by Tim Vickery.
Who is the greatest player ever – Pele or Maradona? It is a question I get asked all the time. It’s a tricky one – and often seems to me a bit like two bald men fighting over a comb.
They were exceptional talents, to be enjoyed rather than compared, especially in the aggressive tone usually employed in the debate.
But the more I think about it the clearer my own answer, for what it’s worth, seems to be. They ask Pele or Maradona. I say Di Stefano.
The comparisons on playing styles are always difficult, especially when dealing with different eras. But I think I’m on safe ground arguing that there has never been a footballer more influential than Alfredo Di Stefano.
He never played in a World Cup, but club football belongs to him. The world’s two leading international club competitions bear his mark – one obviously and directly, the other indirectly.
Di Stefano was the last great product of the golden age of Argentine football, the 1940s, when he starred for River Plate. After the big players strike there in 1948 he was snapped up by Colombia’s newly-launched league, and helped get the professional game off the ground there as the star of the great Millonarios side. And in 1953, at the age of 27, he went to Real Madridand changed the course of history.
When the European Cup, as the Champions League was then known, was launched in the 1955/56 season there was no guarantee of success. World War Two was still very recent, though the continent was rebuilding and starting to pull away from post-war austerity. The English authorities were sufficiently suspicious of the whole thing to discourage Chelsea from entering the inaugural version.
In hindsight, such an attitude appears ridiculous – because it meant that English crowds were missing out on the Di Stefano show.
Bobby Charlton got a close look in 1957, when he watched from the stands in the first leg of the semi final, Manchester United away to Real Madrid.
“Who is this man?” was Charlton’s instant impression. “He takes the ball from the goalkeeper; he tells the full-backs what to do; wherever he is on the field he is in position to take the ball; you can see his influence on everything that is happening… I had never seen such a complete footballer. It was as though he had set up his own command centre at the heart of the game. He was as strong as he was subtle. The combination of qualities was mesmerising.”
All of Europe was going through the same experience. Di Stefano took the game of football up to a level the continent had never seen before. He was not the driving force behind Real Madrid winning the first five European Cups, he was also chiefly responsible for the quick success of the competition. Everyone wanted to see his Real Madrid side.
Just as had happened after Uruguay won the 1924 Olympics in Paris, some South American talent had set off a fever for the game in Europe. If Leeds United wear white, if there is a club in the US called Real Salt Lake, and if the European Cup was an instant hit, then much of the credit belongs to Di Stefano.
Some would even argue that as the leading light in Real’s galaxy, Di Stefano helped improve foreign perceptions of Spain, thus encouraging the tourist boom and consequently hastening the country’s integration into mainstream Western European politics following the death of the dictator Franco.
That might well be going too far. But I don’t think that it is excessive to argue that, without ever intending to, Di Stefano helped bring into life the Copa Libertadores, South America’s European Cup equivalent.
There were serious impediments to launching such a competition in the continent of Di Stefano’s birth – South America is huge, and transport structure, far from perfect even today, was rudimentary.
An attempt had been made in 1948 to gather the continent’s best clubs for a tournament in Chile – Di Stefano played for River Plate – but although it was a success the timing was wrong; the players strike was about to erupt in Argentina, which had the effect of forcing the country into footballing isolation and driving Di Stefano to Colombia.
So there was no follow up, and no thoughts of a competition staged on a home and away basis – until an invitation arrived from Uefa.
Liga de Quito win the 2008 Copa Libertadores
Back on the other side of the Atlantic, the success of the European Cup was making people curious. Could there conceivably be a better team than Real Madrid somewhere out there? Did the continent that produced Di Stefano have any more where that one came from?
Uefa, then, proposed to the South American Federation that an annual game be staged between the champions of the two continents. All South America had to do was find a method of deciding its champion. And thus was born the Copa Libertadores, whose 50th version kicks off in earnest this week.
Without Di Stefano’s exploits with Real Madrid it would not have got off the ground so soon.
From Tim Vickery’s BBC Blog, originally published in February 2009 (@Tim_Vickery).
Here are some quotes on the great Alfredo Di Stefano who passed away on Monday having just turned 88;
“Alfredo Di Stéfano was the greatest footballer of all time – far better even than Pelé. He was, simultaneously, the anchor in defence, the playmaker in midfield, and the most dangerous marksman in attack.”
Helenio Herrera, legendary former coach of Inter Milan.
“I don’t know if I had been a better player than Pelé, but I can say without any doubt that Di Stéfano was better than Pelé. I am proud when one speaks of Di Stéfano. Pelé would have flopped had he played in Europe, whereas Alfredo has played very well throughout the world. I can say that Maradona could be worse than Pelé. But I emphasize Di Stéfano was better”.
Diego Maradona, World Cup winner, speaking to Italian television in 1997.
“To his strength, stamina and electric change of pace, Di Stéfano allied superb ball control on which he put a premium. He score goals in superabundance yet made so many for others. If there was a King in the European Cup, it was surely Alfredo Di Stéfano.”
Brian Glanville, world famous soccer writer.
“Di Stéfano was a great player and saw things others didn’t see. He knew the game back to front and was always physically and mentally well-prepared. Di Stéfano ranks among the greatest players for me.”
Ferenc Puskas, former teammate and one of the all time greats.
“When Madrid fans said I was the heir to Di Stefano’s role in the Real team, I was more apprehensive than pleased. For Di Stefano was the greatest player I have ever seen. The things he did in a match will never be equalled.”
Luis Del Sol, former teammate and Juventus legend.
ALFREDO IN HIS OWN WORDS;
“A soccer game without goals is like an afternoon without sunshine.” Di Stéfano scored over 800 goals in his career.
“We are all footballers, and as such should be able to perform competently in all 11 positions.”
“The best player I saw in my life was Adolfo Pedernera. Undoubtedly Maradona was exceptional, fantastic. The best for years. One can also not ignore Pelé. For heaven’s sake, although it is difficult to make comparisons, Pedernera was a very complete player who can play in the whole pitch.”
“The ball gave me prestige, gave me fame, gave me riches. Thank you, my old friend. Because the ball I have a wonderful family, I have a son that plays soccer…”
“I was right-footed, so my father didn’t let me play unless I would shoot the ball with my left foot.” Di Stéfano explains why he had such a powerful left-footed shot.