Good things come to those who wait.
Real Madrid had to assiduously subscribe to that phrase to buy itself a new toy in 1952. That toy was a Saeta Rubia (Blond Arrow), made in Argentina and matured in Colombia. It was also known as Alfredo Di Stefano, who was, towards the end of that year, described by Merengue president Santiago Bernabeu as “a toy Real Madrid must have for Christmas.”
The capital colossuses didn’t get the Buenos Aires native, who was of Italian, French and Irish descent, for their festive celebrations in ’52. Nor did they get him before the year was out, by the time the 1952/53 season ended or the following one began. But, eventually, Real won the race to sign the man who had won two league titles with River Plate and three with Millonarios.
That race – or marathon, to be more precise – began on a chilly night in Madrid in March 1952. Millonarios had been wowing and winning on a global tour, but a stop at the Nuevo Estadio Chamartin – now known as the Bernabeu – was supposed to bring them crashing back down to earth.
By contrast, Di Stefano “dribbled around us like we were flags on a training pitch”, according to an astonished Miguel Munoz, set up the opener and scored twice in a shock 4-2 victory. The Spain midfielder, who lined up alongside Jose Maria Zarraga, Luis Molowny and Pahino in a formidable Real XI that evening, later recalled of Di Stefano’s performance: “He was extraordinary. He appeared in defence, in midfield, in attack. He did the running of three players! And when he had the ball, you couldn’t get if off him. You just had to hope he passed it.”
The Real bosses were smitten. So, too, was Barcelona’s chief scout Pepe Samitier, who was also in attendance.
Real and Barça immediately began an enmity-intensifying tug-of-war to sign Di Stefano. Complicating proceedings was uncertainty over whether Millonarios, to whom Di Stefano had supposedly been on loan, or parent club River Plate held his transfer rights.
While one club was negotiating with the Colombians, the other was doing the same with the Argentinians. Insults flowed. Rumours abounded. Then, later that same year, a knockout punch in the slugfest to snare Di Stefano apparently landed. The Catalonian press declared that Barcelona had sealed the deal, printing a photo of smiling Saeta Rubia in their blaugrana jersey. Real nevertheless staggered to their feet on the nine count. The fight continued.
Eventually, in September 1953, 18 months after Real and Barcelona first engaged in their Di Stefano duel, the Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) interceded. It ruled that former Argentina and Colombia international would, over a four-year period, play for the two clubs in alternate seasons. Irked, Barça withdrew their bid. Ecstatic, Real immediately purchased Di Stefano and family train tickets from Barcelona, where they had spent the past three months, to the Spanish capital.
At just after 10.30am on 23 September, 60 years ago to this Monday, Alfredo and Sara Di Stefano, along with daughters Nanette and Silvana, arrived at Madrid Atocha railway station. They were taken to the club’s headquarters, where the mercurial attacker put pen to paper on a contract and ended what remains one of the most protracted transfer sagas in world football history.
His wife and kids were then escorted to a local hotel. Di Stefano, to his surprise, was escorted out on to the training pitch, where he was thrown some boots and put through some fitness drills and ball exercises under the gaze of his new coach, Enrique Fernandez. As the exhausted 26-year-old was enjoying a post-practise meal, relishing the prospect of getting some sleep, his plans were scuppered.
“I was told I was playing in a match later that afternoon against the French team Nancy,” Di Stefano later recalled. “I wasn’t keen at all. I was exhausted and, in the three months I’d been sitting around in Barcelona, I’d only played three friendlies. I scored but we lost 4-2."
The 1947 Copa America winner scoring in the camiseta blanca became a ritual. Real losing with him in their No10 shirt became a rarity.
A month later Barcelona witnessed first-hand what they had missed out on. Di Stefano employed his preposterous stamina, unfathomable dribbling, defence-unravelling passes and cool finishing to inspire Real to a 5-0 thumping of their arch-rivals.
It remains one of Los Merengues’ all-time biggest victories in El Clásico. Real’s biggest-ever victory over Barcelona nevertheless transpired away from the pitch.
La Saeta Rubia was definitive proof that las cosas buenas vienen a aquellos que esperan.
Legendary former Real Madrid players
Click this Classic Players link to read about the superb careers of former Merengue players Paul Breitner, Didi, Alfredo Di Stefano, Gheorghe Hagi, Raymond Kopa, Michael Laudrup, Ferenc Puskas, Ronaldo, Hugo Sanchez, Ricardo Zamora & Zinedine Zidane.