Real Madrid great Di Stefano turns 85
Looking back 60 years at grainy footage of his playing days, it is hard for us to get a clear sense of how good a player Alfredo Di Stefano, who turned 85 on Monday, really was.
Those who were privileged to see the Real Madrid great performing in the flesh say he was one of the most complete footballers to have graced the game.
An accomplished defender, a midfield workhorse, a playmaker and a prolific striker rolled into one, he could be seen covering back in defence, charging forward through midfield, laying on goals for the forwards and smashing shots into the net all in the same game.
Known as “La Saeta Rubia” (the blond arrow), Buenos Aires-born Di Stefano remains in robust health, regularly appears at club events in his capacity as honorary president and has a lively newspaper column in Marca sports daily.
His achievements as a player helped turn Real, whom he joined in 1953, into one of the world’s leading sides, transforming them from insignificant underachievers into the kings of the continent when he guided them to five successive European Cups between 1956 and 1960, scoring in each of the finals.
He is frequently bracketed with Pele, Diego Maradona and Johan Cruyff among the greatest exponents of the game.
“People argue between Pele or Maradona,” Pele was quoted as saying on a visit to Madrid in late 2009. “For me, Di Stefano is the best. He was much more complete.”
Gruff, egocentric, impatient and with a wry sense of humour, Di Stefano had a reputation for mixing with the rich and famous, was the star of a film about himself and the victim of a dramatic kidnapping in Venezuela in the early 1960s.
But above all he was a brilliant footballer and fierce competitor who made an indelible mark on the history of the game.
Twice European Footballer of the Year, in 1957 and 1959, Di Stefano scored 418 goals in 510 official games for Real Madrid.
The eldest of three brothers, he was born of Italian parents and brought up on the outskirts of Buenos Aires where he had to shoulder the main burden of work on the family farm, something which may explain his legendary stamina.
“If I lived my life over again I would stay in the countryside,” he told Spanish soccer weekly Don Balon in October.
“I prefer the countryside. The milking of the cows and the sheep,” he said, adding that with hindsight he would only have played friendly soccer matches and would not have become a professional.
“But I always felt like I had a job to do and that means you have to perform to perfection. I tried my hardest and people rewarded me with applause.”
PHOTO: Real Madrid great Alfredo Di Stefano delivers a speech after receiving a special award during his tribute at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium February 17, 2008. REUTERS/Andrea Comas.