• Text size      
  • Send this article to a friend
  • Print this article

Di Stefano, the man who married cerebral skills with physical mastery

Alfredo di Stefano is a white blur.

Alfredo di Stefano was one of only two players to take part in all five of Real Madrid's consecutive European Cup final wins in the 1950s. Picture: Archive
Alfredo di Stefano was one of only two players to take part in all five of Real Madrid's consecutive European Cup final wins in the 1950s. Picture: Archive

That impression remains steadfastly there in my ageing retina from that singular moment in the 73rd minute on that balmy spring evening at Hampden Park in 1960 when Real Madrid, playing as if choreographed by Balanchine and seeming to reinvent football in front of an audience who thought they knew everything about the game, had lost an audacious goal scored by Erwin Stein of Eintracht Frankfurt.

The Real team centred the ball with an air of effrontery after having asserted such previous superiority over talented opponents by making them look as if they had been hired merely as stage-hands. When the ball was put back into play Di Stefano was just inside his own half, looking languid and quite innocent. It was then played in one or two passes until it arrived at his foot about forty yards from goal.

Out of that casual acceptance of the ball came a surge that seared the eye and slit the throat of the German defence. For when the ball left his foot well outside the box it rose barely an inch above the ground and the goalkeeper Egon Loy, who looked atrophied by such movement, could only stare at the ball snug in his net. It was a pivotal moment, not for the game itself, but for the character of the Argentine.

For although there were marvellous goals scored in that game, including a tight angle left foot strike by the fabulous Ferenc Puskas that would have penetrated the ozone layer had there not been a net there, this single assertion of individuality stamped him even greater than the magical talents around him.

It is true, of course, that he was in good company. He was never made to struggle all that much and if he was off form as he was from time to time, as any footballer can be, then there were plenty others to distract attention from any lapses.

But whereas he played alongside others who were blessed with immeasurable talent, some of them had flaws. Gento was faster than a gazelle but tricky in a way that might be called showboating.

Puskas could conceivably have played well even if they had amputated his right foot because it was there only to make him look normal. Canario and Luis del Sol were excellent but never could quite assert themselves and punish opponents as severely as Di Stefano.

For if there were any player who could be called the complete player it was he. He dribbled, he passed, he headed, he shot, all with the polished accomplishment of a man who seemed immune from the deadening effect of orthodox coaching. As such, these assets combined to enable him to score 216 goals in 282 games with Real. In doing so, he helped create the air of mastery surrounding Argentinian football that meant it came as no surprise that Maradona emerged from the same cradle and is continued in kind by Lionel Messi.

Yes, he played more for Spain eventually than he did for the country of his birth, but in the footballing ethos he was always seen as a South American.

For what we watched that night was the prototype of the kind of player who can marry cerebral play with physical mastery of a field. Maradona's great individual lengthy run and goal in the Azteca against England in 1986 came from the Di Stefano blueprint.

Watch again Messi on the sudden spurt he produced in scoring the stunning goal he made to score late against Bosnia & Herzegovina and you are watching the genetic effect of a Di Stefano which both inspired that kind of player and retained the image of his style which was even more River Plate than Real Madrid.

By sheer contrast I watched him from afar that rainy night in Gothenburg in 1983 when he managed Real against Aberdeen in the Cup Winners' Cup final. He was a tiny dark figure that night as he was outthought by Sir Alex, who claims he presented him a bottle of whisky before the match, one that must have produced mystification rather than a hangover in a ploy that Jock Stein could not have bettered.

The fact that he was such a great player meant that there were great expectations of him in that role and indeed he had his successes, winning in particular the European Cup Winners' Cup in 1980.

I met him during that spell with Valencia. He brought his club to Ibrox for a European tie. I had to find out the team he was to play so I went to the dressing-room door and timidly knocked for attention.

A player opened the door and I asked to speak to the manager. The player pointed to the corner of the vast, woodened Ibrox dressing room and there in the corner was the great Alfredo.

He wore a crumpled suit and looked as if he had been up all night, unsmiling and with a tiny fag in his mouth, nipping at it like it was giving him great sustenance. He looked wrinkled and tiny and unathletic and somehow I felt let down given what he had been in a white shirt.

That of course was naive. Life had changed and so had he. Later, when he fell out with Real and refused to go back to the stadium, ever, he was forced out of exile by another Scottish influence. Celtic.

He returned for his testimonial game against the new European Champions and the game was stopped early in the first-half for both teams and the crowd to acclaim one of the greats in the game.

In 1962 he was kidnapped by a gang while in Caracas with Real. No ransom had been paid for his eventual release. They would have had to sell the Bernabeu for that.

Contextual targeting label: 
Football

Commenting & Moderation

We moderate all comments on HeraldScotland on either a pre-moderated or post-moderated basis.
If you're a relatively new user then your comments will be reviewed before publication and if we know you well and trust you then your comments will be subject to moderation only if other users or the moderators believe you've broken the rules

Moderation is undertaken full-time 9am-6pm on weekdays, and on a part-time basis outwith those hours. Please be patient if your posts are not approved instantly.

245879