Ask most people who the greatest footballer of all time is, and they’ll chant Pelé, Pelé, Pelé at you until you can’t take any more.

Fair enough. He wasn’t bad, I guess.

But if Pelé had been denied the chance to play in three World Cups by a World War, politics, bureaucratic procrastination, and cruel injury, and an Argentinean by the name of Alfredo Di Stéfano had had the opportunity to shine on the world stage, maybe the popular view would be a little different.

Born 14 years before Pelé, Alfredo Di Stéfano was the greatest player of his time, of that there's no doubt. Representing Spain, Argentina and Columbia at international level, securing a record five consecutive European Cup titles for Real Madrid, European Footballer of the Year twice in three years in the late 1950s, he was the player Diego Maradona described thus in 1997:

"I don't know if I had been a better player than Pelé, but I can say without any doubt that Di Stéfano was better than Pelé. I am proud when one speaks of Di Stéfano. Pelé would have flopped had he played in Europe, whereas Alfredo has played very well throughout the world. I can say that Maradona could be worse than Pelé. But I emphasize Di Stéfano was better."¹

If you're not convinced by the words of the controversial, diminutive Argentine midfield legend, try these, from Di Stefano's coach at Real Madrid, Miguel Munoz:

"The greatness of Di Stéfano was that, with him in your side, you had two players in every position."²

And if you're still not sure, here's Helenio Herrera (inventor of catenaccio, Internazionale coach, and Spanish coach in the 1962 World Cup), on Di Stéfano:

"Alfredo Di Stéfano was the greatest footballer of all time - far better even than Pelé. He was, simultaneously, the anchor in defence, the playmaker in midfield, and the most dangerous marksman in attack."³

Di Stéfano was total football way before Rinus Michels's Ajax revolution in the 1960s, defending, attacking, stopping goals, scoring goals, setting up goals, with pace, vision and strength, and all with a fighting spirit lacking, for all their collective genius, in the Dutch ideal.

A quick run through Di Stéfano's career should be enough to convince you of the man's greatness.

Club Football: South America

Born in the suburbs of Buenos Aires on July 4th 1926, Alfredo was the eldest son of Italian parents. His early years were spent working on his parents' farm, before, aged 12, he joined a youth team called Los Cardales. After winning the amateur championship with Los Cardales, Di Stéfano signed for River Plate when he was just 15, and by 16 had forced his way into the first team squad. River Plate, however, were already well-stocked with strikers, and loaned Di Stéfano to Atlético Huracán.

It probably didn't look like such a good idea when the teenager rewarded his club by scoring the winning goal against River Plate when the two teams met. Di Stéfano was recalled to River Plate in 1947, and “La Saeta Rubia” (The Blond Arrow) , as he became known, immediately made an impact, becoming the leading scorer in the league, with 27 goals in 30 games.

River Plate won the title comfortably that year, and again in 1948. A players strike in 1949 saw many Argentine players hop across the border to Columbia, to play in the then unofficial Di Mayor League. Di Stéfano, along with his River Plate team mates Adolfo Pedernera and Nestor Rossi, helped his new club Los Millonarios dominate Di Mayor over the coming seasons, winning the league title in 1949, 1951, 1951, and 1953. Di Stéfano scored 267 goals in his short time at the club, making him Millonarios' second highest scorer of all time.

Club Football: Spain

On a tour of Spain in 1953, Di Stéfano and his Millonarios side played the then lowly Real Madrid, winning a tournament marking the Spanish side's 50th anniversary. Real and rivals Barcelona then both tried to sign Di Stéfano, with Real negotiating with Millionairos, and Barcelona with River Plate, with whom Di Stéfano was still contracted. The Spanish FA suggested that he should be able to play for both teams, changing from one to the other at the end of each season. When Di Stefano rejected this, and the Catalan side's idea of both clubs selling their share in the player to Italian side Juventus, Real were able to sign him for a measly £70,000. It was to become one of the greatest signings the club (or any club) would ever make. The joy began as early as Di Stéfano's debut the day after the transfer was officially confirmed.

Playing against, yep, Barcelona, Di Stéfano helped Real to a 5-0 win. To make matters worse for Barça, Di Stéfano helping himself to 4 of the goals. Real, of course, won the Spanish league that season. The success paved the way for the European glory and domination that was to follow.

The European Cup, launched in the 1955/6 season, might just as well have been called the Real Madrid Cup in its first few years. In the first final, played at Parc Des Princes, Paris on 13 June 1956, Real fell 2-0 down after only 10 minutes, but came back to beat a strong Reims side that included French genius Raymond Kopa.

The following year, this time stronger after signing Kopa, Real defeated Fiorentina 2-0 in Real's own Santiago Bernabeu stadium to lift the trophy again. Milan were the victims a year later, losing 3-2 to Real in extra time. For the 1958/59 season, Real signed the ridiculously good Ferenc Puskas, giving them an attacking force of Puskas, Kopa, and Di Stéfano, surely the greatest trio of attacking players ever to grace the same side. Unsurprisingly, Real again won the European Cup, beating Reims 2-0 in Stuttgart in front of a crowd of 80,000. So far, Di Stéfano had played, and scored, in each of these four finals, but the best was yet to come.

At Hampden Park, Glasgow, on 18 May 1960, 130,000 fans were treated by two great teams to the finest display of club football ever witnessed. After 18 minutes, Real's opponents, Eintracht Frankfurt had cheekily, perhaps unwisely, taken a one goal lead. Eintracht were pretty good that year, and knocked 12 goals past Glasgow Rangers in the semi-final legs. Some pundits were even tipping them to Be the first team to break Real's winning streak.

53 minutes later, Real Madrid led 6-1.

After falling behind, Real had been stung into action. Two goals from Di Stéfano gave Real the lead after the half-hour mark, and Puskas casually scored the next 4 in a 26 minute period. Stein then pulled one back for Frankfurt, before Di Stéfano completed his hat-trick. Stein scored another for Eintracht, but at the end of the game Real had run out 7-3 winners. The crowd applauded both teams at the end of the game, the players responding by reappearing to take the plaudits, like actors after a great theatrical show.

That was the end of Real's run of success in the European Cup (for the time being, anyway) - in 1961 they lost unluckily (3-2) to Barcelona in the first round; Real's first defeat in the competition. So, Di Stéfano scored in 5 successive finals, and was instrumental in helping Real win all five finals. In 1960, he also helped Real to the first Intercontinental Cup title, beating Peñarol of Uruguay over two legs.

While at Real, Di Stéfano also won the newly created European Footballer of the Year award, in 1957, and again in 1959. Di Stéfano played in two more European Cup finals with Real Madrid, losing 5-3 to a Eusebio-inspired Benfica side in 1962, and 3-1 to Internazionale in Vienna in the 1964 final, with Di Stéfano less than two months short of his 38th birthday.

Past his best, Di Stéfano was accused in the sporting press of having lost some of his pace and strength in this, the twilight of his career. Still a potent force, though, despite his advancing years, he moved to Español to play out the remainder of his career, playing for a further two seasons before a back injury forced him to retire at the grand old age of 40.

International Career

Di Stéfano is part of a pretty select band of footballers to have played international football for more than one country. But not only that, he actually represented three nations during his career, playing for Argentina, Columbia, and Spain. I don't know how - I can only assume the rules and regulations for making international appearances were a little more relaxed in those days. If a country asked kindly enough, you could slip on a jersey and play the occasional 90 minutes for them.

This peripatetic international career began when Di Stéfano was a 21 year old, selected for Argentina in the 1947 Copa America (South American Championship). Di Stéfano established himself as a star immediately, scoring on his debut, and adding a further 5 goals in the competition, as Argentina ran out winners. Di Stéfano was the competition's second leading scorer.

While in exile in Columbia, the Columbian FA asked Di Stéfano to play for their national side, Di Stefano obliged, and so Columbia became his second international team, albeit for only 4 matches.

While in Spain, however, Di Stéfano established himself properly on the international scene, scoring 23 goals in 31 games for his adopted homeland, at the time a Spanish goal scoring record. (The record has since been beaten by Emilio Butragueno and Raul)

If there is one reason, and one reason alone why Alfrédo Di Stefano is not remembered better for his great achievements and as a challenger to Pelé's generally accepted title as the greatest player ever it is this: Despite being capped by three countries, and playing at the top level of professional football for 20 years, Di Stéfano never played in the World Cup Finals.

In 1950, the first competition since his international debut, Argentina were one of many teams to withdraw from the competition, the first to be played after World War II. (India, on the other hand, wanted to play as one of the reserve teams FIFA drafted in, but withdrew when their request to be able to play in bare feet was rejected by FIFA.) In 1954, having played for Argentina and Columbia - although the Columbian matches aren't generally counted as official international appearances - Di Stéfano was ruled by FIFA to be ineligible to appear for Spain, a decision not reversed until 1957, when Di Stéfano was 31; an unusual age for an international debut. But before you ask, yes, he did score on his debut. A hat-trick in fact, against Holland.

In 1958, Spain failed to qualify for the finals in Sweden, and in 1962, having been selected for the Spanish squad, Di Stéfano picked up an injury just before the tournament began. He failed to recover in time, but a dispute with coach Herrera meant that he might not have been selected in any case. And so it was that one of the world's greatest footballers was denied the chance to grace the world's greatest tournament.

Career Record

Games and Goals:
1943-1949 River Plate: 76 games, 49 goals
(1946 Huracan: 25 games, 10 goals)
1949-1953 Millonarios: 294 games, 267 goals
1953-1964 Real Madrid: 282 games, 219 goals
1964-1966 Espanyol: 21 games, 9 goals
Honours won:
Argentinean Championship: 1945, 1947
Columbian Championship: 1949, 1951, 1952, 1953
Spanish Championship: 1953-1954, 1954-1955, 1956-1957, 1957-1958, 1960-1961, 1961-1962, 1962-1963, 1963-1964
Spanish Cup: 1961-1962
European Cup: 1955-1956, 1956-1957, 1957-1958, 1958-1959, 1959-1960
Copa America: 1947
Intercontinental Cup: 1960
League Top Scorer:
Argentina: 1947
Columbia: 1951, 1952
Spain: 1953-1954, 1955-1956, 1956-1957, 1957-1958, 1958-1959

With help from…

    Career stats taken from this page.


    Quotes 1,2,3, and general career info taken from this excellent site


    The most excellent Rec.Sport.Soccer Statistics Foundation.


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