( /BBCSport) Having been the brightest star in a team that won the European Cup in the competition’s first five seasons, Alfredo Di Stefano is almost unanimously regarded as the greatest player in Real Madrid’s history.
The club has gone into a state of mourning following his death on Monday at the age of 88.
As current club president Florentino Perez noted in his emotional tribute, in a symbolic way, Di Stefano simply is Real Madrid. His presence looms so large that he came as close as anybody ever will to the status of being “bigger than the club”.
But football history could have been different – very different indeed. Because when the magical Argentine forward first opted for a move to Spain, he appeared to be destined not for Real but their eternal rivals Barcelona.
The story of Di Stefano’s transfer to los Blancos is a fascinating and complex web of claims, denials, counter-denials and conspiracy theories involving five clubs in three countries. There are allegations of treachery, a mysteriously ripped-up contract and – possibly – the personal intervention of a dictator.
In the spring of 1952, Di Stefano was already a player of quite some renown. A 25-year-old Argentina international boasting an almost goal-per-game scoring record, he travelled to Spain for a friendly tournament in Madrid with his Colombian club side, Millonarios.
His performances were breathtaking, immediately prompting both Barcelona and Real Madrid to push hard for his signature.
Barça appeared to take an early lead in a race that was complicated immensely by the fact that Di Stefano’s registration rights were also claimed by Argentine giants River Plate, who were still less than delighted about their star player’s controversial (and perhaps illegal) move to Colombia three years earlier.
Nevertheless, with hard-nosed nationalist Catalan lawyer Ramon Trias Fargas leading the negotiations, Barça embarked upon slow but steady progress with both South American clubs. However they made what appears to have been a fatal error by underestimating Millonarios when they enlisted the help of another Catalan who was living in Colombia, Joan Busquets.
Busquets just happened to be a director of Millonarios’ biggest local rivals, Santa Fe, and his presence at the bargaining table made the Colombian club suddenly reluctant to agree to the move – especially when Barça strangely submitted an almost derisory initial offer, which was promptly rejected.
Apparently believing that Millonarios were irrelevant and that River Plate were the only club they needed to do business with, Barça reacted to having their bid refused by essentially ignoring such an unwanted development.
Instead of taking the rebuffal seriously, they arranged for Di Stefano and his family to leave Colombia and flew them to the north-east of Spain, where he started to settle into life with his ‘new’ club and even played at least one pre-season friendly for Barça in the summer of 1953.
At that point, however, the Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) intervened by refusing to sanction the transfer on the grounds that Millonarios had not agreed to it. The RFEF dismissed Barça’s complaints that the deal had nothing to do with the Colombian club, who the Catalans claimed had signed Di Stefano illicitly in the first place.
Barça refused to budge from their position that they had an agreement with River Plate, who they believed were the legal owners of Di Stefano’s registration.
In the meantime, Real president Santiago Bernabeu had taken advantage of the uncertainty to reach a similar deal with Millonarios. An impasse ensued.
When the RFEF eventually reached its verdict in September 1953, it came to the startling compromise that Di Stefano could play for alternate clubs over the course of four years, starting with a season at Real.
Humiliated Barça president Marti Carreto was forced to resign and the interim board ripped up the contract, freeing Di Stefano to join Real for good on the agreement that Los Blancos paid back to Barça the 4.5 million pesetas fee they had already handed over to River Plate.
The rest, as they say, is history, but plenty of questions remain unanswered. Why did Barça fail to reach a deal with Millonarios? Why did the RFEF refuse to sanction Di Stefano’s transfer when Fifa had already waved it through? And why then did Barça, if they believed in their case, tear up the contract rather than sticking to their guns?
The big underlying question is the extent to which Spain’s ruler, General Franco, was involved.
Throughout the 1950s, Real were regarded by their (many) enemies as Franco’s team or the ‘Regime Team’. Although the extent of the dictator’s meddling in sporting matters has probably been exaggerated, it certainly was true that he had dealings over the years with Real president Bernabeu and occasionally exerted significant influence upon the RFEF.
Any conspiracy theory carries unusual weight from such a politically explosive era. Strange as it sounds, there have even been unproven claims that one or more of Barça’s negotiators were acting as double-agents for Real, deliberately sabotaging the deal to ensure Di Stefano eventually moved to the capital.