The last post I wrote for Quote Collections, a series of articles that scour the far corners of the internet and my personal collection of football books — including the highly recommended Soccer Men: Profiles of the Rogues, Geniuses, and Neurotics who Dominate the World’s Most Popular Sport, by Simon Kuper of Soccernomics fame — to compile and constantly update a thorough list of the most insightful quotes by iconic figures from the football community past and present on some of the greatest players to have played The Beautiful Game, was about the fallen Manchester United hero, Duncan Edwards (read it for some delightful anecdotes about what those close to Edwards said about him, and how to play against him). Now, those who were lucky to watch Edwards during the 195 senior appearances he made for United and England swear by his ability to play in just about every position on the field, and at a consistently high level. Sir Bobby Charlton, a close friend and team-mate of Edwards, has never ceased to wax lyrical about his ability to switch between defensive and attacking duties, and his awesome physical attributes. There is enough evidence, both visual and textual, to suggest that, had Edwards been allowed to have a full career and life, he would now be known as one of the most complete players in the history of the game.
However, if we restrict ourselves to those legends of the game who had full careers, there are but a handful of names that come up in a discussion of the most physically, technically, and tactically complete players of all time. From this generation, Cristiano Ronaldo certainly stands out as the perfect physical specimen, and boasts incredible technical attributes as well. Sir Alex Ferguson had this to say about the player he signed in 2003: “His speed with the ball, either foot, manipulating it, making decisions in and outside a full-back, playing it in, moving to another position, and done at speed; everything done at great speed. That was the thing that made me sit up.”
Another, all-too-familiar name when it comes to the greats of the game is Edson Arantes do Nascimento, or Pele, as we all know him. World Cup-winning England captain Bobby Moore said of the Brazilian forward: “Pele was the most complete player I’ve ever seen. He had everything. Two good feet. Magic in the air. Quick. Powerful. Could beat people with skill. Could outrun people. Only 5ft 8in tall, yet he seemed a giant of an athlete on the pitch. Perfect balance and impossible vision. He was the greatest because he could do anything and everything on a football pitch. I remember Saldhana the coach being asked by a Brazilian journalist who was the best goalkeeper in his squad. He said Pele. The man could play in any position.”
Now, you would think it impossible that any player could have possessed a more perfect combination of these attributes than the likes of Edwards, Ronaldo, and Pele. However, this is where the subject of this article enters the picture. Alfredo di Stefano, the Blonde Arrow, is considered by some to be the greatest Argentinian footballer ever, surpassing even Messi and Maradona, but is considered by many more to be the most perfect player ever to have graced a football pitch. I have been enthralled with his career — perhaps a story for another article; in fact, I am planning to write one that considers the implications of one of Don di Stefano’s career choices — ever since I watched highlights of his performance in the famed clash between Real Madrid and Eintracht Frankfurt in the final of the 1960 European Cup (a lesson in elegance and technical perfection that could only have been offered by two players, the second being Zidane), and have been wanting to write this article for some time. Given his illustrious playing career and the lasting nature of his contributions to Real Madrid’s legacy, there has been no end to the praise Alfredo di Stefano has received. Without any further ado, let’s read some of the things that fellow legends of the game have had to say about the great Don. I should note, though, that I will make an exception in this article, and add quotes from famous journalists as well, mainly because their eloquence comes close to capturing di Stefano’s brilliance in ways admiration from players cannot, but also because — as with players of his generation — there is far too little on the Internet to do justice to his genius.
“He was the brainiest player I ever saw, and he oozed effort and courage. He was an inspiring leader and the perfect example to others.” — Sir Bobby Charlton
“Who is this man? He takes the ball from the goalkeeper; he tells the full-backs what to do; wherever he is on the field he is in position to take the ball; you can see his influence on everything that is happening… I had never seen such a complete footballer. It was as though he had set up his own command centre at the heart of the game. He was as strong as he was subtle. The combination of qualities was mesmerising.” — Sir Bobby Charlton, on watching di Stefano in the first leg of the Real Madrid-Man United semi-final of the 1956-57 European Cup.
“He was the most intelligent player ever. The first time I saw him, I was watching from up in the stands in the Bernabeu stadium when Man United played them in the old European Cup, and I couldn’t take my eyes off this guy. I’d never seen anyone so good. He would release players with amazing defence-splitting passes, and he scored so many goals. Di Stefano also commanded so much respect: he led with authority.” — Sir Bobby Charlton
“He totally controlled the game. You looked at him and asked yourself: ‘how can I possibly stop him?’” — Sir Bobby Charlton
“As one of the stars of the legendary Real Madrid team, I think Alfredo was one of the best players I ever came across and an extremely intelligent footballer.” — Sir Bobby Charlton
“In Madrid, the field at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium leans to the left because Alfredo di Stefano had played so much on this side.” — The Spanish Press
“He brought to Europe a tango made of perfect technique and terrifying acceleration.” — Michel Platini
“He won everyone’s hearts with his brilliance as part of the legendary Real Madrid team. Together with his gifted teammates, he helped invent modern football. He embodied all that is magical about football.” — Michel Platini
“The history of football simply cannot be imagined without Don Alfredo’s extraordinary presence.” — Michel Platini
Listen to what Sir Alex Ferguson had to say about watching di Stefano and his Real Madrid side dismantle Eintracht Frankfurt in one of the greatest games in the history of European football, and about the technique, vision, and elegance that placed him next to the likes of Pele, Maradona, Cruyff and others.
“He had a fantastic balance and poise. If you look at one of the goals he scored in the final against Eintracht Frankfurt it was completely what we are saying about the balance and poise, unbelievable he was.” — Sir Alex Ferguson
“di Stefano. My hero. For me, he was the most complete footballer in history. That’s my opinion” — Eusebio
“The best. Tall, quick, agile, energetic, skilful, a great finisher. Great with his feet and his head.” — Eusebio
“I’m not going to sit on the fence. In my opinion, one player was the most complete: Alfredo Di Stefano. [ . . . ] Di Stefano had it all.” — Eusebio
“For me the two best players were Alfredo and Pele. [ . . . ] He attacked, he defended, he passed the ball, he fought hard and did all of that in a career that lasted over 20 years. He had everything.” — Just Fontaine
“If Di Stefano had played at the World Cup, he would be recognised as the white Pele.” — Just Fontaine
“He had it all,” said Fontaine. “He was quick, technically gifted, good in the air, a goalscorer, an organiser and a respected leader.” — Just Fontaine
“The greatness of Di Stéfano was that, with him in your side, you had two players in every position.” — Miguel Munoz, di Stefano’s manager at Real Madrid
“One of things that made him remarkable was his elegance, his lightness of touch, his ability to play all over the pitch. He’s known as the first modern footballer or the first total footballer because he could play every position.” — Marcela Mora y Araujo, journalist who interviewed di Stefano on many occasions
“Di Stefano was the most important player in the history of Real Madrid and the best footballer of all time.” — Florentino Perez
“He could defend. He could attack. He could run, he could head the ball and use both right and left feet. He could play all over the pitch. He was the most complete player ever, something I’ve never seen anywhere else, and I’ve seen a lot of players.” — Jose Santamaria, former Real Madrid defender and di Stefano’s team-mate
“I think he played an important part in changing the technique of South American football. [ . . . ] River Plate’s style was based on touch and dribbling, whereas Alfredo’s football was based on speed and quick moves, and, in my opinion, he quickly became, without a doubt, the most accomplished player in the history of the game.” — Jose Santamaria
“He had an effect, both on and off the pitch. On the pitch, because he was everywhere. There wasn’t a particular area where he liked to play. Off the pitch, he showed, like no one else, how much he respected and loved the image of Real Madrid, and he transmitted that sense of respect to all his team-mates.” — Jose Santamaria
“He revolutionised forward play by his box-to-box mobility, his willingness to tackle back and his mastery of the attacking arts – shooting, close control, heading power and an eye for the most telling pass. A perfect footballer.” — Mike Langley, journalist
“For me he was a master, he taught me a lot of things. [ . . . ] He wasn’t just a great as a player, but as a person too. As a person he was phenomenal.” — Diego Maradona
“He was my favourite player, and what I most loved about Di Stefano was everything he did he did for the team.” — Johan Cruyff
“Alfredo Di Stéfano was the greatest footballer of all time – far better even thanPelé. He was, simultaneously, the anchor in defence, the playmaker in midfield, and the most dangerous marksman in attack.” — Helenio Herrera
“If Pele was the lead violinist, Di Stefano was the entire orchestra.” — Helenio Herrera
“Di Stefano turned still photographs into the cinema.” — Arrigo Sacchi
“No other player so effectively combined individual expertise with an all-embracing ability to organize a team to play to his command. He was “total soccer” personified before the term had been invented. Di Stéfano remains to many of us the Greatest Footballer of All Time.” — Keir Radnedge, editor of the World Soccer magazine, and a highly respected football journalist
The greatest all-round player of them all, he was a revelation in his inexhaustible ability to be everywhere on the field, scoring a goal one minute, making a crucial defensive play the next, always at the heart of the game.” — Paul Gardner, an American writer and commentator
“To his strength, stamina and electric change of pace, di Stefano allied superb ball control on which he put a premiusm. He scored goals in superabundance, yet made so many for others. If there was a King in the European Cup, it was surely Alfredo di Stefano.” — Brian Glanville, famous football writer
“Di Stéfano was a great player and saw things others didn’t see. He knew the game back to front and was always physically and mentally well-prepared. Di Stéfano ranks among the greatest players for me.” — Ferenc Puskas
“You could say that Alfredo di Stefano incarnates Real (Madrid). After a defeat it was best not to look at Alfredo, because his eyes would be spitting fire. When things were going badly, he’d forget about beauty and just pursue the result. Everything that has happened at the club (Real Madrid), in one way or another, has been influenced by the spirit of di Stefano.” — Jorge Valdano
“Today, the openness between Latin American players and European clubs is very much due to the work of Alfredo Di Stefano. He was a trailblazer, and most of all, he was a legend of the game.” — Pele
I haven’t ended one of these quote collections with a quote from the subject himself, but while searching for praise di Stefano has received, I came across a sentence attributed to the great man himself, and can think of no better way to end an article about the most complete footballer the world has ever seen.
“We are all footballers, and as such should be able to perform competently in all 11 positions.”
— Don Alfredo di Stefano
Elegantly, almost economically, understated. Yet devastatingly effective.