Who is the greatest player ever? It’s a question that no football enthusiast can escape. It’s a question that has broken friendships, destroyed families and split marriages. Well not really, but often the passion that is arisen during such debates seems like it could destroy anything.
So who is it – Pele or Maradona? Some mention Cruyff and Zidane while others have begun talking about Messi and Cristiano. With so many possibilities there can’t possibly be one definitive answer. And that’s because football is an ever-changing sport. Rules, play-styles and tactics are constantly changed and modified. Players can’t be compared by skill or ability over the course of time because the execution of that skill or ability is reliant on a dynamic environment.
So then how do we deem a player “the greatest to ever live,” well how about influence or impact on the sport. When discussing which player has changed the sport the most, there is only one name mentioned. Alfredo Di Stéfano.
The world of football was left stunned when Di Stéfano suffered a cardiac arrest in a restaurant late Saturday night. Don Alfredo had just turned 88 on Friday and was most likely celebrating it with his loved ones in a restaurant which was minutes away from his beloved Santiago Bernabéu. He was rushed to the Hospital General Universitario Gregorio Marañón where he spent his last few days in an induced coma. On Monday, July 7th 2014 at around 5 PM, football lost one of its greatest sons.
So what does make Don Alfredo the most influential player in the history of the sport? To understand why, one must first appreciate the importance of the European Cup. Believe it or not, there once was a time in which there was no competition to award a side the honor of being deemed “The Kings of Europe.” When the competition was first proposed, it was not greeted with the same enthusiasm one would expect.
In 1955, when the competition first began , it was viewed as a high-risk project. It had only been a decade since the end of World War II, and Europe was still recovering from what had been the worst war in the history of mankind. Feelings of distrust and hostility were still very much apparent, so much so that certain nations refused to partake in the competition. England for example denied domestic champions Chelsea the right to compete in the inaugural version.
After being an important figure in the establishment of the Colombian and Argentinean domestic league, Di Stéfano embarked on a journey which would change the face of European football. On September 23, 1953, Di Stéfano made his debut as a Real Madrid player against Nancy. That day Real Madrid lost 4-2. Many Europeans wondered whether Di Stéfano was really the player that the South Americans described him as.
By 1960, when Real claimed their fifth successive European crown, the competition was already fundamentally coupled with glamour and excitement. You know that rush of adrenaline you get when you hear the Champions League anthem before each match, well that had already began to build. The reason the competition captured the imagination of the continent was mainly because of Real Madrid’s success, which was primarily due to Alfredo Di Stéfano’s brilliance. The ‘Golden Arrow’ scored in each of Real’s five European Cup final successes.
He wasn’t a forward or a midfielder or a defender. He was the orchestrator. He was both the brain and the heart of the team. Every pulse, every beat and every action started and ended at the feet of Di Stéfano.
Sir Bobby Charlton, who had the pleasure of witnessing the genius of Don Alfredo in person, did an excellent job of summing up his brilliance: “I thought ‘Who is this man?’ as he made his early impact on the game. ‘He takes the ball from the goalkeeper; he tells the full-backs what to do; wherever he is on the field he is in a position to take the ball; you can see his influence on everything that is happening.’ It was pure revelation. Everything seemed to radiate from him. 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. The combination of qualities was mesmerizing.”
Throughout the world of football, a frenzy had begun. Everyone adopted a white kit in the hope of resembling the dominant Real Madrid. Players from all over the world traveled to Spain to catch a glimpse of the elegant Di Stéfano command a football pitch. The great Arrigo Sacchi once said “Di Stéfano changed football in a indescribable way. It was like when movies went from silent to sound.”
Some even argue that Di Stéfano’s impact was wider than the sport, that his football at the time gave the world a brighter perspective of the fascist dictatorship of Spain. Not to mention that he united a continent that was at war less than 20 years ago.
Unfortunately, the great Don Alfredo was never able to participate in a World Cup. In 1950, Argentina refused to participate in the tournament, which denied Di Stéfano his first chance. In 1954, Argentina once again refused to enter and FIFA declared Di Stéfano ineligible to play for Colombia as he had already played for Argentina. After acquiring Spanish citizenship a couple of years later, Di Stéfano was too late as Spain had already failed to qualify for the 1958 tournament.
After winning the five European Cups, Di Stéfano guided Spain to qualify for the 1962 tournament. His moment had finally arrived but a week before the tournament, Don Alfredo endured a severe muscular injury which prevented him from making his World Cup debut. He subsequently retired from international football in 1963.
Fate never granted Di Stéfano the opportunity to grace the World Cup, and that might be a reason why he is often forgotten in the debate of greats. But the man was the king of club football. With eight league titles and 5 European Cups to his name, Don Alfredo has done what his competitors haven’t come close to. Pele never entered European Football, while Maradona – despite playing two seasons with Barcelona, seven with Napoli and one with Sevilla – failed to win either La Liga or the European Cup.
Both Pele and Maradona hold Di Stéfano in the highest of regard. “People talk about the best being Pele or Diego Maradona, but for me the best player ever was Alfredo Di Stéfano,” said Pele a few years ago. Maradona dubbed Don Alfredo as “maestro de los maestros” (maestros of all maestros), while Cruyff hailed him as his idol.
While he may be gone, his legacy will forever live on. He is not just a hero of Real Madrid, Argentina or Colombia. He is a hero of football. Tú nos hiciste los más grandes. Siempre estarás con nosotros. Descansa en paz, Don Alfredo Di Stéfano.