By Paul Gardner
RIO DE JANEIRO --As Argentina was making its laborious way to the 2014 World Cup final, the word came from Spain: Alfredo Di Stefano was dead, at the age of 88. Di Stefano, the Argentine who many regard in awe as the greatest of them all.
It may well be. His triumphs with Real Madrid -- five European Cups in a row between 1956 and 1960 -- tell you that something very special was going on at the club in those years. And it was Di Stefano’s name that dominated the headlines.
There was a logical reason for that, and it is the reason why Di Stefano is to this day held in such esteem. There is a word that is always applied to Di Stefano: Complete. He is invariably praised as a complete player. I don’t think I’ve ever heard that word used to describe Pele or Diego Maradona. Maybe to Johan Cruyff, but not systematically.
Di Stefano, by general acclaim, was the complete player. Meaning what, exactly? As I never saw Di Stefano play -- only various newsreel scraps seem to be available -- I’m relying on other opinions. But they are so universal, so unanimous, so certain in their assertion of Di Stefano’s completeness, that I see no reason to doubt them.
Di Stefano was the most complete player, then. He did more things than any other player, and he did most of them better than other players. He was certainly a goalscorer. He was also a midfield maestro, an organizer and playmaker of immense skill. And he did defensive work, too.
Maybe that last bit needs an explanation. Di Stefano played in an era before the modern coaches had grabbed the game by the neck. There were no iron-bound (coaching) rules about “tracking back,” no repeated reminders to everyone that they had defensive duties. The defensive elements in Di Stefano’s game came from his own style, from his soccer personality.
That, in turn, relied on a phenomenal physique. By all accounts, the guy was inexhaustible. Not only could he do the physical part, the running, but his hyper-active soccer brain insisted that he be involved in the play all the time, wherever on the field the ball might be.
This is the only aspect of Di Stefano’s game that I can comment on from personal knowledge. I asked him, some 14 years ago, what he felt about the low-scoring modern game, and the emphasis on defense. The low-scoring he lamented -- after all, this was the guy who came up with the lovely line that “a soccer game without goals is like an afternoon without sunshine.”
The question about defense clearly puzzled him. “You used to play defense ...” I explained. “Never!” came the decisive interruption. He never saw his playing deep, trying to win the ball, as defensive play, and certainly not as a defensive duty. It was simply a part of, a seamless continuation of, his natural, attacking inclinations. Get the ball ... and use it.
From the fragmented sequences of Di Stefano in action that I have seen comes an impression of a superbly balanced, muscular athlete of average height, moving with an extraordinary light, springy running motion, covering ground effortlessly. Being everywhere on the field would have been no problem for such a quick, graceful mover.
That was Di Stefano in his prime, in his Real Madrid years. Since then his name has often been pressed into service to bolster some new coaching theory or some revolutionary formation. He was frequently mentioned in the mid-70s when Total Soccer arrived. It was claimed that Di Stefano had been playing total soccer 20 years avant le mot.
The claim was specious. Di Stefano was never, never could have been, just another cog in a smooth-running, synchronized machine in which all the players were called upon to be, at different times, attackers or defenders or midfielders. He could not be identified in any one of those roles at any given moment. He was always all of them ... he was Di Stefano, the complete player.
But the spirit that ran through everything he did on the field was an attacking spirit, the desire to take the ball and to score goals. He played that way because it was his natural way, and because, in the 1950s, the discipline of modern coaching, the rigidities of systems had not yet taken hold.
Di Stefano, I believe would not have thrived in the total soccer environment. His powerful -- dominating -- personality was not ready to fit into systems. Yet his apparent -- to me -- unsuitability for systems did not stop him being constantly cited as the ideal total soccer player. The renaissance-player, if you like, who could do all things.
And so Di Stefano has left a contradictory legacy. The most complete player of all time. That seems likely. Does that mean “the best” player of all time? I rather think it does. But the titles get more and more meaningless as the game changes, and as the old masters fade into the past, beyond the memory-grasp of any living person.
There is another, more debatable, theme that Di Stefano has left -- I think one that he would be amused by. It has been nourished by coaches, particularly those who are much taken with total soccer and similar all-action modes of play.
The more elaborate the playing systems get, the more versatile and the fitter the players have to be to put them into action. So what better role model than Di Stefano? It will dawn on the coaching fraternity one day that Di Stefano is a terrible role model, that he was a one-off whose almost surreal array of skills cannot be copied. And that any playing system that requires a few Di Stefanos -- or even just one Di Stefano -- on the field is headed for failure.
Whatever, it is clear that Di Stefano is the only one of the “old-timers” who has maintained his place among the modern gods -- Pele, Maradona, Cruyff -- despite not having played for 40 years, despite there being so pitiful an archive of him at play.
By any standards, I think, a superb -- and unique -- player.