Alfredo Di Stéfano: The Greatest of All Time?


Ben Jordan discusses the life and legacy of football legend Alfredo Di Stéfano

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Image by Wim van Rossem for Anefo

By Ben Jordan

Lionel Messi has won a World Cup. I am sure to many people out there this will be a statement of no significance, but for football fans worldwide this incredible feat comes as the culmination of one of the most illustrious careers football has ever seen. In the wake of this revelation I thought now was as good a time as ever to reflect on the exploits of the greatest Argentinian player of all time, a man who is in many respects perhaps the greatest footballer to ever step on the pitch: Alfredo Di Stéfano.

You heard me right. Not Messi. Or Maradona for that matter. Di Stéfano has a claim to be better than both, and in spite of his seminal stature he is nowhere near as famous as his compatriots. Why is this? As a casual football fan I am ashamed to admit that I had never even heard of Di Stéfano until a few months ago, but the more I have learned about the man the more I have come to respect him. The few times I have mentioned Di Stéfano recently in conversations about football I have often found myself faced with blank stares. This lack of recognition is unacceptable for a man who even Pelé once conceded was the greatest player ever. So much so that it incited me to write this article.

The man they came to call the “Blond Arrow” was born in Buenos Aires on 4 July 1926. He was introduced to street football by his father (also named Alfredo), a former River Plate defender whose career was cut prematurely short by a knee injury in 1912. The young Di Stéfano grew up playing football on the streets of Buenos Aires, and signed for River Plate in 1945 after his father sent them a letter of recommendation the year prior. His debut at River Plate came during the most illustrious era the club had ever seen, back when they were known as “La Máquina” (The Machine) across the world for their pioneering style which is credited as a precursor to the Total Football popularised by Johan Cruyff and the Dutch national team of the 1970s.

In spite of his success at River Plate, Di Stéfano is perhaps best known for his stint at Real Madrid. His controversial 1953 transfer revitalised the then mid-table Spanish club and turned them into the pre-eminent force in world football that they are today. No other club has ever been as successful as the Real Madrid of the 1950s, who won the European Cup five times on the trot between 1956 and 1960, culminating in an iconic 7-3 win over Eintracht Frankfurt in which Di Stéfano scored a hat-trick. Di Stéfano remains to this day the only man to ever score in five consecutive European Cup finals, a record that looks likely to stand for quite some time.

Ferenc Puskás (another contrarian choice for the greatest player ever), who scored the other four goals for Real in the 1960 final, is also the only man to ever score four goals in a European Cup final, and the only man to score two hat-tricks in European Cup finals, after he repeated the feat in 1962. Oh, and I forgot to mention, both Di Stéfano and Puskás were 33 at the time of the 1960 final. Most players hit their peak in their 20s, but both Di Stéfano and Puskás bucked this trend and aged like fine wine. The late great Pelé retired from international football at the age of 31, but even well into his 30s Di Stéfano was arguably still in his prime. He led Real Madrid to two more European Cup finals in 1962 and 1964, where they lost to Benfica and Inter Milan respectively. His record of 49 goals in 58 matches is the best in the European Cup era (1955-1992). To put this in perspective, Zlatan Ibrahimović scored 48 goals in 124 matches, a ratio of 0.39 a game to Di Stéfano’s 0.84. Not bad for a man who played in his first European Cup when he was 29.

The partnership between Di Stéfano and Puskás was perhaps the most prolific the sport has ever seen, but Di Stéfano’s indelible influence extended far beyond the final third. Eusébio, who played in the Benfica team that beat Real Madrid in the 1962 European Cup final, once described Di Stéfano as “the most complete footballer in the history of the game”. He would dart across the pitch, supporting his teammates in midfield and defence. In a game for River Plate against fierce rivals Boca Juniors, Di Stéfano once tried his hand in goal, and kept a clean sheet for the entire match. Imagine Messi keeping a clean sheet in El Clásico and you’ll get an idea of just how incredible an achievement this is.

So why is Di Stéfano so slept on? Perhaps his international record has something to do with it. In spite of the fact he represented three(!) countries at international level, Di Stéfano never played in a World Cup. Unlike Péle or Maradona, whose success at the World Cup cemented their international reputation, Di Stéfano was denied the opportunity to play in the tournament. He played six games for Argentina in 1947, but as a result of player strikes and political disputes the team were forced to withdraw from the 1950 World Cup. He then represented Colombia for a four game stint in 1951. Di Stéfano did not even hold a Colombian passport at the time, and after he attempted to return to Argentina for the 1954 World Cup, he was banned by FIFA from playing for either team ever again. Di Stéfano had a hiatus from international football between 1953 and 1957, when he made his debut for Spain. But even Di Stéfano could not help the poor Spanish side, who ultimately failed to qualify for the 1958 World Cup. By the time the next tournament came around in 1962, Di Stéfano had been ruled out as a result of an injury. He was denied the opportunity to play in the World Cup in 1950, 1954, 1958, and 1962. I for one can’t help but wonder whether Brazil would still have won the 1962 World Cup if Di Stéfano was fit.

In many respects the debate around the greatest player of all time is a redundant one, but in the wake of the recent World Cup and the death of Pelé it is perhaps more relevant now than ever. Messi has won his first World Cup, and Mbappé scored a hat-trick in the final. Haaland continues to break records in the Premier League, and over in Germany new talents such as Jude Bellingham and Jamal Musiala are emerging. We are fortunate enough to be able to watch the rise of these great players, but in conversations about the greatest, spare a thought for Alfredo Di Stéfano.