“L'état, c'est moi," said the Sun King, Louis XIV when he ruled France. The state, it's me.
By the same token, albeit centuries later, in football, Alfredo Di Stefano was surely entitled to say: "Real Madrid, it's me." The blond, tireless, deep-chested Argentinian was the inspiration and implacably dominant influence in the astonishing Real Madrid team that won five European Cups in a row- the first five- a record that will hardly be equalled let alone surpassed.
Yet to the eternal embarrassment of Barcelona, eternal rivals of Real, standard bearers for Catalonia against the ruling hierarchy of Castile, they could at least have shared the services of Di Stefano.
He had arrived in Spain in 1953, in his mid-twenties, not from his native Buenos Aires, where he claimed to have built his exceptional stamina by running through the streets, but from Bogota, Colombia, where he had decamped to play with other Argentinians for the Millonarios club. This was possible because Colombia had withdrawn from FIFA and could therefore sign whomever they liked without transfer fees.
Di Stefano, destined for all his dazzling prowess never to play in a World Cup, followed a hero of his own, centre-forward Adolfo Pedernera, to Bogota, having played his last for Argentina. Raimundo Saporta, Real's treasurer and chief aide to all-powerful president Santiago Bernabeu, had flown to the Colombian capital in pursuit of Di Stefano, while Barcelona's emissaries made for Buenos Aires, where Di Stefano's original club, River Plate, still held his registration. Both River and Millonarios agreed with their respective visitors that they could sign Di Stefano. The Spanish federation then emitted what was hardly a judgement of Solomon, somewhat fatuously decreeing that each club could have the player in alternate seasons, with Real to have first go.
So Di Stefano began in Madrid, but in the initial six weeks, whether by accident or design, he hardly excelled. Barcelona, having watched him, decided fatally to sell out their share. Whereupon, in his very next game, against Barca, Di Stefano scored four goals in a 5-0 win. He and Real were up, up and away, winning the championship that season and again the next, 1954-55, to qualify for the first European Cup. Di Stefano was the indefatigable spirit of the side, playing Total Football well before it was ever conceived, ubiquitous and dynamic.
"As a centre-forward," he once said, "I am always on the move, up, back and across, trying not to be fixed in one position and so not allowing the defender to see too much of me. Or I may be trying to avoid 'bunching' with other forwards. Or I may be reading what is to come, and moving quickly to help the next man on the ball. For forwards should accept it as part of their job that they should help their defence. When the opposing attack is in possession, you obviously are out of the game. What do you do? Just accept that position, while the defence tries to come through a difficult time? If the defence fails, the forward's job becomes that much harder: he has to score more goals. So the obvious thing is to get back quickly and help the defence. It eases your own job over the whole game.
"I think nothing of popping up at centre-half or full-back, to cover a colleague who has had to leave his position. We are all footballers, and as such should be able to perform competently in all positions."
With a force such as Di Stefano on the field Real hardly had need of a manager, though Di Stefano worked amicably enough with the coach he found in charge, Jose Villalonga, a former army officer who would be succeeded by the somewhat more assertive Luis Carniglia, an Argentinian, in season 1957-58. But Di Stefano was still the main man. "My greatest pleasure," he declared, "is in hitting goals."
And he got them in abundance, though never selfishly. He could never, he said, "understand non-triers. Many a time, even once or twice when I was running a temperature, I have still persuaded the manager to let me play. Football is a great game, and when one is with a great club it should be a privilege to play and give of one's best, a privilege hard to sacrifice." But in the World Cup in Chile in 1962, that other massive egotist, Helenio Herrera, in charge of Spain's team, couldn't persuade the naturalised Di Stefano to play.
Di Stefano's essential foil in the first four European Cup triumphs was another Argentinian, the tall, skilful inside-left Hector Rial, who himself was a naturalised Spaniard and therefore available for the national team. Herrera wrote appreciatively of Rial, saying: "He has the technical assurance of the South Americans, but also a sense of realism." Moreover, Rial was a generously helpful mentor to flying outside left Francisco "Paco" Gento. Rial, said Gento, taught him how to exploit his pace and helped him to learn about the game. Gento always had warm words for both Di Stefano - who could find him blindfolded - and Ferenc Puskas, who would succeed Rial.
Longevity was Gento's hallmark; in 1966 he became the only member of the team that won the first five European titles to win another, Real's sixth. Yet he was not an early starter; Gento was 19 before his local club, Racing Santander, signed him on a five-year contract. But in 1953 he like Di Stefano came to Real Madrid, and flourished. Miguel Munoz, the tall, powerfully built right-half who would in time become the team's manager, was somewhat surprisingly praised by Herrera as "the veritable motor of his team. A magnificent attacker, he is with much power." But "El Mago" added that Munoz could have difficulty against quick, counter-attacking opponents.
The field in the initial European Cup was small and Real had to beat only three opponents to reach the Final in Paris against Reims. They actually lost 3-0 in the quarter-final second leg against Partizan in Belgrade, where they were pelted with snowballs and tormented by a brilliant Milos Milutinovic; but they'd won the first leg 4-0. In the semi-finals, Milan were beaten 4-2 in Madrid, but at San Siro Real went down 2-1.
So to the Final, in which Di Stefano would be ranged against another supreme, deep-lying, creative centre-forward, little Raymond Kopa. Reims gave Real a tremendous run for their money, actually going 2-0 up in 12 minutes. Then Di Stefano took a forceful hand, starting in his own half a move he finished with a fearsome shot. On the half-hour Rial headed an equaliser, but on 62 minutes Michel Hidalgo's header from Kopa's precise free-kick restored Reims' lead. Real's equaliser was fortuitous. Marquitos, the big, tough centre-half, untypically surged upfield and shot. The ball hit a defender and rebounded into the net off Marquitos. The winner, scored by Rial 11 minutes from full-time, came after a typical burst by Gento, who called this the hardest of Real's first five finals.
Kopa now joined Real, and Di Stefano predictably had him "banished" to his marginal role on the right wing. Not till the 1958 World Cup finals in Sweden would the Frenchman be able to retake, and triumphantly, his preferred position as playmaker. It was after that tournament that Real signed Didi, the inspiration of Brazil's stunning attack, and Swedish centre-forward Agne Simonsson. But Di Stefano saw to it that they both stayed frustrated on the bench. Kopa for his part belatedly wondered why Real needed him at all.
In the 1956-57 European Cup, Real were hard-pressed in the first round by Rapid Wien, for whom the imposing blond centre back Ernst Happel scored a hat-trick in the 3-1 second leg victory in Vienna. Real had won 4-2 in Madrid and in these days before the away goals rule, a play-off was needed. Real, who offered Rapid £25,000 to stage the game in Madrid, duly won it 2-0. In the semi-finals, Matt Busby's young Manchester United side lost 3-1 to Real in Madrid but gallantly forced a 2-2 draw in the return.
So to the Final, at Real's stadium – as had been decreed from the start - where Fiorentina proved obstinate opponents. Real's first goal was controversial. Dutch referee Leo Horn blew for a penalty when inside-right Mateos went down in the box and proceeded to ignore Fiorentina claims that the linesman had flagged for offside before the incident. Di Stefano converted the kick, and Gento made it 2-0 six minutes later.
The following season, a still more rugged centre-half, Jose Santamaria, arrived from Uruguay to replace Marquitos, while Munoz gave way to Juan Santisteban. Santamaria, nicknamed "The Wall", once said: "A centre-half should be anything but that. In my opinion, football begins out of defence."
En route to the Final in Brussels, where Milan were so narrowly beaten 3-2 after extra-time, Real scored six at home to Royal Antwerp and eight in Madrid against fellow Spaniards Sevilla, four of them from Di Stefano. But Vasas of Hungary surprisingly beat them 2-0 when they met in Budapest, though Real had won the first leg 4-0.
In a Final that came vigorously alive in the second half, Uruguayan Juan Schiaffino put Milan ahead. Di Stefano equalised, Ernesto Grillo made it 2-1 for Milan, but, a minute later, Rial scored for 2-2. In extra-time, left-winger, Tito Cucchiaroni, hit Real's bar, and the other, Gento, got the winner.
The 1959 Final, in Stuttgart, was once again against Reims. Di Stefano scored the second goal in a somewhat tepid 2-0 victory. In the semi-finals, Real had been drawn against city rivals Atlético and were held to a 2-2 aggregate draw. But they made it through with a 2-1 win in a play-off staged in Zaragoza.
That season, Real were able to deploy the formidable left foot and commanding presence of Puskas, who, reportedly, diplomatically set up a goal for Di Stefano when they were neck and neck at the top of the league scorers' chart. "I was charged with being slow after my early matches in Spain," Puskas wrote. "Modestly, I beg to point out that this was, and is, an illusion ...the ball should run faster than the man." The Hungarian got the winner against Atlético in the play-off, but it was Rial who was inside-left in the Final.
So to 1960 and the ultimate crescendo in the Glaswegian Final, when 130,000 Scottish fans stayed on to applaud a Real team that had thrashed Eintracht Frankfurt 7-3 after going 1-0 behind. Puskas scored four, Di Stefano three, and each was in irresistible form. Even in the 1962 Final, in Amsterdam, when both players were veterans, Puskas scored a hat-trick in the 5-3 defeat by Benfica. For one of the goals, he simply trotted half the length of the field from Di Stefano's superbly timed pass. If 1960 was the triumphant swan song, 1962 was a memorable farewell.