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Friday 29 August 2014

Obituaries: Real Madrid legend Alfredo Di Stefano

Master of strategy and prolific scorer of goals who led Real Madrid to victory in five successive European Cups in 1950s

Published 13/07/2014 | 02:30

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Tributes to the genius of Di Stefano

ALFREDO DI STEFANO, who died last Monday aged 88, was, with the possible exception of Pele, the finest footballer of all time. He was not merely an implacable scorer of goals but also a superb strategist. As Real Madrid's field marshal, he led them to victory in the European Cup every year from 1956 to 1960, a monopoly that culminated in perhaps the greatest exhibition of play ever seen in Britain.

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On the night of May 18 1960, 127,000 people packed Hampden Park to watch the white-clad might of Real take on Eintracht Frankfurt. The West German champions were formidable opponents, having put 12 goals past Glasgow Rangers in the semi-final. However, they were destroyed by the thrusts of Real's two matadors, Puskas and Di Stefano.

When Frankfurt impertinently took the lead after 19 minutes, Real retaliated by blending imagination and impudence to overwhelm their rivals through sheer skill. While the tubby Puskas plundered a hat-trick in the 7-3 triumph, it was Di Stefano who was the guiding influence, scoring the other four goals and asserting himself at moments of crisis. It was he who swept home the equaliser that renewed Real's confidence, and when Frankfurt later rallied to make it 6-2 it was "The Blond Arrow" - as the stocky, balding Di Stefano was perversely known - who streaked away to score within 13 seconds of th e restart. Real's masterful display prompted overdue changes in the insular British game.

Di Stefano's appetite for victory brought him 49 goals in 59 European ties, a record yet to be surpassed and one that lends weight to the judgment of both Johan Cruyff and George Best that he was the greatest of all.

Alfredo Stefano Di Stefano Lauthe was born on July 4 1926 at Barracas, a poor suburb of Buenos Aires. His grandfather had emigrated to Argentina from Capri. His father played for the city's premier club, River Plate, but left when professionalism was introduced, believing the game should be played purely for fun. Young Alfredo acquired his prodigious stamina running about the streets and working on a relative's farm, to which his mother dispatched him in the hope it would take his mind off football. Her plan was scuppered when his sympathetic father asked how playing against cattle was going to improve Alfredo's technique.

In 1942 Di Stefano joined River Plate, having given notice of a prickly temperament by quitting his youth team after a row with the coach. Di Stefano tolerated neither fools nor slights and when he was lent to the Hurucan club in 1944 he responded by scoring 50 goals in 66 games, including the winner against River Plate. He was rapidly brought back to lead a forward line known as La Maquina - The Machine - for the remorseless efficiency with which they dismantled opposing defences. In 1947 Di Stefano's finishing won River Plate the Argentine League and Argentina the South American championship.

In 1949 the country's players struck for more money. When club owners used amateurs instead, their star players decamped to Colombia, where a lucrative international pirate league was operating outside FIFA'S jurisdiction. Di Stefano signed for the aptly named Millonarios team. The league collapsed within four years but "The Blue Ballet", choreographed by Di Stefano, had proved irresistible. He alone scored a remarkable 259 goals in 292 matches.

In 1953 Millonarios took part in Real Madrid's 50th anniversary celebrations. Di Stefano caught the eye of the Spanish club's owner, Santiago Bernabeu, who agreed a fee with the Colombians. However, Barcelona also believed they had secured Di Stefano after talks with River Plate, with whom he was still officially registered. A Spanish court ruled he must rotate each year between the two clubs, but after a seemingly slow start Barcelona sold their interest to Real. Four days later Di Stefano punished both the snub and their naivety with a hat-trick as his favoured team drubbed Barca 5-0.

Di Stefano's combination of vision and endurance made him the total footballer.

One team-mate said that having him in the side was like having two players in every position.

His supreme gift was the telling pass. Like some unruffled gadfly, he would effortlessly shield the ball until the right moment to strike came. Di Stefano was the team's conductor, less concerned with solo virtuosity than maintaining rhythm and dictating tempo. He worked best with those who ran into space for him, like Puskas and the haring winger Gento. Those who sought to play otherwise received short shrift. When the Brazilian Didi arrived at Real the Argentine quickly judged their probing styles too similar. So impressed was the manager by Di Stefano that his rival was gone within the season. Di Stefano's sour, aloof character did not always endear him to the media or his fellow players off the pitch. Nevertheless, Real's fans revered him and it was esteem of his skill that persuaded Venezuelan guerrillas to release him after he was kidnapped there on tour in 1963.

Di Stefano played for Real Madrid from 1953 to 1964. Aside from their appearance in seven of the first nine European Cup finals, the club also won eight national titles. Di Stefano was top scorer in Spain every year but one from 1953 to 1959 and in 1957 and 1959 was voted European Footballer of the Year. In 624 matches for Real he scored 405 goals.

He was one of the few to represent three countries at international level.

He was capped seven times for Argentina and three times by Colombia before qualifying in 1958 for Spain. Although he scored 23 goals in 31 matches for them, injury, selection squabbles and an unimaginable defeat by Scotland meant he never graced the greater stage of the World Cup Finals. In 1963 he played for the Rest of the World against England.

Di Stefano was released by Real Madrid in 1964. He played two more seasons with RCD Espanyol in Barcelona before retiring at the age of 40. His tally of over 800 goals ranks him fourth behind Friedenrich, Binder and, of modern players, only Pele, as the highest goal scorer ever.

He became coach at Elche before returning to Argentina in 1968. Although greeted by the nationalist press as a traitor, he revived Boca Juniors before returning to Spain as manager of Valencia in 1970. The next season the team won their first championship for 24 years.

In 1980 Valencia won the European Cup Winners Cup, defeating Arsenal on penalties. He then briefly took charge at Real Madrid itself, losing to Alex Ferguson's Aberdeen in the Cup Winners Cup in 1983. Made wealthy by the game, he had little formal contact with it thereafter, returning only as caretaker manager at Real in 1990.

His wife, Sara, died in 2005.

Sunday Independent

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