One of Argentina’s — and the world’s — greatest soccer players ever never played in a World Cup.
Alfredo Di Stéfano, who died on Monday at the age of 88, was one of the central figures of the great Real Madrid teams that won five consecutive European Cup titles in the late 1950s.
After the end of World War II, Di Stéfano, the Hungarian legend Ferenc Puskás and Real Madrid ushered in the rise of top European club competition with their feats that continued into their mid-30s.
Known now as the glamorous — and ever lucrative — Champions League, the event’s latest champion is its most decorated one, as Real Madrid downed crosstown rivals Atlético Madrid in May for its 10th title.
In 58 European Cup matches, Di Stéfano scored 49 goals. But the European Cup, and the Spanish domestic game, would be his biggest stage.
After starring for the great Buenos Aires side River Plate in the 1940s, Di Stéfano left for Colombia during an Argentine players’ strike in 1948.
He was eligible to play for Argentina in 1950 and 1954, the first two World Cup years after World War II, but the Argentine federation withdrew both times.
Di Stéfano became a Spanish citizen in 1956, but Spain didn’t qualify for the 1958 World Cup. In 1962, Spain did reach the finals in Chile, but he was injured and at the age of 35 didn’t play for the national team again. He later played for Real Madrid’s biggest enemy, Barcelona, whose daily sports paper, Marca (above), paid Di Stéfano tribute in its Tuesday editions.
Later a club coach in Argentina and Spain, Di Stéfano was a constant presence around the Real Madrid camp well into old age. He died after suffering a heart attack while eating out near Real Madrid’s vaunted home ground, Estadio Bernabéu.
Former England star Bobby Charlton said of Di Stéfano:
“I had never seen such a complete footballer. It was as though he had set up his own command center at the heart of the game. He was as strong as he was subtle. You just could not keep your eyes off him.”
Tim Vickery, a British soccer writer who has long reported from South America, puts Di Stéfano in the same company as Pelé and Diego Maradona when asked about the greatest player of all time:
“I think I’m on safe ground arguing arguing there has never been a footballer more influential than Alfredo Di Stéfano.”
“For me Di Stéfano is the best. He was much more complete.”
A moment of silence was held in Di Stéfano’s honor before Wednesday’s World Cup semifinal match won by Argentina over The Netherlands.
In an Argentina that has produced Maradona and now Lionel Messi after him, Di Stéfano’s name is being invoked, not just in remembrance, but in anticipation of Sunday’s championship match in Rio de Janeiro against Germany. As Latin American soccer author Andreas Campomar wrote Thursday:
“If [Messi] leads Argentina into the final against Germany, he will take his place alongside Di Stéfano as the greatest the continent has to offer.”