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Alfredo di Stefano, in memoriam

Alfredo di Stefano with Iker Casillas
Photo by Carlos Alvarez/Getty Images

Yesterday in Madrid, Spain, Alfredo di Stefano passed away at age 88. The Argentine striker and Real Madrid icon was considered by many to be the third best player to ever lace up football cleats, behind only Pele and Diego Maradona. He was born July 4, 1926 and passed away on July 7, 2014.

Di Stefano, known as the Saeta Rubia (the Blond Arrow) will also be remembered as a rare athlete who could run for a match’s full 90 minutes providing defensive, playmaking, and scoring input, while performing at the highest skill levels, and inspiring his teams to success on two continents over a career that spanned 17 years.

Di Stefano became a professional in 1945, at age 19, playing for River Plate, in Buenos Aires, and after five years there, plus a year on loan to city rivals Huracan, he was bought by Colombian Club Millonarios. He played for them from 1949 to 1953, appearing in 102 games and scoring 90 goals. During his time at those three clubs he led the Argentine league in scoring once and the Colombian league twice.

Barcelona and Real Madrid both recruited him in the early 1950s, and both claimed to have rights to him. It took the intervention of the Spanish Football Federation to decide the dispute over his eventual new home. The federation’s resolution, that di Stefano would play two years for each team, thus fulfilling the four-year contract he had negotiated, was ultimately not to be. Barcelona opted out of the deal alleging that Spain’s Madrid-based dictator, Francisco Franco, had put pressure on the Catalan club to allow the star to play for Madrid.

Once at Madrid, di Stefano wasted no time showing his full array of talents. He was an inexhaustible player who could be seen marking opposition strikers at one end of the pitch and finishing the ensuing counter on the other. He was also a playmaker who often set up goals for his teammates, but his strongest suits were being the team’s undisputed leader on the pitch and a prodigious goal scorer. He topped Spain’s La Liga scorer’s table five times in his eleven years (1953-1964) with Real Madrid. He retired in 1966, at age 40, having spent the last two years of his playing career in Barcelona, at Espanyol, for whom he appeared in 47 games scoring 11 goals.

From 1967 to 1991 he coached 12 teams in Spain, Argentina, and Portugal. Real Madrid made him an honorary president in 2000 and he spent the latter years of his life as a club ambassador and booster.

Di Stefano will be remembered most for two things, his starring role and leadership on a team that became legendary in Spain and Europe, and thus the world, and for never having played in a World Cup. That second fact has ensured that his star’s wattage did not rival that of those who have participated and starred at the global event. It is a major factor in the minds of those ranking the all-time greats of the sport who have often not mentioned him as being at the level of Johan Cruyff, Franz Beckenbauer or Michel Platini.

Those who think he should be remembered as being at the higher reaches of the sport’s pantheon point to the following selection of his accomplishments, which are similar to those of countryman Lionel Messi. With di Stefano, Argentina won the 1947 Copa America, River Plate won the 1945 and 1947 Primera Division titles, Millonarios won the 1949, 1951 and 1952 Colombian Championship, Real Madrid won eight La Liga titles, the first five consecutive European Cups (the precursor to the Champions League), and the first Intercontinental Cup, the precursors to the FIFA Club World Cup. Di Stefano won the Ballon d’Or in 1957 and 1959 when the trophy was for the best European player of the year, and he was the top scorer of the European Cup in 1958 and 1962. In his career, he scored 789 goals in 1,090 official games, a 0.7 goals per game average.

Perhaps the best way to glimpse his true greatness is to see him playing in the 1960 European Cup Final against Eintracht Frankfurt, when Real Madrid demolished the German team by 7-3 with di Stefano scoring a hat trick.