MADRID (AP) — Tributes flowed as quickly as the news of Alfredo Di Stefano's death spread across continents, with Pele joining modern stars Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi among the thousands praising the Real Madrid great as a luminary of the game.
Di Stefano, the Argentine forward who helped lead Madrid in its glorious era in the 1950s and 60s, passed away on Monday aged 88, two days after he was hospitalized following a heart attack.
"Don Alfredo leaves us, but his memory will last forever in our hearts," Real Madrid star Ronaldo wrote on Twitter. "Legends never die. Thanks for everything Maestro."
Messi, the Barcelona star who is in Brazil preparing to lead Argentina into the World Cup semifinals against Netherlands, said: "The world lost a legend today, Don Alfredo Di Stefano."
"An amazing man on and off the field," Messi added in a Facebook post. "My thoughts are with his family and friends."
Pele posted a tribute on Twitter from Brazil, saying the "the openness between Latin American players and European clubs is very much due to the work of Alfredo Di Stefano."
"He was a trailblazer, and most of all, he was a legend of the game. God rest his soul."
Football's official hierarchy responded swiftly to note Di Stefano's contribution to the game, with FIFA president Sepp Blatter describing him as his "favorite player" and "the most complete player I've seen."
French great and European football chief Michel Platini praised Di Stefano for revolutionizing football.
"He won everyone's hearts with his brilliance as part of the legendary Real Madrid team that left its indelible mark on European football," Platini said. "He was superb technically, possessed outstanding speed, and was a splendid goal scorer.
"Together with his gifted teammates, he helped invent modern football. He embodied all that is magical about football, in Europe and across the world."
In a club that has been home to some of the world's leading players, Madrid's club website trumpeted Di Stefano as "the best player of all time," putting him above other leading players and "galaticos" to have donned Madrid's all-white uniform, which include Ferenc Puskas, Raul Gonzalez, and Zinedine Zidane among others.
Dubbed "La Saeta Rubia" — or 'The Blonde Arrow' — for his speed, Di Stefano helped Madrid win five straight European club titles from 1956-60, and eight Spanish league titles. He was voted European player of the year in 1957 and '59 and named Real Madrid's honorary president in 2000.
The club's president Florentino Perez said "Real Madrid's best player has left us."
"He changed the history of this club and the history of football as well," Perez said. "He helped transform this club into the biggest sporting institution in the world."
Spain coach Vicente del Bosque recalled playing for Di Stefano after he returned to coach Madrid.
"I had him as a coach at the end of my playing career," he said. "I knew him well and of course I lament his passing away very much."
Jose Emilio Santamaria, 84, played with Di Stefano and described him as " the most complete football player of all time."
Barcelona, Madrid's arch rival which came close to luring Di Stefano when he moved to Spain, joined other clubs in expressing its sympathies.
"With the farewell of Di Stefano, one of the greats in the history of football has gone," Barcelona president Josep Bartomeu said.
Di Stefano played for Argentina and Spain, but fate conspired against him playing at the World Cup.
The Argentine FA said its president, Julio Grondona, "is deeply affected by the passing of this icon of world football."
Former Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson told Sky Sports News that Di Stefano was among the greatest players of all time due to his balance and poise — "unbelievable he was."
"I was very sad to hear the news. Even at 88 it is a bit of a shock," Ferguson said.
Madrid said Di Stefano would lie in repose at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium on Tuesday for mourners who wish to pay their final respects.
"This stadium was his workplace and his home," Perez said. "On the express wish of his family we will give him the great homage that he deserves."