The appellation ‘legend’ is often overused. The merely good become star players and such stars receive an even more exalted status. With the case of Alfredo Di Stefano however, it’s a label that fits comfortably with the history and record of the player. Although his zenith was a little before my time, it’s not difficult to discern from grainy tapes of games that here was a player with the poise and balance of an genuine athlete, and the ability to play in virtually any outfield position and still be outstanding
The Argentine-born striker played just under 400 games for Los Blancos, netting 308 goals during his time in the capital. Between 1954 and 1964, he also accumulated eight La Liga titles, five consecutive European Cups, one Spanish Cup and one Intercontinental Cup. It could however have been so different, as the first kit he donned in Spain was not the white of Real Madrid, but the Blaugrana of fierce rivals Barcelona. How this came to happen is a story full of intrigue and conspiracy theories, all painted in the colours of the people deploying their own particular versions of it.
A native of the Argentine capital, Di Stefano began his career with River Plate Plate in Buenos Aires aged 17, but was loaned out to Huracan to hone his abilities. It wasn’t a long process. After just over two dozen games, and ten goals, he was quickly whisked back to his parent club, and it was this period in the Argentine capital that really launched his career, when he netted 53 goals in 72 games. In 1949 however, a strike by footballers ended his career with ‘River’ and he joined the Colombian club, Millionarios. It was a move wrapped in controversy and warped by legal wrangling that would figure prominently in the future of the player when he moved to Europe. As transfers go however, it was massive success. Records are a little sketchy as to his feats in Colombia and vary widely as to games played and goals scored, but working on the details used by the BBC, he’s recorded as playing 294 games, during which he netted an astonishing 267 goals.
In 1952, he travelled to Spain with his Colombian club for a friendly tournament and, following a series of breathtakingly impressive performances, both Real Madrid and Barcelona cast envious eyes on the player. At 25, Di Stefano was now very much the finished article and a striker chock full of goals. Whilst acquiring his talents promised to be ultimately rewarding, the process of securing them was going to be anything but easy. Going back to that move to Colombia, the issue was that would lead to all of the complication was that both River Plate and Millonarios claimed to hold his registration. I’ve read accounts that actually describe to move as ‘illegal’ but whatever the rights and wrongs of it, there was certainly a complication, and that would serve to ignite the problem.
Barcelona made the first move in the race to sign Di Stefano and seemed to be in pole position to sign the player. The deployed the Catalan lawyer Ramon Trias Farghas to negotiate with both River Plate and Millonarios. It was a slow and involved process, but progress was gradually achieved. Things began to go astray however when the club also sought to involve another Catalan living in Colombia at the time. Joan Busquets appeared to have all of the qualities required to lubricate the deal with Millonarios. He knew the country and the way things worked, as wellbeing involved in football over there. There was a downside which the Barcelona hierarchy clearly underestimated. Busquets was also a director of Millonarios’ fiercest rivals Santa Fe. Seeing Busquets negotiate for the Catalans brought the whole process into doubt, and when Barca finally offered what was widely accepted to be a derisory offer, the deal fell apart.
It appeared to be such a strange move by the club who had invested so much time and money in pursuing Di Stefano, to then apparently sabotage their own efforts by involving a Busquets, who was clearly going to be an irritant to the Colombians at best, a deal-breaker at worst, and top it off by offering a bid that was sure to be rejected. Many have taken the view that the club had decided that as Millonarios, and Colombian football in general, was not sanctioned by FIFA at the time, they really had no need to talk to talk to Di Stefano’s current employers at all, and could merely cut a deal with River Plate. This is what they did, and in the summer of 1953, they flew the player and his family to Catalunya to begin his new life in Europe. That may seem all well and good and entirely logical. If true however, it renders as pointless the efforts work with the Colombian club. This is where the conspiracy theorists jump in to explain.
Some reports that I’ve read suggest that the cold hand of General Franco, victor in the bitter Spanish Civil War that had ended in 1939, can explain the strange denouement to negotiations with Millonarios. Fans of Barcelona, and adherents to the Catalan cause in general will see the hand of Franco in any misfortune that befell the region after they had not only stood against his Nationalist uprising to sequest power from the elected government, but also sought to promote independence for Catalunya. It’s certainly true that Catalunya in general and FC Barcelona in particular were the bete noirs of the dictator, but how far those went into the realms of sport, is still a far from established point. Opinions on the events of this period tend to be coloured by beliefs of just how far Franco would go to punish the Catalans.
One suggests that Franco sought to sabotage Barcelona’s attempts to sign Di Stefano from the outset. Apparently deciding that instead he should move to what has often been termed by such points of view, as ‘the Regime’s team,’ Real Madrid. At the time, Barcelona had engaged Josep Samitier in a scouting capacity. Samitier was a notorious playboy, whose excessive lifestyle was reputedly funded by Franco in return for favours he could offer the dictator. The story goes that Franco bribed Samitier to encourage the employment of Busquets, as he knew it would sabotage any deal. Barcelona’s president Marti Carreto apparently approved the move and the derisory bid however, and when Di Stefano eventually ended up at Real Madrid, he was forced to resign. Some have even suggested that even Carreto was in fact implicated in Franco’s plan and was a stooge of the government.
With Di Stefano in Catalunya however, Barcelona were confident that they had secured their man. FIFA had given their blessing to the deal done with River Plate, as they did recognise any transfer to the unsanctioned Colombian league as binding. With this backing Barcelona felt safe that they could play Di Strafano and did so in at least one friendly game, some reports suggest two games, and the Argentine played in the club’s famous Blaugrana colours. It was to be a brief relationship however.
Aware of the gathering scenario, Real Madrid’s president Santiago Bernabeu was quick to stake his claim to the player. Stepping into the vacuum left by Barcelona’s compromised attempts Bernabeu cut a deal with Millonarios. With two deals now sealed with different clubs from two separate selling clubs, an impasse landed. Barcelona felt that with FIFA’s blessing they were on solid ground, and saw no reason to compromise.
Franco of course had no power with FIFA, but inside Spain, there was little that did not fall within his remit, and certainly the Spanish football federation, the RFEF was within his grasp. Despite FIFA waving through the move, the RFEF refused to sanction the move on the grounds that Millonarios had not agreed any deal. Now, whether this was the true reason, or a response to a little Franco-leaning is another issue open to debate. What is true however is that the government then passed a law outlawing the purchase of foreign players for its clubs in order to bolster the opportunities and development of Spanish players. Did this have any effect on the Di Stefano issue? It’s difficult to say, but it did allow the RFEF to step in and take charge of the affair. It came to a startling decision.
Whether at the behest of Franco, strange logic or merely incompetence the federation decreed that Di Stefano should uniquely belong to both Barcelona and Real Madrid. This would play out by him alternating for four seasons between the two clubs, spending a season initially with Real Madrid, and then changing at the end of each season. As surprising as the ‘solution’ was the fact that Carreto accepted the situation and capitulated to the agreement. Another scenario that some explain away as him acting under orders of the Generalisimo. Under intense pressure, it was at this stage that he was compelled to resign.
The interim Barcelona board would have no truck with the settlement. Passions in the city would not allow any Franco-inspired, presumed or real, dictat apply. In an apparent ‘heart ruling head’ decision, the club declared that in exchange for Real Madrid handing them the fee that they had paid to River Plate, reported to be 4.5million pesos, they would hand over di Stefano’s rights to the Madrid club, and wash their hands of the whole business. Did the club concede the player due to an honour decision or had further pressure been brought to bear from the government. A section on the club’s website perhaps hints at such a scenario. It reads…
“In 1953, FC Barcelona signed Di Stéfano after reaching an agreement with River Plate, the club that owned the rights to the player. At the same time, Real Madrid carried out negotiations with Millonarios, the team that Di Stéfano was playing for then. A strange federative manoeuvre with Francoist backing stipulated that Di Stéfano should play alternate seasons with each club. Barça went against the verdict and relinquished the player. Kubala’s Barça and Di Stéfano’s Madrid competed for many years for the domination of national football.”
It’s unsurprising to note that the Real Madrid perspective on the affair is somewhat different. Indignant at any suggestions of assistance either directly or indirectly from Franco, they claim that the club simply took advantage of Barcelona’s unprofessional dealing to tie up a deal correctly. One short month later, the relevance of the move was brought into sharp focus as the next Clasico was played out. Real Madrid triumphed 5-0. Di Stefano netted four of the goals.
The whole Di Stefano affair opens up more questions than it answers. Why did Barcelona fail to nail a deal down with the Colombians? Why did they so easily acquiesce to the RFEF ruling when they had the weight of FIFA’s backing on their side, and why did RFEF come to such a patently unworkable solution? Just how many answers to these questions lies in the machinations of Francisco Franco is unclear. Some say all, others venture none.
The period of history following the fratricidal conflict of the Spanish Civil War has a black backdrop from the conflict that casts a dark shadow over all events for those who lived through it. Was the denouement of the Di Stefano transfer saga merely a monument to Franco’s total control of the country, or merely a convenient way of explaining away unconnected events?
The recent death of Alfredo Di Stefano has given added poignancy to the story, and perhaps returns the tale back to where it should be. Remembering the past should never be the exclusive purview of those wearing rose-tinted glasses, but neither should it be an excuse for exhuming old ghosts merely to cast a shadow over an undisputed talent. Particularly at this moment, celebrating the career of one of the best players ever to be bless the beautiful game offers far more value than dwelling on the colours he wore, or who may have caused it to be so.