Who is the greatest player ever - Pelé or Maradona? It is a question that is asked and pondered over all the time. Comparisons of playing styles are always difficult, especially when dealing with different eras, but there has arguably and most probably never been a footballer more influential than Alfredo Di Stéfano. Despite what he has achieved, he is still relatively underrated.
"We are all footballers, and as such should be able to perform competently in all 11 positions." - Alfredo Di Stéfano
The Real Madrid CF legend passed away at the age of 88 just a couple of days after suffering a serious heart-attack near to the Santiago Bernabeu in the Spanish capital. He had been unfortunate enough to be hospitalised seven times for similar episodes. He underwent emergency quadruple heart by-pass surgery and was fitted with a pacemaker after suffering a major heart attack in 2005.
Di Stéfano, nicknamed ‘La Saeta Rubia' (‘Blonde Arrow'), was a powerful forward with great stamina, tactical versatility, vision and explosive finishing, who could also play almost anywhere on the pitch. He was a lethal goalscorer, netting around 800 times during a magnificent 22-year career encompassing five clubs and three countries.
Eduardo Galeano wrote in his profile of the man: "The entire playing field fitted inside his shoes. From his feet the pitch sprouted and grew ... he ran and reran the field from net to net. He would change flanks and change rhythm with the ball from a lazy trot to an unstoppable cyclone; without the ball he would evade his marker to gain open space, seeking air whenever a play got choked off. ... He never stood still. Holding his head high, he could see the entire pitch and cross it at a gallop to prise open the defence and launch the attack. He was there at the beginning, during, and at the end of every scoring play, and he scored goals of all colours.''
Di Stéfano was the brightest star in a team that won the European Cup in the competition's first five seasons, and he is almost unanimously regarded as the greatest player in Real Madrid's history. He played international football matches for Spain, Argentina and Colombia and never played at a World Cup due to various political reasons, but club football belongs to him. He almost signed for both Barcelona and Real Madrid at the same time, he is an absolute legend.
In reality, words can't do him justice. Juan Santisteban, a former teammate of Di Stéfano says: ‘Whatever people have told you about Alfredo Di Stéfano,' he says, practically whispering, ‘ignore it.' Ignore it? ‘It is not enough. However good they say he was, he was better.' And the thing is that they do say he was good. Ask team-mates and opponents about Alfredo Di Stéfano and virtually every word drips with deference.
There has recently been all this talk of teams having "one-man teams" and players being "bigger than the club", but Di Stéfano's presence looms so large that he came as close as anybody ever will to the status of being "bigger than the club". Ramón Calderón likes to tell the apocryphal anecdote of a father and son strolling through a park and coming across a statue of Di Stéfano. ‘Daddy,' says the boy, ‘was he a player?' ‘No,' says his father, ‘he was a team.' Real Madrid's president noted rather symbolically in his emotional tribute: "Di Stéfano is Real Madrid."
But football history could have been different, very different indeed. Because when the magical Argentine forward first opted for a move to Spain, he appeared to be destined not for Real but instead for their eternal rivals Barcelona.
As BBC Spanish football writer Andy West wrote: "The story of Di Stéfano's transfer to Los Blancos is a fascinating and complex web of claims, denials, counter-denials and conspiracy theories involving five clubs in three countries. There are allegations of treachery, a mysteriously ripped-up contract and - possibly - the personal intervention of a dictator." It's the transfer of all transfers.
1953 was the turning point, the year that changed everything. Football can be divided into ‘Before Alfredo Di Stéfano' and ‘After Alfredo Di Stéfano'. Countless players have gained winners' medals, produced magic on the biggest of stages and even carried teams on their own, but few can truly claim to have changed history.
"Nothing" says Paco Gento, the only player to have won six European Cups, "would have been the same without him". As Sid Lowe wrote in his latest book, ‘Fear and Loathing in La Liga': "Without Di Stéfano much of football does not make sense. He propelled the game into the modern era and contributed more than anyone to making the European Cup the most prestigious competition there is and Madrid the biggest club in history."
Sid Lowe continues: "Real Madrid's culture is embodied in what Di Stéfano brought to the club. Without him, there would be no galacticos, no packed stadiums, no sense of entitlement, far less of a global image and little of the success that makes them what they are. Without him, they would not be the most successful club in Spain and even the world; on the other side of the divide, nor would they be so hated. Barcelona would be different and so would the relationship.
The truth is that Madrid weren't very good when he arrived. Yet the momentum had shifted forever. In their entire history, Madrid had just won two league titles before Di Stéfano but since the day he arrived in 1953, they have won thirty. He established an unrivalled dynasty."
When Di Stéfano turned out for Barcelona in a charity match in January 1956, playing alongside László Kubala at the Camp Nou, El Mundo Deportivo declared the pair of them ‘flares of a thousand colours lightning up the sky'. There was a hint of regret in the remark, a forbidden desire: "We should have seen this every week."
As Sid Lowe wrote: "‘Nos los robaron', said Narcis de Carreras, Barcelona's vice president at the time. The words are simple and often repeated: he was stolen from us. The theory has it that Madrid robbed Di Stéfano and by extension Barcelona, a glorious future too. Di Stéfano‘s signing is definitive ‘proof' of the ‘fact' that Barcelona were victims and Madrid beneficiaries of the Franco dictatorship."
He continues: "Put simply, Di Stéfano was owned by River Plate but played for Colombian side Millonarios. Barcelona struck a deal with River, Madrid struck a deal with Millonarios. And then the Spanish football authorities and the government stepped in to break the deadlock by proposing that he alternates (so he would play for Madrid in 1953-54, for Barcelona in 1954-55 and so on and so forth) between the two clubs, at which point Barcelona renounced their rights. Prior to this proposed solution, the Federation even banned the purchase of foreign players, before the regime changed their mind."
He further continues: "Marti, Barcelona's president at the time, resigned due to the direct result of this affair. Barcelona's culpability is unavoidable. Had they been more determined and less complacent, had they handled Millonarios differently, they would surely have signed Di Stéfano. If they had been able to reach a deal with both clubs it is hard to believe that the move would have been blocked. The pressure was intense yet they were entitled to think that, legally, they were treading on firm ground rather than thin ice."
According to the Spanish journalist, Carles Torras, Marti told his grandson how Bernabeu said to him one day: "You robbed Kubala off me, I robbed Di Stéfano off you and that's that. 1-1." Sid Lowe wrote: "When the ban was enforced, it almost certainly was intended as a way of shutting the problem out of Spain: if neither side signs Di Stéfano, neither side can complain. When the share issue was proposed, it is really plausible that Moscardo, Fernandez Cuesta and other dictatorial figures in the regime thought it workable or at least preferable to the alternative and the potential fallout."
Di Stéfano insisted: "Whoever suggested that knows nothing about football. How could I score goals for one team one day and for the other the next?" "(The first sentence) is a fairly accurate judgment of many within the regime," according to Sid Lowe.
Sid Lowe continues: "It is either the biggest mistake in their history or the biggest robbery, depending on your point of view. Either way it is big. It remains the key moment in the rivalry, a turning point that continues to be an obsession, still argued over and debated more than half a century later.
Two days after the final deal was agreed on the very day that the remaining details were being ironed out; Real Madrid beat Barcelona 5-0. Di Stéfano scored twice."
Yet football and politics play second fiddle to life and humanity, and this was rightly acknowledged when FC Barcelona tweeted: "FC Barcelona expresses its condolences for the death of Alfredo Di Stéfano, honorary president of Real Madrid. Rest in peace."
Bobby Charlton got a close look at Di Stéfano 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 response. "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."
Bobby Charlton was not alone; players such as Pelé, Eusébio, Luis Suárez Miramontes, Sandro Mazzola and John Charles described Di Stéfano as "the most complete footballer in the history of the game".
An utterly fascinating excerpt from Sid Lowe's book: "'He was a midfielder who won the ball and started the play, a no. 10 who controlled the game and delivered the final pass, and a striker who put the ball in the net. If you put together Redondo, Zidane and Ronaldo, you might just get close.' ‘Pelé was amazing twenty metres from goal,' says Santisteban. ‘Alfredo played in one hundred metres. I don't think there is a player who has been born or will be born who can match him. Physically he was incredible. People compare him to Pelé but he played in every position. In Every One. I saw him save a goal inside his own penalty area once - against Real Sociedad, I think - and in the same move end up at the other end and score. He was a beast. No one could stop him. You've never seen anyone like him and you never will either.'
It continues: Amancio adds: ‘He was a defender, a midfielder and a striker. He was a robot! He did everything and he never, ever tired.' Helenio Herrera famously claimed that if Pelé was the lead violinist, Di Stéfano was the entire orchestra, while Bobby Charlton, whose Manchester United team were knocked out of the European Cup by Real Madrid, remembers: ‘He totally controlled the game. Every time you looked, he had the ball. Everything happened around him. You looked at him and asked yourself: "how can I possibly stop him?"' The answer, much of the time, was that you could not - and Di Stéfano knew it."
"People argue between Pelé or Maradona", Pelé said in 2009. "For me, Di Stéfano is the best. He was much more complete." How did Maradona respond to this, you might wonder? "I don't know if I was a better player than Pelé but I can say without doubt that Di Stéfano was better than Pelé".
Alfredo Di Stéfano's Honours
Five European Cups: 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960 (Real Madrid)
Eight Spanish leagues: 1954, 1955, 1957, 1958, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964 (Real Madrid)
One Spanish Cup: 1962 (Real Madrid)
One Intercontinental Cup: 1960 (Real Madrid)
Two Argentine leagues: 1945, 1947 (River Plate)
One America Cup: 1947 (River Plate)
Four Colombian leagues: 1949, 1951, 1952, 1953 (Millonarios Bogota)
All of Europe was going through the same experience. Di Stéfano took the game of football to a level the continent had never seen before. He was not only 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.
Di Stéfano was the poster boy for an entire generation of football fans in Spain and around the world during the 1950s and early 1960s. Nothing was ever enough for him - he always wanted more, in training sessions, in games. His demands were huge on himself and on his team.
The 'Blonde Arrow' was so many things at once: a man, a husband, a father, a footballer, an actor, a television pundit and later an honorary president... the list goes on. The best way to get to know him is through his memoirs, titled "Thanks old lady". The old lady in question was not his mother, but the humble football, with which he had skills that precious few could rival, and which became the key to his dreams.
La Decima was perhaps the most-fitting of tributes for Alfredo Di Stéfano, just as La Liga was for Atletico Madrid's legendary Luis Aragones.
On 8 July, Di Stéfano's coffin was placed on public display at the Bernabeu Stadium. From the early hours of the morning, hundreds of Madridistas went to the stadium in order to pay their respects and queue at the entrance of Padre Damien, the street that leads to the stadium. Barcelona have not forgotten that Florentino Perez was at the funeral of László Kubala, and president Josep Maria Bartomeu attended the funeral of the 'Blond Arrow' in Madrid.
"Football has given me everything", Di Stéfano once replied when asked to sum up his career. He has given football much, much more. As MARCA best put it, all that is left to say is, "Thanks old friend."
''You should never get nervous about anything. What today seems important tomorrow isn't so any more.'' - Tito Vilanova
On the eve of Tito Vilanova's first season in charge of Barcelona, he stood in the middle of the Camp Nou pitch with a microphone in hand. Tradition dictates that the new campaign is welcomed with the Gamper Trophy and the manager always has a message to deliver. This time, in August 2012, it carried a special emotive power. "I'm so happy that you're here with us," Vilanova turned to tell the French defender Eric Abidal. "Your fight is our strength."
"If you're strong and you have desire," Vilanova told Abidal in front of the fans, "we will wait for you, as long as it takes."
Abidal was given the medical all-clear and returned to the club's Sant Joan Despí training ground four months later. It was December 2012. The same day, it was announced that Vilanova had suffered a relapse of his cancer. He underwent radiotherapy and chemotherapy while still the Barcelona manager, eventually being forced to leave the post last summer because of his deteriorating health. On Friday 25th April 2014, he passed away. He was 45.
On Friday morning we were told it was only a matter of time, but it did not soften the blow one bit. Tito Vilanova was not only football maestro but more importantly, he was a great man.
As Guillem Balague put it: "Tito Vilanova represented football at its best, everything that can be good about it. He was a man who loved the game and whom the game loved - truly a man without enemies."
Sid Lowe of The Guardian writes: "Flags at the administrative entrance to the Camp Nou flew at half-mast. A little further round, alongside the north end of the stadium, stands La Masía - the small Catalan-style farmhouse built in 1702 where the club's youth team players used to live. It was there that Vilanova watched out of the window as Bernd Schuster trained on the tiny pitch below and there that he met Guardiola. Vilanova had arrived aged 14 and the two men - two boys - were technically gifted midfielders who shared much. Above all, they shared a philosophy."
He continues: "Vilanova played for Barcelona B but not the first team. Born in the village of Bellcaire d'Empordà with a population of little more than 500, in Catalan agricultural country, Vilanova played at Figueres, Celta de Vigo, Badajoz, Mallorca, Elche and Gramenet. He had left Barcelona in 1990, determined that he would not wait more than two years for an opportunity yet his style was always a Barça style and he returned swiftly. In 2002, he became coach of Barcelona's Cadete B, a team of 13-year-olds that included Gerard Piqué, Cesc Fábregas and Lionel Messi."
Guillem Balague emotionally wrote: "Obsessively tactical, yet fundamentally human, I have engraved in my soul a meeting I had with him when he had just been told that he was suffering from cancer and had just started chemotherapy. I was at the time writing my biography of Pep Guardiola and met him when I went to see Pep.
"Don't worry about him," said Pep, "He'll be okay, this man is a strong as a bull." I remember Pep saying that to both of us-half in jest, half in encouragement-and I still remember to this day thinking that what Pep was really saying was, "I hope he'll be okay."
The discreet number two had become the main man, and he managed to guide the club to another title, achieving a joint record 100-point tally for the Catalan giants as they won the league championship at a canter. However, all the while as Barcelona were successful, Tito needed to step away from the game himself. His illness needed attention, but Vilanova managed to return to the bench at the end of March in 2013 to see through the title win.
Vilanova's achievement was remarkable, especially considering the battles he faced - but it was a measure of the man to still carry out his job to the highest standard despite everything he went through, before leaving the role in July of last year. It was also his decision to leave after finding he no longer had the strength despite assurances from the club, a further measure of his brilliance.
Guillem Balague writes: "Tito's legacy will be as the man who played an enormous part in creating what many people still believe is the greatest football team ever to grace the game and, when he took charge, also earned for himself a league title."
He continues: "His relationship with Pep Guardiola and the players under his charge at Barcelona unquestionably made them a better side."
We have Tito Vilanova to thank for helping Lionel Messi grow into the player he is today. In a 2012 interview with El Pais, Messi said it was Tito that saw greatness in him. "I have known Tito since I was a kid. Tito was the first person who had faith in me because at the time, I was a substitute or didn't play, and he was the one that made me a starter in the U-16 category." Tito was also instrumental in persuading Leo to signing a new contract with Barcelona, as reports stated that just days before his passing, Tito spoke with Messi and convinced him that his long-term future is at FC Barcelona.
Tito was and is the definition of a true Cule. He always wanted what was best for his family and for his club because FC Barcelona was his family.
One element that makes Tito Vilanova legacy more thought-provoking to many is the fact that Tito left this world too soon, thus we will never know how his team would have grown or not grown over the years. This leaves us with a feeling of unfulfillment. We have been left with a "What if..." and "What could have been" to Tito's legacy. While the most important thing is to celebrate the life and great accomplishments of Tito Vilanova, you can't help but think what the future of Tito and FC Barcelona could have been if Tito's maker would have given him more time on this earth.
If Pep Guardiola was the face and strong leader of the FC Barcelona revolution of 2008-13, Tito Vilanova was the behind-the-scenes genius that was constructing the tiki-taka, constructing tactical creativity and innovation, scouting La Masia players, and supporting the leader in Pep in all aspects.
Both Pep and Tito--two smart, innovative men--knew where they wanted to go with their team.
— Öz Halitoglu (@OzHalitoglu) September 16, 2014
Where they took their team was to the top of the football world, and ruled it for years. Pep and Tito took their team from beginning a rebuilding phase to creating a football revolution that will forever be a part of the history of football that marked the golden era of Futbol Club Barcelona.
On that December day when Barcelona announced Vilanova had suffered a relapse of the cancer to which he lost his life, the sporting director, Andoni Zubizarreta, was asked if Abidal and Vilanova's illnesses made Barcelona's legend even greater because they had overcame adversity. "No," Zubizarreta replied, "it makes us human."
When Tito passed, the football world mourned the loss of a man whose contribution to football will forever be remembered. Catalunya is proud of its son, and his name will always be synonymous with winning, intelligence, class, and that glowing smile.
— Igor Alesenko (@IgorAlesenko) April 30, 2014
But most importantly, Francesc "Tito" Vilanova will always be synonymous with love, dedication, love of family and friends, the love of life, and fighting until the very end. Disease didn't defeat Tito, it was just Tito's time to rest, as his work in this world was complete.
As Guillem Balague aptly put it: "He will be truly missed, and our thoughts and prayers go out to all of his family, and in particular to his wife, Montse; daughter, Carlota; and son, Adria."
Unsurprisingly, Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid are by far the biggest spenders in the league. Real Madrid have spent a lot on arrivals but pretty much balanced the books with their departures. It is clear that only time will tell whether they made the right decisions.
They have invested in Colombia's highly rated James Rodríguez from Monaco for £70,40 million, Toni Kroos from Bayern Munich for a seemingly cut-price £26,40 million and the World Cup's stand out goalkeeper Keylor Navas from Levante UD for £8,80 million.
Javier Hernandez was loaned from Manchester United in a deal including a £2,20 million loan fee and Fernando Pacheco made the step up from Real Madrid Castilla.
There were also some high-profile departures. Ángel di María was sold to Manchester United for £66,00 million, Álvaro Morata to Juventus for £17,60 million and Xabi Alonso to Bayern Munich for £8,80 million.
Real Madrid also sold Nuri Sahin back to Dortmund for £6,16 million and Jesús Fernández to Levante UD for £440,000.
Diego López left for AC Milan on a free, Casemiro was loaned to Porto (with a £1,32 million loan fee) and Denis Cheryshev was loaned to Villarreal CF.
Real Madrid started the season rather hesitantly, with two losses in their first three games, but ever since, it has been 8 wins in a row (in all competitions). Indeed, they have been emphatic and relentless since losing 2-1 at home to Atletico Madrid, scoring no less than 35 goals in the process and only conceding five.
The biggest game on Earth just got bigger, as Sid Lowe put it: "The world’s most expensive player will not be there when Real Madrid and Barcelona emerge from the tunnel at the Santiago Bernabéu just before five o’clock on Saturday evening, but the world’s best will. So will the world’s second best, whichever way round you prefer to place them. The winner of the Ballon d’Or will be there, and the winner of last year’s Ballon d’Or. The winner of the European Golden Shoe winner will be there too – both winners of the European Golden Shoe. Plus the winner of the World Cup Golden Ball. And the World Cup Golden Boot."
The scene is set, the fans are filled with anticipation and the players are ready. El Clásico is set up perfectly.
It is expected that Real Madrid will line-up in the same 4-4-2 formation that performed so well against Levante and Liverpool with Gareth Bale out injured.
Iker Casillas will start in goal. Dani Carvajal, Pepe, Sergio Ramos and Marcelo should make up the back four. Raphaël Varane is the stand-by defender just in case Sergio Ramos won't be able to make it.
James Rodríguez, Toni Kroos, Luka Modrić and Isco will be the four narrow-playing midfielders. Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo are the two strikers playing in something of a free role.
Possible XI (4-4-2): Casillas; Carvajal, Pepe, Ramos, Marcelo; Rodríguez, Kroos, Modrić, Isco; Benzema, Ronaldo
Cristiano Ronaldo v Dani Alves - Cristiano Ronaldo is in outstanding form already, with 20 goals in just 13 appearances this season. We could have put anyone of Dani Alves, Gerard Pique or even Javier Mascherano here, but Alves is a guaranteed starter, as well as likely to be targeted by both Ronaldo and Isco in a similar way to how Glen Johnson was on Wednesday.
Pepe v Messi - Pepe seems to have cemented his place at the heart of Madrid's defence. Yet Messi will be hungry for goals. He needs just one more goal to equal the all-time Spanish record of legend Telmo Zarra. He also tops the La Liga assist chart.
Winner: Messi (like Ronaldo) is simply too good.
Dani Carvajal v Neymar - Carvajal has been a revelation for Real Madrid. A lot of the focus will be on Luis Suárez but it is Neymar who looks to make a real difference. Neymar is in excellent form for both club and country. He has shone in the last two La Liga El Clasicos and he'll again be a difficult prospect to stop. As everyone's favourite commentator Ray Hudson put it: "Every time Neymar gets the ball, he should have a bio hazard sign saying danger, serious danger!"
Winner: Neymar should win this one; it's unlikely to be a game for defences.
Luka Modrić v Ivan Rakitić - The two Croatian lynchpins go head-to-head. You get the sense that this battle will be crucial, especially with Barcelona's three midfielders up against Madrid's two or four (depending on who you ask) midfielders. They are both in phenomenal form. Who will come out on top?
The key-battles are mouth-watering, and those are only a few of them. It promises to be a close affair, but as to what the score will be, well that's anyone's guess.
Real Madrid and Barcelona are great rivals, that there is no doubt. What happens when stars collide? What do the best rivalries do? They push each other to greater heights. Without one the other is obsolete. Mutual respect is the phrase. It's what football is all about. As Florentino Perez put it: "If Barcelona did not exist, Real Madrid would have to invent them", and vice-versa. We therefore wish Real Madrid the best of luck for the rest of the season (except when facing Barca!).
As for the poll, we don't want to include Messi or Ronaldo just yet. We'll cherish them for the time being and include them in such polls once they have retired, or at the very least stopped playing at the highest level.
Yet life is greater than football. Di Stéfano and Tito truly are inspirational. Before we enjoy the spectacle, let's take a moment to remember them as well as all the other good people who have left us.
Thank you for reading this special extended El Clásico edition, take care and goodbye until next time!