A GREAT PLAYER PASSES
The 2014 World Cup is approaching its final exciting stages. Yet spare a thought for a great player of an earlier era. Alfredo Di Stefano died yesterday at the age of eighty eight.
He never played in a World Cup yet is very clearly in the pantheon of all time football greats. Last week Maradona hailed him as an equal, together with Messi, at the summit of Argentine football. Elsewhere he was voted fourth greatest player of the Twentieth Century. He enjoyed success playing in leagues in his native Argentina and Colombia, yet it was after his move to Real Madrid in 1953 that his career took off. He spent eleven seasons with Real, scoring 216 goals in 282 appearances, as well as scoring twenty three goals in thirty one games for Spain.
It was his European Cup exploits with Real for which he will be most remembered. He was fortunate, of course, in that he was involved with the competition from the start at a time when the television age was beginning. He was the first television football super star, just as his team, Real Madrid, was the first television wunderteam. The Hungarians were pre-television, even the 1958 Brazilians only a passing phenomenon. For a number of years Real WERE football, thrilling a growing international audience on T.V. and establishing the European Cup – their cup(!) – as the premier club competition in the world.
Real dominated the early years of the competition, appearing in six of the first seven finals and winning the first five. Di Stefano was at the heart of the team, dominating a squad that contained several fine, indeed great players, Puskas, Kopa, Gento and Santamaria. In 58 European matches he scored 49 goals, including, incredibly, a goal in each of Real’s five winning finals. In 1962, when Real were beaten by Benfica, Di Stefano, by then thirty six, though failing to score in the final, was joint top scorer in the competition with seven goals.
If the 1962 final will be remembered as signalling the eclipse of Real and Di Sefano and the emergence of Eusebio, the game for which Di Sefano and Real will be most remembered took place two years earlier – the 1960 European Cup Final, regarded universally as one of the greatest football matches of all time. It was surely the greatest display by Real, who defeated the German champions , Eintracht Frankfurt, 7 – 3. Seven – Three! Puskas scored four – still a record for a final, Di Stefano scored three, including a memorable solo goal, running from the half way line. Watch it on You Tube!
Football is poorer for Di Stefano’s passing. As a tribute there follows an article I wrote for the Irish Times in May 2010, to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of that memorable 1960 final. Fittingly it was headlined “Real Magic.”
When Christian Ronaldo was introduced by Real Madrid last July, the figure beside him, old, and on a stick, needed no introduction. Whatever Ronaldo may or may not achieve in his career, it is a reasonably safe bet he will never equal Alfredo Di Stefano’s achievement of scoring in five (5) successive European finals.
It is just 50 years, more than half a lifetime, since he and the mighty Puskas demolished the German champions, Eintracht Frankfurt in what some have called the greatest ever footballing display, the 1960 European Cup final. Real ran out winners 7-3, showing skill and style which has set a standard rarely equalled. The game, watched by 135,000 in Glasgow, and by millions more throughout Europe on television, enthralled all who viewed it and remained long in the memory.
The grainy black and white TV images of the game on U Tube could almost be a metaphor for the Britain of the time. The 1950s had been a grey decade, and even if the Tories had won the 1959 election with the slogan “You’ve never had it so good”, prosperity was hardly evident. Britain’s heavy industry was in terminal decline. In Lancashire, where I lived, men still wore clogs to work. National Service was just ending.. The first motorway, the M I had only opened in late 1959. The era of mass car ownership was just beginning. Lady Chatterley’s Lover was still banned. One of the highlights of the cricket season was a game between the “Gentlemen”, i.e. amateurs, and the “Players”, i.e the professionals. Around the turn of the decade a radio commentator at the Isle of Man TT races poked fun at the first appearance of a Japanese motor bike with a funny name – Honda.
I was a football mad 13 year old in 1960, living just a few miles from Burnley and Blackburn, where I went to school. Every Saturday I trekked in turn to Turf Moor or Ewood Park. That season there was cause to support them both. Burnley, there or thereabouts for several seasons, won the League Championship in their last game, away to Manchester City 2-1, pipping Wolves (champions in 1958 and 1959) for the title by a point, with the much fancied Spurs a further point behind. Rovers meanwhile had battled through to Wembley, where they lost the Cup Final disappointingly 3-0 to Wolves, who were thus within a whisker of becoming the first club in the 20th century to win the league and cup double (Spurs would do so the following year).
My interest went beyond domestic. I had watched, fascinated, on T.V. ,the European Cup quarter final second leg at Molyneaux between Wolves and Barcelona, one of the first European Cup matches televised live in Britain. Wolves were down 4 – 0 from the first leg. On a rain-soaked quagmire of a pitch, they were overwhelmed 5-2 at home in an exhibition which left me awe-struck. Burnley played good football – probably the best in England at the time – but this was something else.
Barcelona included two of the great Hungarian side of the early 50s – accorded sainthood status in our household – and seemed to me invincible. Yet they were defeated by Real in the semi-final, 3-1 in both legs. I knew nothing then of the complicated political and historical rivalry between the two clubs, only that Real must have been mighty indeed to have won so comprehensively.
Real Madrid were well known. They had won the European Cup every year since its inception and had seen off the Busby Babes 5-3 on aggregate in the 1957 semi-final. Money was no object ; they could buy the best and pay the best. Real were marshalled by the Argentinian superstar, Di Stefano and also fielded another of the anointed Magyars – the most famous of all, Ferenc Puskas. Eintracht Frankfurt were virtually unknown – certainly to schoolboys like me – until their semi-final against Rangers. They won the first leg in Germany 6-1; in the second leg, at Ibrox, they again put six past Rangers for a total aggregate of 12-4.
The story of the final is well known. Real came from a goal down to score six in half an hour, winning comprehensively and unlucky not to score more. Di Stefano scored three, the third after a marvellous solo run. Puskas got the other four. The game ended as a contest early in the second half when Real were awarded a dubious penalty to go 4 -1 up. As a spectacle it endured, long after the finish.
There was more to it than just a game, of course, particularly in Britain, home of football. It was the era of the maximum wage, under which players’ wages were capped at a level roughly equivalent to the average industrial wage – £20 per week. The players, almost universally working class and with no freedom to break their contracts, put up or shut up. The decade had been dominated by Manchester United, cruelly destroyed at Munich, and Wolves, with three championships each. There was, however general acceptance that, in world terms, English soccer was second-rate, following poor World Cup performances and defeats by 6 -3 and 7 – 1 to the Hungarians, defeats which had entered the realm of legend. Real’s victory, following on the demolitions of Wolves and Rangers, emphasized just how far British football was behind the best.
Was the game a watershed? There’s always a danger that nostalgia lends a rosy hue. At school next day my history teacher declared flatly “No English team could ever play like that!” Certainly it was a wake-up call, and football, in England and elsewhere, was never quite the same. A new bar had been set. More thoughtful, skilful (and successful) football gradually became the norm. Wolves, exponents of the “powerhouse” game fell rapidly from grace and were never again a major force. Many successful coaches and pundits subsequently pointed to inspiration from Real’s display. Yet Real were gone, almost as quickly as Wolves. There was one other epic match, the 1962 final which they lost 5- 3 to Benfica. May 18 1960 was a pinnacle they never reached again. In the words of a newspaper headline next day, it was “Real Magic”.