The greatest player of all time. The man who made Real Madrid. An inspiration. A legend.
Those are just some of the ways in which figures from the football world have described Alfredo di Stefano, the former Los Blancos striker and honorary president of the club, who died yesterday, aged 88.
And I want to join the likes of Florentino Perez, Sir Alex Ferguson, Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale in paying tribute to the great man. I was lucky enough to meet him briefly at a football awards ceremony last winter organised by sports newspaper Marca.
During my career and my time in Madrid, I’ve been privileged to meet some famous faces from a number of different sports. But talking to Don Alfredo was an experience like nothing else. Despite only spending 10 minutes in his company, and him being frail and wheelchair bound at that point, I was well aware I was in the presence of a man who made Real Madrid what it is today and had a huge impact on the game in general.
Prior to his arrival in the Spanish capital in 1953, Los Blancos had only won two league titles. By the time he left 11 years later, Los Merengues had won another eight La Liga titles. More significantly, they had also won five European Cups, with di Stefano scoring in five consecutive cup finals – a feat that will never be repeated.
Although I am too young to have ever seen di Stefano play, I have seen plenty of video clips of his goals. And what numbers he achieved. 418 in 510 games for Real Madrid.
My dad has been following football and supporting Arsenal for more than 50 years yet always tells the most memorable game he has ever watched was on black and white television in 1960. The European Cup final between Real Madrid and Eintracht Frankfurt. Di Stefano ran riot and netted a hat-trick, with his fellow forward Ferenc Puskas grabbing four. It was a game that won the hearts of millions around the world and helped make the club the global institution it is today.
Real Madrid players past and present have spoken about how knowledgeable di Stefano was about the game, and how his powers of persuasion were the reason why they ended up at the Santiago Bernabeu. Gareth Bale called him an inspiration. Gonzalo Higuain said he looked after him from the moment he arrived off the plane as an 18-year-old kid from Argentina. Alfredo even taught current president Florentino Perez a lot about football with Perez coming from a business background rather than sporting one.
Di Stefano had time for everyone and followed everything going on at his beloved Real Madrid. He didn’t know who I was but was happy to give his thoughts on Los Blancos’ season up until that point in early December. The form of Cristiano Ronaldo would be key, he told me. And after a tricky period autumn in which Madrid had lost to Barcelona and Atletico de Madrid, di Stefano was impressed with how Carlo Ancelotti had got the team playing great counter attacking football and defending well as a unit.
He was warm and friendly with everyone that day. He was willing to talk to other guests, journalists, friends and footballers alike. He smiled at the camera and he shook hands with everyone who went over to him.
It was an honour to meet you Don Alfredo. Thanks for the chat. Thanks for the memories. And thanks for dedicating your life to making your club the greatest in the world.