MADRID (AFP) – Real Madrid legend Alfredo di Stefano, one of the greatest footballers ever, died in a Spanish hospital on Monday aged 88, drawing sad tributes from around the sporting world.
A hero of the all-conquering Real sides of the 1950s and 1960s, the striker known as the “Blonde Arrow” is ranked alongside Pele, Maradona and Johan Cruyff — though unlike them he missed out on World Cup glory.
Announcing his death on Monday, Real Madrid called the Argentine-born Di Stefano, its honorary club president, simply “the best player of all time”.
He had gone into a coma after suffering a heart attack on Saturday at a restaurant near Real’s Santiago Bernabeu stadium.
“Alfredo Di Stefano died today at 5:15 pm” (1515 GMT) at the Gregorio Maranon hospital in the Spanish capital, Real Madrid said in a statement on Monday.
Club president Florentino Perez and the board “express their deepest condolences and all their love and affection to his children, his family and friends,” it added.
“Real Madrid extends its condolences to its fans around the world and to those who are feeling the emotion of losing the best player of all time.”
On Saturday, newspaper El Pais said Di Stefano had been eating with his family when he felt ill and sat down in his wheelchair. By the time an ambulance arrived he was in cardiorespiratory arrest.
Di Stefano had previously been hospitalised for similar episodes and underwent emergency quadruple heart by-pass surgery after a heart attack in 2005.
– Real Madrid legend –
A player capable of disorienting dribbles, pinpoint passes and a lethal threat in front of goal, Di Stefano combined exquisite technical ability with tactical nous and an irrepressible spirit.
He was a two-time European Football of the Year in 1957 and 1959, but never made it to the finals of a World Cup.
Argentina didn’t play in the 1950 and 1954 finals and having obtained Spanish citizenship in 1956 Di Stefano missed out on the 1958 finals as Spain failed to qualify.
Spain reached the 1962 tournament in Chile but injury prevented Di Stefano, then aged 35, from taking part.
He was one of Real Madrid’s most celebrated players, however, representing the club for 11 seasons between 1953 and 1964, winning five European Cups.
Di Stefano was born in Buenos Aires and began his professional career with hometown club River Plate in 1945 before leaving for Colombian outfit Millonarios four years later.
He won three Colombian titles and his individual displays attracted the attention of various big European clubs.
After a long transfer wrangle with Barcelona, it was their rivals Real Madrid who won the race for Di Stefano’s signature.
He helped Real Madrid end a 21-year wait for the league title in his first season and added a further seven league crowns while at the club.
However, it was on the European stage that Di Stefano truly cemented his status as one of the game’s greats.
He helped Real win the first five editions of the European Cup between 1956 and 1960, a record that stands to this day.
– Tributes to a ‘great’ –
Tributes and condolences poured in on Monday from sporting personalities around the world and clubs including Barcelona, which wrote “Rest in peace” on Twitter.
Spain’s national coach Vicente del Bosque paid tribute to Di Stefano, who played 31 matches and scored 23 goals for Spain.
“I had him as a trainer in the last stage of my career. I knew him well, so of course I am extremely sorry to lose him,” Del Bosque said in a statement published by the national team.
Former Real Madrid striker Gonzalo Higuain, who scored Argentina’s goal in their 1-0 World Cup quarter-finals win over Belgium on Saturday, said on Twitter: “A great one has left us. Thanks for everything.”