Di Stefano: South America's greatest

There is one question that a writer on South American football can never escape: Who was better, Pele or Diego Maradona?

It is not a debate I usually enjoy. The two were obviously extraordinarily gifted players, who gave pleasure to millions and who belong to all humanity. Points can be made in favour of both, without any need for the tone to become adversarial. But all too often the discussion degenerates into an infantile nationalist slanging match. To avoid being involved, I have come out with a defence strategy. Question: Who is the greatest of all time, Pele or Maradona? Answer: Alfredo Di Stefano.

Certainly it is hard to think of any player who proved more influential than Di Stefano. One of the last products of the golden age of Argentine football in the 1940s, he played a major role in getting the professional game in Colombia off the ground -- and then, 60 years ago, he embarked on a process that would transform the global game, and maybe even the political history of Europe.

It was on September 23, 1953, that Di Stefano played his first game for Real Madrid, a friendly against Nancy of France. Real lost 4-2. Long-term, though, they were the big winners.

A couple of years later, the European Cup was launched. We know it now as the Champions League, the foremost competition in the world, where reputations are made and where, according to the players, the standard of the game is highest. It is an unqualified success.

But that was not an inevitable outcome. Back in 1955, when the thing got under way, it was a high-risk endeavour. It was only a decade since Europe had been at war. The process of reconstruction was not yet complete. England, for example, still had not completely eliminated rationing. Feelings of enmity and mistrust abounded. The English FA did not allow Chelsea to compete in the inaugural version.

By 1960, when Real won their fifth consecutive European Cup with a famous 7-3 thrashing of Eintracht Frankfurt, it was a different story. The competition was already intrinsically linked with glamour and excitement -- much of that was down to Real, and in turn, much of that was down to Di Stefano.

He was the conductor of the orchestra, the hub of everything the team sought to do. Bobby Charlton, then a young Manchester United reserve, will never forget the experience of watching Di Stefano from the stands in the 1957 semi-finals. "I thought 'Who is this man?' as he made his early impact on the game. 'He takes the ball from the goalkeeper; he tells the full-backs what to do; wherever he is on the field he is in a position to take the ball; you can see his influence on everything that is happening.' It was pure revelation. Everything seemed to radiate from him. 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."

All around the continent football fans were going through the same epiphany. Everyone wanted to see Real Madrid. Everyone wanted to be Real Madrid. One of the first changes Don Revie made when he took over as manager of Leeds United was to change the club colours to all white, in honour of Di Stefano and his supporting cast. The quality of the spectacle they provided helped cement the European Cup as the pinnacle of the continent's club game -- it even jolted South America into starting an equivalent, the Copa Libertadores, so that its champion could go toe-to-toe with Europe's. The first winners of the new World Club trophy? Di Stefano's Real Madrid.

Europe was changed forever. Some would even argue that the style and success of Real improved the image of Spain on the world stage -- the country was ruled at the time by the fascist dictator Francisco Franco -- and hastened the process by which the country became a mass tourist destination and went on to be reintegrated as a democracy into Western Europe.

Others might say that this would be taking things too far. But the mere existence of the debate is testimony to the footballing genius of Alfredo Di Stefano, and his remarkable journey. After making his mark in his native Argentina and in Colombia, it was 60 years ago that he kicked off the most celebrated phase of a magnificent career.

This article was originally published on September 23, 2013