Alfredo Di Stéfano

Pencil Portrait by Antonio Bosano.

Alfredo Di Stéfano Pencil Portrait
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The Manchester United reserve watched Real Madrid’s centre forward from the stands of the famous Bernabéu stadium, in April 1957. His team mates – the legendary Busby Babes – would be defeated 1-3 in their European Cup semi-final first leg match, going on to eventually lose the tie 3-5 on aggregate.

The twenty year old Bobby Charlton subsequently wrote about his first impression of the magisterial playmaker. “Who is this man? He takes the ball from the goalkeeper, he tells the full-backs what to do; wherever he is on the field he is in position to take the ball, you can see his influence on everything that is happening … I had never seen such a complete footballer … It was as though he had set up his own command centre at the heart of the game. He was as strong as he was subtle. You just could not keep your eyes off him.”

Whilst perhaps not as naturally gifted as Pelé or Maradona, Charlton nevertheless remains one of many former players and managers who regard Alfredo Di Stéfano as the best all-round footballer in the history of the game. His death in 2014 – at the age of 88 – was a time of great mourning throughout the world of football.

An integral part of the Real Madrid side that won five consecutive European Cups between 1956 and 1960, the Argentine born – and later Spanish national – was voted European player of the year in both 1957 and 1959.

His financial worth, in today’s terms, would be incalculable.

Di Stefano began his career at River Plate, the club his father had played for, but competition from a very successful established attacking line-up meant that he played his first full season in 1946 on loan at Huracán. Legend has it that his first match for the club was against his employers, River Plate, and that Di Stefano scored within seconds of the start of the game. Next season room was found in the team for the young forward at River Plate. Di Stefano did not disappoint, producing 27 goals in 30 matches and finishing top scorer as River won the league. It earned him a place in the Argentinean squad for the 1947 Copa America. Di Stefano went as a reserve, but injuries saw him make the team and again he did not disappoint those that had placed trust in him. He scored six goals in six matches as Argentina won the tournament.

In 1949 Argentina found itself in the grips of a general strike that also paralysed professional football. The clubs responded by finishing the season with amateur replacements. Many professionals sought refuge in foreign leagues. Di Stefano was persuaded to uproot to Colombia, where a wild league was being played ever since the country’s FA had cut it’s ties with FIFA. He signed with the suggestively named Millonarios Bogota. The Argentinean would stay in Bogota for three and a half seasons, winning three titles and topping the Colombian top scorers list twice. In 1952, as part of a World tour, Millonarios appeared in a tournament that Real Madrid were hosting to celebrate their 50th anniversary. Millonarios, a force to be reckoned with in those day, won the tournament and Di Stefano attracted the attention of Spanish scouts.

It soon became clear that Di Stefano’s future would lie in Spain, with Barcelona seemingly on their way to signing the South American star. But Di Stefano’s arrival in the country in May of 1943 proved to be the start of an unparalleled farce that ended in him joining Real Madrid. Barcelona followers have since been convinced that their club missing out on what would turn out to be one of the greatest players in the history of European club football was the result of the backstage shenanigans of the hated Franco regime. In fact Barcelona had made a complete mess of the transfer talks with Millonarios all by themselves, and ended up signing a transfer agreement only with River Plate. Turning to a club the player hadn’t played for in almost four years wasn’t as strange as it seemed. Because of the curious circumstances of Di Stefano’s move to Colombia no transfer fee had changed hands and River Plate were within their rights to claim that it was they who still held the transfer rights to the player. However, by leaving out Millonarios from the deal it seemed as if Barcelona were poaching Di Stefano from the Colombians, who’s FA had by that time rejoined FIFA and who were quite willing to share the transfer fee with River Plate. Consequently, the Spanish FA decided not to approve the transfer.

In the commotion that ensued, Real Madrid chairman Santiago Bernabéu was able to interest Di Stefano in signing for his club instead and concluded a transfer agreement with Millonarios. Now both clubs could claim to have bought Di Stefano. More than three months after the Argentinean’s arrival in the country, the Spanish FA Solomonically decided that the clubs would just have to share the player. Di Stefano would play the 1943-1944 season for Real, and then switch to Barcelona for the next season. The clubs reluctantly agreed and in september 1943 Di Stefano made his debut in the Spanish league. When the deal became known in Catalonia, an uproar ensued that ended in the Barcelona board resigning their positions. The interim board decided that is was best to just forget about Di Stefano and sold their share of his transfer rights to Real. Their decision might have been influenced by the fact that Di Stefano, who had hardly played a match in months, had not been all that impressive for Real Madrid yet. They might have scratched their heads when the Argentinean striker scored a hat-trick against Barcelona only days after the deal was penned.

Now how pleased the 27-year old Di Stefano should actually have been with ending up playing for Real instead of Barcelona, remained very much up for question. Barcelona had won the Spanish league four times in the previous six years, whereas Real Madrid hadn’t been able to manage winning the title for no less than twenty years. But Real’s fortunes took a sharp turn for the better with the arrival of Alfredo di Stefano. They hit the jackpot in his very first season, winning the league for the first time since 1933, with their South American striker topping the Spanish top scorers list. It would prove the start of a Golden Age unparalleled in football history. During Di Stefano’s eleven years in Madrid, the club won the league eight times. As if that weren’t enough, they also won the first five editions of the European Cup, from 1956 to 1969, the inaugural Intercontinental Cup in 1960, and a Spanish cup in 1962. Di Stefano topped the top scorers list on five occasions during his years in Spain, and scored a goal in every one of Real’s five European Cup finals.

That Real Madrid’s renaissance started when Di Stefano arrived at the club was no coincidence. The Real of the late fifties harboured more stars, like Gento, Kopa and Puskas, but none had the impact of Di Stefano. He was much more than just a goal getter. Far from content to spend is time poaching goals, he would often drop back to direct play or help defend. However thanks to his speed and incredible stamina he could always be counted on the make it back up front when it mattered. His approach to his role was revolutionary. He may well have been the first ever striker to actively defend when the opposition were in possession. It spoke volumes of his firm conviction that football was a team sport and no-one should imagine himself greater than the team. The flip-side of his willingness to subjugate himself to the team interest was the fact that he expected his team mates to show the same effort and desire to win that he exhibited. It is telling that in an interview a few years ago, Di Stefano spoke of his irritation at the habit in today’s football of thanking a fellow player with applause or a little gesture for passing the ball, even if the pass proves to be inaccurate. In the days of the great Real Madrid a player who botched up an important pass would have gotten an earful instead receiving thanks. The bar can never be raised too high.

Alfredo di Stefano was voted European Footballer of the Year in 1957 and 1959. He qualified for that title thanks to his having applied for, and subsequently received, Spanish citizenship in 1956, after Real had requested him to do so in order to enable them to field an extra foreign player. As a result Alfredo di Stefano could now represent Spain at the international level. Although Di Stefano had already turned thirty, it was an gift the national manager of Spain was not going to turn down. Di Stefano received his passport in October of 1956 and made his debut for Spain in January of 1957, promptly producing a hat-trick against the Netherlands. Promising as the start may have been, Di Stefano’s international career for Spain would ultimately be a very disappointing one. He scored 23 goals in 31 matches, but never made it to an international tournament with his adopted country. Spain failed to make it to the 1958 World Cup, finishing second in their qualifying group behind Scotland. In 1960 the Franco regime forbade the team from playing against the Soviet Union, which meant the Spanish were forced to bow out of the inaugural European Championship. And when Spain did manage to qualify for a tournament, the 1962 World Cup, Di Stefano had to pull out with an injury, leaving him with the distinctly unenviable honour of competing with George Best for the title of best footballer never to have played a World Cup.

In 1964 Alfredo di Stefano left Madrid and finally ended up playing his football in Barcelona, albeit at Espanyol. He would play for two more seasons before retiring at the age of 40. After hanging up his boots, Di Stefano embarked on a managerial career that would see him coach such clubs as Boca Juniors, Valencia, Sporting Lisbon, Rayo Vallecano, River Plate and Real Madrid. He was more successful at it than most, winning the European Cup Winners Cup and the Spanish league with Valencia, and the Argentinean League with Boca and River, but reproducing his successes as a player was a task Di Stefano was never going to manage.

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Di Stéfano (Ian Hawkey) 2016

The tragedy underlying Di Stéfano’s career was that at the very peak of his powers, television was still in its infancy. His is an extraordinary tale, that starts in Buenos Aires and ends in Madrid, via a rebel league in Colombia, a false start in Barcelona and a kidnapping in Venezuela. In this elegantly written biography, Di Stefano does not always come across as likeable- he could be brusque, confrontational and arrogant- but he was surely unique.

Over a period of twenty years, Di Stéfano was the guiding force behind three teams in three countries, firstly at River Plate in his native Argentina; subsequently at Millonarios of Bogotá in Colombia; and then in 1953, after one of the most bitter transfer tug-of-wars in sporting history, Real Madrid. There he would become football’s first global icon, nicknamed the striking ‘Blond Arrow’ for his powerful stamina, tactical versatility and precision goal scoring. He would lead Madrid as a team whose playing style others learnt from, whose stylishness was envied and whose widespread appreciation elsewhere help portray Franco’s otherwise isolated and right-wing Spain in a more flattering light.

In 1963, the all-conquering Real Madrid – favourites, of course, of General Franco who was still running Spain with an iron fist – found themselves in Caracas for a friendly tournament. Unfortunately, for Di Stéfano, he would be the man chosen by a group of Venezuelan revolutionaries to bring their cause to the world’s attention.

Di Stéfano had not played in Madrid’s first match of the pre-season tour, which ended in defeat to São Paulo. The veteran did not feel well, struggling once more with the tropical heat as he had during his spell in Colombia, and while his team-mates set out to enjoy the Caracas nightlife he stayed in the hotel and rested. Just before 6am in the Hotel Potomac his slumber was disturbed by a group of individuals claiming to be anti-narcotics police and who requested the Argentine join them at the station. “Do not worry, it is a five minute thing,” he was told and, reassured, changed out of his pyjamas in order to accompany the officers. It was the man handling he encountered as he was bundled into the car that first alerted Di Stéfano to the fact that all was not well.

“When we left the hotel we climbed into a black car. I felt uneasy right away. There were no official markings on the car you see. We had gone a little way, and suddenly one of the four men with me turned and said coolly that he was a Revolutionary. They had guns, he said, but if I gave no resistance, they would not harm me. He apologised for the kidnapping. Their purpose, he said, was political. They wanted to draw world attention to what was going on in Venezuela. He tried to talk politics to me, but I said I wasn’t interested in politics, only in sport. Next I was blindfolded, and I confess it, I began to feel really nervous.”

Meticulously planned for more than a year, he had, in fact, been kidnapped by the Armed Forces of National Liberation (FALN), a left-wing militant group agitating against the authoritarian government of Rómulo Betancourt. The star was blindfolded, while Madrid tour organiser Damián Gaudeka called a number left at the hotel by the captors. He received a similar message, along with protestations that the Argentine would not be harmed, and on contacting the press discovered that they had already been alerted. Di Stéfano, now bound and travelling to an unknown fate, saw his annoyance at the early wake-up call superseded by fear.

“A day went by and I thought they were going to liquidate me, kill me. My head gave in, it believed everything I was thinking and I believed that at any time someone was going to come in and shoot me in the head,” the former player wrote in his autobiography, Thank you, Mother. It was at that point that he met with the man he identified as the chief of the operation: Máximo Canales, the nom de guerre of the 20-year-old fledgeling revolutionary Paul del Río.

The unlikely pair spent some 70 hours together while Di Stéfano was held captive, playing chess and checkers. An iconic photograph released to the world’s media shows the two together, del Río explaining to a bemused Di Stéfano who his group were and what they were fighting for.

Every available policeman was thrown into the biggest man-hunt in Caracas’ history. From Spain, Raimundo Saporta, Real Madrid’s ‘iron man’ who had signed Di Stefano from South America ten years before, flew out to lead the search. But for fifty-seven hours the well organised F.A.L.N. and its moustachioed, debonair young leader Maximo Canales’ held their prisoner under lock and key, then released him of their own accord near the Spanish Embassy.

Interestingly, the football player had not been the first target for the FALN. Canales had originally set his sights on the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky, on tour in Venezuela. But as Di Stéfano himself explains, the octogenarian musician was considered too risky as a political captive. “As he was not in the best of health they did not want to risk [Stravinsky] dying on them. They did not want murders.

To a greater degree than Europe and the United States, 1960s Latin America was a hotbed of revolutionary and counter-cultural movement. The success of Fidel Castro’s Cuban Revolution in 1959 had revitalised resistance to oligarchic, repressive governments across the region, and Venezuela was no exception. The Cuban example of using focos, cells of active militants, to foment revolution both in the countryside and the cities, had been adopted widely in Latin America, with Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara’s example of continental insurrection and often active encouragement and support from Havana giving the young agitators new life and power.

The target in Caracas was President Betancourt, a man whose advances in the petroleum industry and a limited land reform were overshadowed, in leftist thinkers’ eyes, by an iron hand when dealing with communist demonstrators. Barely out of his teenage years, Del Río was already a committed revolutionary and enemy of Betancourt, and had spearheaded in 1963 the daring seizure of a cargo ship on the high seas. But it was the kidnapping of Di Stéfano which brought the FALN to the world’s attention, even though the Venezuelan’s affirmations of justice and equality seemed to have little effect on his taciturn guest.

The Argentine’s ordeal came to an end after three days of captivity, when Canales gave the order for the hostage to put on a clean shirt and be released. “I did not want to take off my green shirt, a really nice one, but in the end they gave me a checked one,” Di Stéfano lamented.

“They wanted to leave me near the hotel and I said that was worse, there was a lot of press and police and it was better for them to leave me near the Spanish embassy.” Di Stéfano was eventually bundled out of the car on the Libertadores Avenue: “I said goodbye to them and I made a massive jump to hide behind a tree. I crossed the street at 100 miles an hour, dodging the traffic like I dribbled past defenders and I stopped a taxi, I almost threw myself on top of it.”

Unbelievably, despite his ordeal Di Stéfano played that same day for Madrid, receiving a standing ovation as he made the headlines on the pitch, in the manner to which he was far more accustomed. At that point the Madrid star and del Río’s stories diverge. The Argentine left the Bernabéu the following year for Espanyol, although he would later return as coach, eventually taking up the role of honorary president, representative of everything Merengue. His captor, meanwhile, was imprisoned by Betancourt and later stripped of his Venezuelan citizenship, taking refuge in Cuba. In 1975 his nationality was restored, with the armed revolutionary Canales long gone.

The militant turned to canvas and stone in order to make his political views heard, painting in a stark, modernist style that aimed to lay bare the poverty and inequality that afflicted his country. Del Río travelled across the world for exhibitions of his paintings and sculptures, but the young idealist was not quite gone; in 1979, the old flame was still flickering as he travelled to Nicaragua to join the Sandinista revolution, which had unseated the murderous Somoza family and tried, against formidable odds, to install a fairer society in one of the Western Hemisphere’s most impoverished states.

The Venezuelan, however, never forgot about his brush with one of football’s greatest-ever players, laying out a permanent invitation for Di Stéfano to join him for dinner should he find himself in Caracas.

In 2005, a bizarre postscript was added to the already surreal story of the two South Americans. Real Madrid celebrated their centenary that year with 12 months of lavish celebrations and public acts of tribute and homage, which included the hagiographic production Real: The Movie. For the gala premiere, Merengue stars past and present were invited, as well as the cream of Madrid society.

Roberto Carlos, David Beckham, Zinedine Zidane … and one Paul del Río. After 42 years, almost to the day of Di Stéfano’s kidnapping, the club president Florentino Pérez had contrived to bring captor and hostage together again in a curious celebration of Madrid’s history and an original way of promoting the new motion picture celebrating a century of Blanco supremacy.

But Di Stéfano refused to play along. The film’s producers did not get the photo of the two reconciling which would have sold so well in the newspaper and posters, although the Argentine did speak briefly with the man he knew as Canales. There was no handshake, just a blunt dismissal typical of the ‘Blonde Arrow’. “You made my family feel great fear. We have nothing to talk about,” he told del Río, before moving swiftly onwards. The long-awaited reunion, a product of Madrid’s always hyperactive marketing machine, was a resounding failure.

The artist returned to Caracas, and would eventually move into the San Carlos Barracks where he had been held as a ‘political prisoner’ by Betancourt’s regime. The space had been converted into a museum by Hugo Chávez’s Bolivarian revolution, which naturally vindicated the armed struggle of the 1960s as an honourable, courageous act. It would be his final home. Del Río died feted by the government, having spent much of his life in a seemingly interminable struggle fighting for what he believed in. He died, moreover, less than a year after Di Stéfano finally succumbed to cancer at the age of 88.

His story may be just a footnote in the glorious history of Di Stéfano and Madrid in that era, but the revolutionary painter and sculptor left his mark on one of the finest players ever to set foot on a football field.