The statistics will show that Alfredo Di Stefano is one of the world's greatest ever goalscorers, but the bare facts only tell part of the story. Those fortunate enough to see Di Stefano light up the field at clubs in Argentina, Colombia and Spain recall how the forward always put the team first, attributed his immense success to the support of his team-mates and never forgot how much the game meant to him.
"Football has given me everything," said the great man himself, who honed his skills from an early age playing with a rubber ball on the streets of Barracas, the Buenos Aires neighbourhood where he was born and raised. "I've always seen it as a team game and I've always said that I don't want to be idolised, I just want to play. And to do that you have to run and sweat," continued Di Stefano, whose passion for football can be traced back to his father, a rabid River Plate fan.
River in his blood
On the back of promising beginnings in neighbourhood teams including Unidos y Venceremos and Iman, Di Stefano's enjoyed a successful trial at his beloved River Plate. Once a part of the River youth system, the youngster quickly began making his mark at Los Millonarios and made his competitive first-team debut for the club in 1945 against Huracan aged 19.
Having made this small contribution to River taking that year's league title, Di Stefano spent the following campaign on loan at Huracan before returning to help River claim another Argentinian league crown in 1947, when he finished as the division's top scorer playing alongside established stars Nestor Rossi, Angel Labruna and Amadeo Carrizo. It was around this time that he was dubbed La Saeta Rubia (The Blond Arrow) by fans and the media, in a nod to the colour of his hair and speed going forward.
That same year he made his bow with the Argentinian national team at the Copa America in Ecuador, scoring six goals in six matches in the Albiceleste's march to the continental crown. In 1948, after a players strike had forced the domestic championship to a halt, Di Stefano was one of many to pack his bags and prepare for a move abroad.
Thus, in 1949 he touched down at Colombian side Millonarios of Bogota, winning the league in his first season before adding the 1951 and 1952 titles to his collection - years which he also finished top scorer. The team's spectacular displays did not go unnoticed on the Old Continent, with the fair-headed attacker's phenomenal tally of 267 goals in 294 games attracting a number of big-name suitors.
Making history at Madrid
Having wowed everybody at Real Madrid in friendly encounters between the Spanish giants and Millonarios, particular in the match held to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Los Blancos' foundation, the signing of the La Saeta Rubia became something of an obsession for the capital club.
Finally, after a complicated transfer wrangle involving Los Merengues' fierce rivals FC Barcelona, Di Stefano pulled on the white shirt of Madrid for the first time in a friendly against Nancy on 23 September 1953. His talent, determination and leadership skills revolutionised the team which, inspired by the Argentinian, quickly became the era's most successful club on both the domestic and European stage.
In his first season as a Madridista, Di Stefano helped the club to only their second Liga title success, ending a 21-year wait in the process. Over an 11-year spell wearing the famous white jersey, he claimed a remarkable haul of eight league and one Spanish Cup winners' medals, as well as finishing atop the scorers' charts on five occasions.
Yet it would be the newly established European Champions Clubs' Cup that truly cemented Di Stefano's status as a footballing legend. Madrid won the first five editions of the European Cup between 1956 and 1960, a record that has yet to be beaten.
"The younger generations that have never seen [Ferenc] Puskas play don't know what they've missed. A lot of people think that he just had a good shot, but no, he could play, he was intelligent. And let us not forget that he was already 30 by the time he arrived in Spain," recalled Di Stefano. "What a forward line we had! [Raymond] Kopa, [Hector] Rial, Puskas and [Paco] Gento. I don't think that there's ever been a more complete frontline in the history of the game."
The coveted Ballon d'Or, presented by France Football magazine to the man voted the best player in Europe, was awarded to Di Stefano in 1957 and 1959, yet Di Stefano never ceased to insist that it was all down to the team around him. "Football's not designed for silent types. Being a genius won't make any difference if you don't gel with your team-mates," he said, neatly summing up the footballing philosophy of a player who scored 418 goals in 510 games for Real Madrid, with 307 of these strikes coming in competitive matches.
His last official encounter with Los Merengues was the final of the European Cup in 1964, which Madrid lost 3-1 to Inter Milan. Di Stefano went on to play for two more seasons with Barcelona outfit Espanyol before hanging up his boots for good in 1967 after a game in his honour between Madrid and Celtic, which ended with a standing ovation from a capacity crowd in the Bernabeu.
An interesting side note was his time in the Spanish national side, which came after he took Spanish citizenship. Though he scored an impressive 23 goals in 31 matches for La Roja, and travelled with the squad to the 1962 FIFA World Cup Chile™, injury prevented him from making an appearance at the showpiece event.
Staying in football
A true devotee to the game, Di Stefano wasted little time in trying his luck as a coach, starting out with modest Spanish side Elche in 1967. He went on to enjoy varying degrees of success at the helm of Boca Juniors, Valencia, River Plate and Real Madrid, with the latter being the last team he coached before stepping away from the dugout in 1991.
In 2000 he was named Honorary President of Real Madrid, and has since received a host of tributes and awards recognising the outstanding achievements of his long and successful career.
Di Stefano is a living legend at Real Madrid. As well as the club’s Honorary President, he has also given his name to the stadium where the reserve team plays and his nickname “La Saeta” (The Arrow) to the club’s own plane.
Though considered one of the greatest players of all time, Di Stefano has no doubt as to who is the best: Paraguayan forward Arsenio Erico. “I was a mere imitator,” he once said.
Di Stefano has starred in several films, appearing in Con los mismos colores (1949), Once pares de botas (1954), La saeta rubia (1956), La batalla del domingo (1963), Sinfonia espanola (1964), La tecnica del futbol (1970) and Real, The Movie (2005).
Di Stefano never played in a FIFA World Cup™ finals. Argentina refused to take part at Brazil 1950 and failed to qualify for Switzerland 1954, while Spain missed out on a place at Sweden 1958. He suffered an injury prior to Chile 1962, and though he travelled to the finals he did not play.
On 26 August 1963 Di Stefano was kidnapped in Caracas by a Venezuelan guerrilla group called the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional (Armed Forces of National Liberation). The player said he never felt in danger during the 72-hour ordeal.