Euro 2008 is down to just two: Germany and Spain.
As both nations take center stage for what may be one of the greatest moments, or the most agonizing, in the country’s history, Playing From Amnesia takes a look back at the greatest figures in their respective football histories.
Michael Ballack and Fernando Torres may become the national heroes on Sunday, but they would still have long way to go to approach the status of these football legends. These men have a unique spot in the sport’s history. Today, we take a look at one of Spain’s greatest footballers:
Alfredo di Stéfano
Spanish football is often known as much for what it has not accomplished as what it has. The national team and its stars are often tagged—fairly or not—as the underachievers of European football. Perhaps that reputation would be a little different if they had had Alfredo di Stéfano a little longer.
As a massive figure in the storied history of Real Madrid, there is little doubt that Di Stéfano can be called one of the greatest footballers of all time. Calling him Spanish takes a little more explanation.
Born in Buenos Aeries, Argentina, to Italian immigrant parents and with an Irish grandmother, he became a Spanish citizen in 1956 after several years with Real Madrid. Nicknamed Saeta Rubia (translated into English as “Blond Arrow”), Di Stéfano was truly born a citizen of the world and a natural for the world’s game.
The International Football Hall of Fame states: “Alfredo di Stéfano was considered by many the greatest player of all time. He was a player with extraordinary versatility and incredible stamina. Although generally referred to as a center-forward, he played in defense, midfield and the forward line.”
Di Stéfano’s talent was apparent early, as he joined Argentina’s River Plate in 1943. He was only 17. After winning 6 league titles in 12 seasons with River Plate and Millonarios of the Colombian league, Saeta Rubia would move to the Royal Spanish Football Federation and become an internationally recognized football star.
But the move came with considerable controversy. In a transfer saga involving Millonarios, River Plate, FC Barcelona, and Real Madrid, there were allegations of low-ball negotiations, bullying tactics, deceit, and political manipulations by the Spanish Franco government. The drama ended with a publicly ridiculed compromise where Di Stéfano would play four seasons in Spain—two for Real and two for Barcelona. The agreement led to the firing of team president of Barcelona, which would sell its two seasons with Saeta Rubia to Real for 4 million pesetas.
It was the best investment Real Madrid ever made. He went on to score 216 league goals in 262 games, leading the Spanish league in scoring five times while striking up a fearsome partnership with Hungarian legend Ferenc Puskás. His prolific scoring was even greater on the international stage where he scored 49 goals in 58 matches and leading Los Merengues to five consecutive European Cup titles from 1956 through 1960. With each title, Saeta Rubia scored in the finals, including a hat trick in 1963 during a dominating 7-3 win over Eintracht Frankfurt.
While Di Stéfano would be named European Footballer of the Year in ’57 and ’59, he never found glory on the biggest stage of them all—the World Cup. In stints with both Argentina and Colombia, he was deemed ineligible and/or his nation refused to participate. After becoming a Spanish citizen, Di Stéfano joined a national team that failed to qualify for the 1958 cup. He helped the national team qualify, but was never stepped on the pitch at the World Cup due to an injury.
His lack of World Cup success did little to damage his enormous legacy. Named the Golden Player of Spain by the Royal Spanish Football Federation as their most outstanding player of the past 50 years, Saeta Rubia was honored by Real Madrid, FIFA and UEFA in February 2008 with a ceremony and statue unveiling. Upon the occasion, Reuters wrote:
“Those who were privileged enough to see him play say that Di Stéfano could be seen covering in defense, charging forward through the midfield, laying on goals for the forwards and smashing shots into the net all in the same game… The fact that Real Madrid are one of the leading clubs in world football is due almost exclusively to Di Stéfano.”
Being the foundation of Real Madrid’s storied history will eternally make you one of Spain’s favorite sons, regardless of where you were born.
Playing from Amnesia is a monthly column by Scott T. Shepherd highlighting the legends of our beloved game. This is one of his late and frankly great contributions to our Euro 2008 special.