MADRID (AP) — Alfredo Di Stefano, the player Real Madrid has hailed as the most important component in its mid-20th century ascent to becoming a global football powerhouse, has died. He was 88.
Real Madrid said in a statement that Di Stefano, its honorary president, died on Monday afternoon at Gregorio Maranon hospital, two days after a heart attack.
Di Stefano turned 88 on Friday. The following day, he had a heart attack on a street near Madrid's Santiago Bernabeu Stadium and spent the following days in the hospital.
Renowned for his speed, versatility and strategic grasp of the game, he helped Madrid attain five straight European Champions Cups and was voted European player of the year in 1957 and '59.
In a career spanning five clubs in three countries — Argentina, Colombia and Spain — from 1945-1966, Di Stefano scored 789 goals in 1,090 matches. In the process he claimed top-scorer status once in the Argentine league, twice in Colombia's league and five times in Spain.
Only Raul Gonzalez has scored more goals for Real Madrid than Di Stefano, who is often recognized as the club's first "galactico."
However, as FIFA acknowledges on its official website, "statistics will show that Alfredo Di Stefano is one of the world's greatest ever goal scorers, but the bare facts only tell part of the story."
FIFA president Sepp Blatter said Di Stefano "was my favorite player."
French great Michel Platini, now president of the football's European governing body, said Di Stefano was "superb technically, possessed outstanding speed, and was a splendid goal scorer."
"Together with his gifted teammates, he helped invent modern football."
Those who knew Di Stefano recall a straight-talking character who believed success on the field came through physical effort and dedication.
"I don't want to be idolized, I just want to play. And to do that you have to run and sweat," he said. His modesty in the face of overwhelming sporting success won him the admiration of many.
"I think he was one of the greatest, if not the greatest, football player ever," England great Bobby Charlton said.
Born July 4, 1926, in the Barracas suburb of Buenos Aires, near the port where British sailors introduced football to Argentina, Di Stefano learned the game in what he called "the academy of the streets."
"In our neighborhood we used to hold major football sessions that went on until it got dark, with everyone playing against each other," he said.
"Pope Francis and I went to the same school," Di Stefano said when Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected pontiff, adding the two likely played together as children.
Di Stefano's father, Alfredo, the son of an immigrant from the Italian island of Capri, was a loyal fan of River Plate. De Stefano's mother, Eulalia Laulhe Gilmont, was of French and Irish ancestry.
Having trialed successfully for River Plate, he turned professional in 1945, joining Colombia's Millonarios six years later. He won six league titles for the two clubs.
His turn of speed soon had fans chanting, "Help, here comes the jet-propelled 'blonde arrow,'" ("Saeta Rubia," in Spanish) a nickname Di Stefano retained all his life.
He played in Spain for the first time in 1952 and dazzled the crowd at a tournament commemorating Real Madrid's 50th anniversary, a fateful encounter.
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