from participating for Argentina in 1954, he had acquired Spanish citizenship. Ironically, Spain failed to qualify for the 1958 World Cup and then fate in its unkindest cut, dealt him a muscular injury just before the 1962 competition. He had helped Spain qualify for the finals but himself could not play in that. He retired soon afterward.
For many of us, all that di Stefano embodies is captured in highlight reels and any greatest list compilation but there are some statistics which do not lie, his scoring record for example. His record of 305 goals – in mere 392 matches– for Real Madrid was broken only by Raul. The 49 goals he scored in the European championships in only 58 games stood almost 50 years. His advent in Spanish football meant that Telmo Zarra, the all-time leading scorer in Spanish league ever, did not win another Pichichi Trophy after 1952-53.
The debate between Pele and Maradona seem irrelevant when we hear Pele saying “People talk about the best being Pele or Diego Maradona, but for me the best player ever was Alfredo Di Stefano”. In the same vein, Diego himself would say “I don’t know if I was a better player than Pele but I can say without doubt that Di Stefano was better than Pele.”
In one week’s time we will have a new World Champion. But we have lost one of the champions of the footballing world.