With the first Real-Barça derby of the season looming large on the horizon, we look back at the career of the man whose signing was the most controversial ever in the history of the game. As a backdrop to this story, it should be remembered that the deep animosity that still exists between the supporters of these two giants of Spanish football is complex and multi-faceted, and the extent of the rivalry that exists between them cannot be overstated.
The Argentinian striker was lttle known in Spain when he took part in an exhibition match at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid in 1953 between Real Madrid and Bogotá Millionarios, where Di Stefano was on loan from River Plate, to whom he was still under contract. Such was the impression that he made on that occasion that Pepe Samitier, Barcelona's technical director, approached the player and reached an agreement with him, while the club's lawyer, Ramón Trías Fargas, negotiated with River Plate and Millionarios.
The problems started when the transfer was agreed by FIFA, but not by the Spanish Football Federation (RFEF). Di Stefano arrived in Barcelona on the 13th May 1953 fully prepared to sign a deal, but was approached by Santiago Bernabeu himself, who took full advantage of the situation caused by the RFEF and demonstrated his own skills of persuasion to convince the player to break the verbal agreement reached with Barcelona and join Real Madrid, while at the same time reaching agreements with both south American clubs.
Convinced that the government would intervene to ensure that the player signed for Real, Barcelona, realising that all was lost, made a desperate attempt to get the player to join Italian side, Torino, which was doomed to fail. The RFEF waited until the 15th September to rule on the issue, deciding that Di Stefano could stay in Spain for four years, playing two seasons for Real Madrid and two seasons for Barcelona on a rotational basis. The ruling led to the resignation of Barça president, Enric Martí, in protest at the decision, and barely a month later the club issued a statement renouncing all their claims on the player in favour of Real Madrid.
Many still believe that this resolution changed the history of Spanish football as Real Madrid went on to dominate both Spanish and European football for more than a decade, with Di Stefano picking up eight Liga, five European Cup, and one Spanish Cup winners' medals. During his time at the club, Di Stefano was top scorer in the domestic championship on five occasions, and scored 49 European Cup goals in 58 appearances. In total he played 510 games for Real Madrid (W 354, D 66, L 90) and scored 418 goals. His last game for the club was on the 27th May 1964 at Vienna's Prater stadium in the final of the 9th European Cup, which Inter Milan won 2-1.
Perhaps one of the most disappointed men at Barcelona was Pepe Samitier, who had dreamed of pairing Kubala and the "blond arrow" in the same team (main photo), a combination which would no doubt have been as devastating as the one he shared with Puskas at Real. How many of those five European Cups would have gone to Barcelona, who have only won the competition on one occasion (1991-92)? A glimpse of what may have been was seen in a friendly match at the start of the 53-54 season featuring Di Stefano between Barcelona and Vasco de Gama, which Barcelona won 6-2. Ironically, Di Stefano's first two official goals for Real Madrid were scored against Barcelona at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium, which Barcelona lost 5-0.
Alfredo Di Stefano Laulhe was born on the 4th July 1926 in Buenos Aires. The oldest of three brothers, his parents were farm workers and lived in the city's Barracas district. After a couple of seasons playing for Sportivo de Barracas, Alfredo was signed up at the age of fifteen by River Plate. He made his full debut in 1943 against San Lorenzo de Almagro. River Plate went on to win the league twice (1945 and 1947) and were runners-up three times. In 1947 Di Stefano was part of the Argentinian national side that won the south American Cup in Guayaquil, conceding only one draw, against Chile. Di Stefano only played six times for Argentina before defecting to Colombia, scoring six times.
In 1948 Di Stefano signed up with Millionarios Bogota to play in a "pirate" league set up in Colombia, that was not sanctioned by FIFA. With Di Stefano playing alongside the likes of Pedernera, Pini, and Pipo Rossi, the club, which came to be known as the "blue ballet," went from success to success, and was invited to take part in a tournament in Madrid to celebrate the club's 50th anniversary, that was the catalyst for the controversial series of events described above that led to his eventual arrival at Real.
Following his departure from the club at the end of the 1963-64 season, Di Stefano played one more season for Real Club Deportivo Español, but played his final game in 1966 for Real Madrid in an exhibition match in his honour against Glasgow Celtic. Di Stefano was granted Spanish nationality in 1956, and played the first of 31 games for his adopted country on the 30th January 1957, scoring a hat-trick in a 5-1 win against Holland.
Following his retirement as a player, Di Stefano enjoyed a long and successful managerial career with Elche, Boca Juniors, Valencia, Rayo Vallecano, Sporting Lisbon, Castellón and Real Madrid, winning league titles with Boca Juniors and Valencia. During his time as Real manager, the club finished five times runners-up in one season: the Liga, the Spanish Supercup, the King's Cup, the Liga Cup and the Supercup. On the 21st July 2000 the board of Real Madrid, presided over by Florentino Pérez, in their first meeting after winning the presidential election, unanimously agreed to make Di Stefano Honorary President, a decision that was ratified by the Supporters Club General Assembly on the 5th November 2000.