From the publishers of THE HINDU
VOL.32 :: NO.26 :: Jun. 27, 2009
If Cristiano Ronaldo proves to be worth that £80 million transfer fee and a salary which could rise to over £500000 a year, what price Alfredo Di Stefano? The answer, I suppose would have to be, “priceless,” first, because the value of what he achieved for Real Madrid was beyond computation. Secondly, because when he came to them from Colombia in 1953, he cost the club by comparison little or nothing.
If Ronaldo is justly voted the best footballer in the world, then so was Di Stefano in his pomp. Indeed, when I have been asked to make up a list of the finest footballers of all time, I have invariably put Di Stefano second only to Pele; who was only coming to the fore, however brilliantly, when Di Stefano’s playing career was in its last, remarkable years. Culminating — though he played on afterwards — in his glorious display for Real in Glasgow when in the Final of the 1960 European Cup, he and that superb Hungarian left-footer, Ferenc Puskas, tore holes in the defence of Eintracht Frankfurt who were thrashed 7-3, Di Stefano himself, perpetual motion as always, getting three of the goals, while Puskas scored all the rest.
But whereas Ronaldo arrived at Real with such a fanfare of trumpets, Di Stefano’s arrival, and, it is arguable that, without his dazzling contribution, Real would never have reached the financial stage where they could afford to disburse such vast sums of money (and with their £500 million debt, it is still puzzling to see how they could) for Ronaldo. Let alone the £56 million they shelled out for Kaka of Brazil and in the relatively recent past, the fortune they disbursed for Zinedine Zidane when they prised him from Juventus.
How Di Stefano came to, and stayed at, Real Madrid is a strange story running through the streets of his native Buenos Aires, he built up his amazing stamina, to which, joining River Plate, one of the city’s two great clubs, he would ally supreme technique, powerful finishing with foot and head, and a tremendous team ethic. Nominally a centre-forward, you were just as likely to find him popping up in his own penalty area. He was capped a few times for Argentina but they never got the very best of him. Bogota would supervene.
In the early 1950s the Colombian Federation, after a squabble, withdrew from FIFA which meant they could sign whom they liked — free of charge — and pay them what they liked. Adolfo Pedernera, then a huge star centre-forward, responded to the siren call and joined the Millonarios club. Di Stefano followed him. But when Colombia returned to FIFA, Di Stefano left, but not to return to River Plate and Buenos Aires. So 1953 saw him arrive in Spain. But exactly where?
Both Barcelona and Real Madrid came in for him; each insisted they’d done a deal with River Plate and each flourished documentation to prove it. Whom to believe? The Spanish Federation dodged the column, with what you might call a judgement of Solomon. Both clubs should have him, they somewhat fatuously decreed, but only in alternate seasons. Real got first pick and Barca, surely to their eternal regret, decided when it came to their turn that they would not go ahead. So Di Stefano, inspirational, indefatigable, domineering — there was never any room for anyone else on the podium, even if it should be such a star as Brazil’s Didi — stayed at Real Madrid.
When UEFA launched the European Cup in 1955/6, Di Stefano came majestically into his own. Thanks in chief measure to him, Real proceeded to win the tournament no fewer than five times in a row. He scored goals, he made goals, he played you might say Total Football avant la lettre. Before Beckenbauer and Cruyff whose Bayern and Ajax teams each won the title three times but now five times in a row, had even had the chance to invent it. Thanks to Di Stefano, to whom even the commanding and sometimes intransigent Puskas deferred, established themselves as one of the greatest clubs, not just in Europe, but in the world.
Had there been a World Player of the Year back in those days, Di Stefano would surely have won it time and again. And Ronaldo? He was never quite the heart and soul of Manchester United whom he joined as an 18-year-old from Sporting Lisbon, and where Di Stefano flourished in those European Cup finals, he in the last one, for Manchester United against Barcelona, was curiously subdued. By what a panoply of talents! Pace, power, skill, heading ability, glorious long range free-kicks, which even Di Stefano did not deploy.
And his spectacular good looks — Di Stefano hardly had them — has made him as much of a Lothario as his Manchester United predecessor, George Best.
Though, unlike Best he will not drink himself to death. Since his colossal transfer was announced, there has been some mean back biting in the English Press. Yes, he can be petulant, yes he is often known to dive. But there’s nothing vicious about him. He’s simply the finest of his time; as was Di Stefano.
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