Soccer legend Di Stefano passes away at 88

AP

Alfredo Di Stefano, the player Real Madrid has hailed as being the most important component in its mid-20th century ascent to becoming a global powerhouse, has died. He was 88.

The club said in a statement that Di Stefano, its honorary president, died on Monday afternoon at Gregorio Maranon hospital, two days after a heart attack.

Di Stefano turned 88 on Friday. The following day, he had a heart attack on a Madrid street near the club’s Santiago Bernabeu Stadium. Paramedics were able to resuscitate him after 18 minutes, but he spent the following days in a coma.

Renowned for his speed, versatility and strategic grasp of the game, he helped Madrid attain five straight European Champions Cups and was voted European player of the year in 1957 and 1959.

In a career spanning five clubs in three countries — Argentina, Colombia and Spain — from 1945-1966, Di Stefano scored 789 goals in 1,090 matches. In the process he claimed top-scorer status once in the Argentine League, twice in Colombia and five times in Spain.

However, as FIFA acknowledges on its official website, “statistics will show that Alfredo Di Stefano is one of the world’s greatest ever goal scorers, but the bare facts only tell part of the story.”

“I’m very saddened by the news of the death of Alfredo Di Stefano,” said Sepp Blatter, president of the sport’s international governing body. “He was the most complete player I’ve ever seen. He was also my favorite player.”

Those who knew him recall a straight-talking character who believed success on the field came through physical effort and dedication.

“I don’t want to be idolized, I just want to play. And to do that you have to run and sweat,” he said. His modesty in the face of overwhelming sporting success won him the admiration of many.

“I think he was one of the greatest, if not the greatest, football player ever,” England great Bobby Charlton said.

Born July 4, 1926, in the Barracas suburb of Buenos Aires, near the port where British sailors introduced soccer to Argentina, Di Stefano learned the game while playing free-for-all soccer in what he called “the academy of the streets.”

“In our neighborhood we used to hold major football sessions that went on until it got dark, with everyone playing against each other,” he said.

“Pope Francis and I went to the same school,” Di Stefano said when Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected pontiff, adding the two likely played together as children.

Di Stefano’s father, Alfredo, the son of an immigrant from the Italian island of Capri, was a loyal fan of River Plate. De Stefano’s mother, Eulalia Laulhe Gilmont, was of French and Irish ancestry.

Having tried out successfully for River Plate, he turned professional in 1945, joining Colombia’s Millonarios six years later. He won six league titles for the two clubs.

His turn of speed soon had fans chanting, “Help, here comes the jet-propelled ‘blonde arrow,’ ” (“Saeta Rubia,” in Spanish) a nickname Di Stefano retained all his life.

He played in Spain for the first time in 1952 and dazzled the crowd at a tournament commemorating Real Madrid’s 50th anniversary, a fateful encounter.

Barcelona signed Di Stefano in 1953 after agreeing a transfer with River Plate, but the move was thrown into doubt when Madrid also negotiated his transfer — with Millonarios.

Although the Spanish federation authorized Di Stefano to play half of his four-year contract with each club, Barcelona opted out, alleging pressure from the Madrid-based ruling military dictatorship of Gen. Francisco Franco.

In his first season Di Stefano helped Madrid win its second league title, ending a 21-year drought.

Within three years, he helped Madrid lift its first European Cup by scoring in a 4-3 win over France’s Stade Reims.

The arrival at Madrid of Hungarian great Ferenc Puskas in 1958 led to an attacking partnership of dynamic effectiveness which allowed the club to retain the European title through to 1960, a record yet to be beaten.

Di Stefano’s last final in 1960 at Glasgow saw possibly his finest match. Before 127,000 fans, he scored three times in Madrid’s 7-3 demolition of Eintracht Frankfurt.