Alfredo Di Stefano: from Buenos Aires to Madrid via El Dorado

One of soccer’s most influential players, Alfredo Di Stefano, has died in Madrid aged 88. The Argentine-born star made history by scoring in five consecutive European cup finals for Real Madrid (1956-1960) and had a major sporting impact on both sides of the Atlantic.

Di Stefano in his capacity as Real Madrid's honorary president
Di Stefano in his capacity as Real Madrid’s honorary president

Despite being claimed as one of the greatest ever to play the game, Di Stefano is probably not a recongisable name to many modern soccer fans, even those with more than a passing interest in the sport. As David Goldblatt notes:

The period between 1954 and 1974 offers a whole slew of candidates for every list of greats. Yet even here it is visual familiarity rather than quality that appears to determine the pecking order. The lesser known players are those whose careers were peaking or had peaked in the very earliest days of TV broadcasts. (Goldblatt, p.401)
This statement is certainly true of Di Stefano, whose career had finished by 1966, in the days when live soccer broadcasts were in their infancy. Having begun his career with the mighty River Plate in his native Argentina, in 1951 Di Stefano moved to Colombia to join one of the least-known revolutions in soccer history.
At a time of political turmoil, two leagues (one amateur and one professional) had been established in Colombia. Encouraged by the protestation of the amateur league, FIFA (still a distinctly amateur organisation) suspended the professional league. This inadvertently created an opportunity for the professional clubs, which were now not restricted by FIFA’s regulations on transfer fees and player wages (Goldblatt, p. 278)
Several chairmen began throwing big wages at international stars, with Millonarios of Bogota the biggest spenders. It was here that Di Stefano moved in 1951, joining a multinational squad that included several Europeans, an unthinkable scenario in the modern game.
Di Stefano (second fron left) and Millonarios
Di Stefano (second fron left) and Millonarios
Amidst politically-sponsored bloodshed and misery in the country, the Colombian league provided formidable entertainment and a great lifestyle for the likes of Di Stefano. As he remembered:
The Millonarios players really were living the life of…millionaires. Every day they went training at the end of the morning, then everyone was invited for lunch at the club’s headquarters. The Colombian cuisine, based on rice, manioc, and pork meat and fried bananas, was a discovery for us. They drank a special kind of beer, the Bavaria, which was fantastic. And after that, we had a Colombian coffee, rightly considered to be the best in the world. Later a siesta, and sometimes the cinema and a quick visit to the dancing. When you come from the country of the tango, you aren’t ashamed to show that you possess the art of dancing. (Mason, ‘The Bogota Affair’ cited in Goldblatt, p. 280)
In this very ‘modern’ atmosphere, Di Stefano and Millionarios turned soccer too into an art form. After moving to Real Madrid in 1953, having toured Spain with Millionarios, Di Stefano would help imbue this mentality in his new team mates. Their instance success is testament to his and the Colombians methods. 
Di Stefano scores a penalty against Fiorentina in the 1957 European Cup final
Di Stefano scores a penalty against Fiorentina in the 1957 European Cup final

Sources

Goldblatt, D. The Ball is Round: a Global History of Football (2006)

Mason, T. ‘The Bogota Affair’ in J. Bale & J. Maguire (eds.), The Global Sports Arena (1994)

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Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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