MADRID (Reuters) - Frequently bracketed with Pele, Diego Maradona and Johan Cruyff as one the greatest exponents of the game, Alfredo Di Stefano is considered by many connoisseurs to be the most complete footballer of all time.
The 81-year-old Argentine will be honoured by his former club Real Madrid, football governing bodies FIFA and UEFA and a host of illustrious fellow players on Sunday in a ceremony at the Bernabeu.
A statue of Di Stefano will also be unveiled at Real’s training ground Valdebebas in the presence of FIFA and UEFA presidents Sepp Blatter and Michel Platini, with invited guests including former players Franz Beckenbauer, Bobby Charlton and Eusebio.
Those who were privileged enough to see him play say that Di Stefano could be seen covering in defence, 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 Stefano.
He transformed the Spanish side from an insignificant bunch of underachievers into the kings of the continent when he guided them to victory in five successive European Cups between 1956 and 1960, scoring in each of the finals.
“La Saeta Rubia” (the blond arrow), as he was known, was the progenitor of “total football” and years ahead of his time in terms of his approach to his professional career. In modern parlance he was the first “Galactico”.
Prepared to play for the highest bidder, he mixed with the rich and famous, was the star of a film about himself and the victim of a dramatic kidnapping in Venezuela.
Gruff, egocentric, impatient and with a wry sense of humour, Di Stefano did not suffer fools gladly but above all he was a brilliant footballer and fierce competitor who has left an indelible mark on the game.
Twice European Footballer of the Year in 1957 and 1959, Di Stefano scored 418 goals in 510 official games for Real Madrid.
Until a few years ago he was the all-time top scorer in the European Cup with 49 goals. His successor Raul took almost twice as many games to beat his mark.
Di Stefano scored an estimated 893 goals throughout his career, making him one of the highest goal scorers in the history of football.
The eldest of three brothers, he was born of Italian parents and brought up in the suburbs of Buenos Aires where he had to shoulder the main burden of work on the family farm, something which may go some way to explaining his legendary stamina.
He signed for River Plate at the age of 15, making his debut for the first team two years later. He won two league titles while at River.
Di Stefano joined the exodus of talented Argentines who were attracted to the high wages paid in the Colombian pirate league when he moved to Millonarios of Bogota in 1949.
In less than four years he became the highest goal scorer in the history of the club, helping them to four league titles.
He caught the eye in Spain when he played in an exhibition match as part of Real’s 50th anniversary celebrations in 1952 and became the object of one of the most controversial transfer sagas in the history of Spanish football as Real and Barcelona conducted a tug-of-war to secure his services.
He actually played three friendly matches for the Catalans while the dispute was going on.
Depending on which side of the fence you stand, Real got their man in the end either because they were sharper operators or because of official connivance from the government.
Di Stefano transformed Real from a club that had won only two league titles in the previous 50 years, the last in 1936, into the dominant force in Spanish and European football.
The club went on to win five consecutive European Cups, eight league titles and the first World Club Cup in 1960 with Di Stefano leading the way alongside other greats Ferenc Puskas, Raymond Kopa, Paco Gento and Hector Rial.
He was also involved in what is widely regarded as the greatest ever game of club football when Real defeated Eintracht Frankfurt 7-3 at Hampden Park in the 1960 final of the European Cup. Di Stefano scored a hat-trick, although he was out-scored by Hungarian Puskas who grabbed the other four.
He eventually left Real after 11 seasons when he fell out with the Bernabeu and returned to Barcelona to play for Espanyol, retiring two seasons later at the age of 40, 22 years after making his debut for River Plate.
His international career was less brilliant but he still managed to fire Argentina to victory in the 1947 Copa America, made a handful of unofficial appearances for a Colombia selection while at Millonarios and scored 23 goals in 31 games for Spain.
Di Stefano also had a distinguished career as a coach, managing Boca Juniors, River Plate, Valencia and Real Madrid.
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