Alfredo Di Stefano, Ferenc Puskas and Lev Yashin were among the names left trailing in the wake of Barcelona and Spain’s Luis Suarez when he orchestrated his way to the Ballon d’Or in 1960. Suarez was the hub of an exceptionally talented Spanish generation and his nimble feet, slight frame and receding hairline makes Andres Iniesta appear a carbon copy half a century later. A classic creative No 10, El Arquitecto dictated from deep to feed the titillating trio of Francisco Gento, Ladislao Kubala and Di Stefano.
As a result of General Franco’s refusal to allow the team to travel to Soviet Union for a two-legged qualifier, La Roja were absent from the inaugural European Nations Cup in 1960. Spain’s loss was the Russians’ gain as they were crowned continental champions the following summer. The two were widely regarded as the strongest in Europe and would eventually meet in the final of the tournament four years later where a Suarez-inspired Spain were victorious.
On the club scene, 1959-60 season was a memorable campaign in both the Primera Division and in European competition. Under the stewardship of ahead-of-his-time Helenio Herrera, Suarez blossomed in Europe as Barcelona eviscerated both the English and Italian champions in Wolves and Milan 9-2 and 7- 1 respectively on aggregate, with the Coach’s famous catennacio style nowhere to be seen. A semi-final showdown with Real Madrid awaited, but Los Blancos were too clinical for their Catalan counterparts, winning 3-1 home and away.
However, Barca gained revenge by edging Madrid to the domestic title on goal difference. The scale of their achievement was highlighted when Di Stefano and Puskas combined to produce a performance for the ages by demolishing Eintracht Frankfurt at Hampden Park in the European Cup Final.
Unbeaten in the competition since its inception in 1955, the second round draw for the 1960-61 European Cup paired Madrid with Spanish champions Barcelona. In the Bernabeu, Madrid led twice through Enrique Mateos and Gento, but both times were pegged back by the talismanic inside-left Suarez. The 88th-minute penalty he cooly dispatched in front of 84,000 was testament to the then 25-year-old’s capacity to perform under pressure. La Blaugrana followed up their away draw with a 2-1 victory at Camp Nou. In effect Suarez brought to an end one era of European dominance before soon going on to instigate one of his own with Herrera, as part of La Grande Inter.
In Herrera, Suarez benefited from a Coach whose professionalism and discipline ensured that his playmaker would not become victim to the alcohol-related issues that curtailed the careers of many of his peers, such as Kubala, Garrincha and Puskas. It remains a tribute to his ability that, despite the rich talent pool that has flowed out of his country, Suarez remains the only Spaniard to have won the Ballon d’Or.