In 2005, the Real Madrid in-house television channel sent a crew to Santos, Brazil, to film an interview with the star they had just signed. The youngster who had spearheaded the club to its first title since the Pele era was, somewhat inevitably, being labelled The Next Pele.
Yet when the TV crew sat down with Ramos Delgado, who had played alongside Pele and was in charge of the Santos youth team set up, he paused when teed up for the question about Pele and Robinho. “Pele was a true great, an incredible player, but there was never anyone like Don Alfredo,” he said, before adding with the camera still rolling: “by the way, send Alfredo my regards.”
There were no comparisons between Pele and Robinho on tape, nor, as it would later transpire, would there be on the pitch. But the interview did touch on Real Madrid’s second favourite topic after the club’s latest star signing – one of the great players from the club’s sprint start in the incipient European Cup.
In an era when the Copa del Rey was still the Copa del Generalisimo, and from where goals are missing from the archive material of the European Cup finals, there was no constant outpouring of statistical analysis, not to mention few replays available. So there is perhaps little tangible evidence to back up what many people believe and still say – that in a spectacular team including Puskas, Kopa and Gento, the star was Alfredo Di Stefano, who had become known as La Saeta Rubia – The Blond Arrow.
In 1956, Di Stefano was second in the inaugural Ballon d’Or, three votes behind Sir Stanley Matthews. The following year, the Argentine won the prize with 72 points, some way ahead of the second placed Billy Wright on 19 votes.
In 1957, Di Stefano won his third Pichichi trophy since arriving in Spain, scoring 31 goals in 30 games. He had already taken League top-scorer awards in Argentina and Colombia before arriving in Madrid. On the continental stage, Real Madrid won their second consecutive European title. As the history books show, they would go on to win the following three, and Di Stefano was the only player to score in every single final, culminating the series with a hat-trick, combining with Puskas’ four goals, in the 7-3 rout of Eintracht Frankfurt.
For many years, Di Stefano was the alternative response to the ‘Maradona or Pele?’ question. Given what is happening in Barcelona, perhaps that debate is becoming redundant. Yet before the emergence of Leo Messi, Di Stefano would answer that particular question by saying that the greatest players he ever saw were Munoz, Moreno, Pedernera, Labruna, Loustau. He was reciting the front line of River Plate’s La Maquina, one of the precursors of total football, and the front line which he himself formed part of when that attacking five was slowly dismantled.
Ramos Delgado faced Di Stefano when Santos played River Plate, and as centre-back was charged with responsibility to keep his compatriot quiet. He said Don Alfredo was impossible to mark. He was everywhere, and possessed perfect technique. The Blond Arrow was the complete footballer, and played total football. Historical comparisons between players from different eras are troublesome, at best, yet many of Di Stefano’s contemporaries have no doubt over who they consider was the greatest player of all time.