Nick MillerComment

THE DI STEFANO AFFAIR

Nick MillerComment

Alfredo di Stefano's transfer to Real Madrid was far from straightforward.  If you don't know the story, let Nick Miller fill in the gaps.

The 1960 European Cup final is often regarded as something close to year zero for many in football. Real Madrid beat Eintracht Frankfurt 7-3 at Hampden Park in one of the most infamously brutal and brilliant exhibitions of football most had ever seen. It wasn't just a magnificent performance, but an inspiration to a generation.

They were unbelievable,” said Sir Alex Ferguson, in the crowd after watching the Germans wipe the floor with his own Rangers in the semi-final. “They were the first really international club side and they were fantastic."

You'll know the names in that Real side. The great defender Jose Santamaria. The flying winger Franciso Gento. The galloping Ferenc Puskas, who scored four of the seven goals. And, of course, Alfredo di Stefano, who 'chipped-in' with the other three.

Di Stefano is a Madrid institution. He played for Real a little under 400 times over 11 years, scoring a remarkable 307 goals. He managed the club for a couple of years. He's now the honorary club president, the physical embodiment of the club's history and a reminder of the standard expected of new signings, as they parade around the Santiago Bernabeu waving to the crowd and juggling like grinning, doped-up seals.

And yet, if it hadn't been for the chutzpah of a chief scout, none of this would have happened.

In 1952 Di Stefano was playing for Colombian side Millonarios, having moved their from his first club River Plate. Millonarios toured Spain that year and played Real, but while the hosts were suitably impressed with their guests' star forward, it was Pepe Samiter, a former Barcelona hero and the club's de facto chief scout, that really took an interest.

Over the following year, Barca conducted painstaking negotiations in an attempt to bring Di Stefano to Spain, negotiations that were complicated by his interesting contract situation. For while Di Stefano was to all intents and purposes a Millonarios player, River still had some rights over him. The Colombians controlled him up until 1954, while from 1955 the Argentineans had dibs, therefore requiring the permission of both clubs to sign him for any length of time. After months of complex and logistically tricky talks, conducted through a Catalan lawyer named Ramon Trias Fargas, Barca believed they had an agreement with River for Di Stefano's transfer, and announced as such.

Of course, as with any situation where ownership is this complicated, it wasn't quite that simple. While Barca thought they had their man, River and Millonarios maintained that the deal required the permission of the Colombian club, which had not yet been given. In an attempt to push the move through, Barca brought in Samiter and a Colombian friend of his named Juan Busquets. A smart move, one might think. Not so, when you consider that Busquets was actually a director of CF Santa Fe, Millonarios's main rivals in Bogota. Busquets issued a brash ultimatum that they must accept the offer on the table for Di Stefano, or as they had the consent of River, they would take him to Cataluyna anyway.

And take him they did, after Di Stefano effectively absconded from Millonarios during a tour to Venezuela, and headed to Barcelona, despite owing the Colombian side some $5,000. Di Stefano signed a contract and posed in a Barcelona shirt, and the move was even ratified by FIFA, unaware of the contractual snafu behind the deal. Millonarios, understandably miffed by such arrogance and bullying tactics, refused to release him, and reported Barcelona to the Spanish FA. More negotiations followed, with Trias Fargas often frustrated by Barca president Enric Marti Carreto's refusal to pay the price demanded by Millonarios.

It was then that the shining white spectre of Real loomed into view. Madrid had some rather powerful friends effectively backed as they were by General Franco's government, who introduced a law banning the signing of foreign players.

At the time, Barca already had a hero. László Kubala was a Hungarian defector who escaped to the west and signed for Barca in 1950. In his first season, he scored 39 goals in 28 games. The prospect of Di Stefano combining with Kubala to create a potentially dominant generation of Catalan footballing power simply would not do.

The government announced that Di Stefano, an Argentinean who had also played a couple of times for Colombia, would be exempt from the ban on foreigners, but only if he was 'shared' between Barca and Real. The plan was for him to play for the clubs in alternate years – Real in 1953/4 and 1955/6, and Barca in 1954/6 and 1957/8. Marti Carreto and Real president Santiago Bernabeu agreed to the deal.

Predictably enough, the idea of sharing Di Stefano with the Francoist Real did not go down well in a Cataluyna whose scars from the Civil War were still raw. Catalan nationalism was fiercely and often ruthlessly stamped upon by the fascist government, and this was seen as just another way the establishment were trying to keep Barca down. A week of protests followed which were so vocal and outraged that Marti Carreto was forced to resign. The board, in charge of the club during the power vacuum and possibly fearing for their own necks, perhaps sensibly opted to scrap the deal, in return for 4.4million Pesetas in compensation, and Di Stefano was a Real player.

Catalans rarely need an excuse to feel victimised by the controlling Castillian forces. When they say they are 'mes que un club', they mean that they see themselves as not just a mere football team, but representatives of a largely unrecognised and oppressed nation. From the six-month closure of their stadium in 1926 after fans booed the national anthem, to the murder of president Josep Sunyol by fascist forces during the Civil War, the Di Stefano affair was seen as just another way that Barca, and by extension Cataluyna, were being kept down. Indeed, the scars left by the Di Stefano transfer remain - even on their official website today, Barcelona describe the affair as 'a strange federative manoeuvre'.

The feeling of injustice was no doubt exacerbated by the sight of Real, with Di Stefano leading them, winning the first five European Cups, while Barcelona had to wait until 1992 to claim their first. Barca by no means went without in the meantime – with Kubala and the brilliant Luis Suarez, and latterly with Helenio Herrera as manager, they won four Liga titles in the 1950s and became the first team to beat Real in European competition in 1961, but they were potentially denied a dynasty.

On such small things does history turn, but when Di Stefano was twice named European Footballer of the Year and lifted all those European Cups, back in Cataluyna they were cursing, and wondering what might have been.

Nick can be found on Twitter @NickMillerF365.

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