“Matches last until the last breath. If the referee doesn’t blow the whistle, you have to go on and on. And the mystique is a bit like that: wanting to win even if they give you up for lost”, said Alfredo Di Stéfano (1926-2014) on his last visit to Buenos Aires, at the end of 2003, at a press conference at the Hilton hotel. He was already grown up, he arrived in his condition honorary president and perpetual emblem of Real Madrid. She came to receive a decoration: that of Distinguished Citizen of the City of Buenos Aires. Deserved, of course, for that kid who was running between the bags of potatoes from his father’s store; in which he shared his childhood with his friends Losada, El Cacho, Capa, there on the corner of Universidad and Suárez, behind the Águila chocolate factory, which is no longer there.
The last Champions League won by Real Madrid is perhaps the perfect demonstration that this mystique exists. That this intangible that seems more typical of a bar truth than a football truth flies over some teams that are friends of the epic. And it is true. There are clubs with mystique. Or cycles with mystique. To cite local cases: Osvaldo Zubeldía’s Estudiantes, Boca with Toto Lorenzo and Carlos Bianchi, Marcelo Gallardo’s current River). But there is a paradigmatic case in the world: Real Madrid, the most successful club of all time.
That winning halo even when everything seems lost was exhibited very clearly in his last conquest. Let’s review his journey: after a predictable group stage (he finished first without trouble against Inter), it was PSG, the one with the millions, the one with the obsession with Big-eared. Lost the first leg in Paris 1-0; in the rematch, at the Bernabéu, he went into the break losing to another goal from an unstoppable Kylian Mbappé; 60 minutes went by and nothing. Then, those who usually dress in white turned it around in a burst that seemed impossible: three goals from Karim Benzema, who is in the best season of his career; towards the Ballon d’Or, in just 17 minutes. Three to one and out one of the candidates.
Karim Benzema and Carlo Ancelotti, two emblems of last season’s successful Real Madrid. Photo: OSCAR DEL POZO / AFP.
continued. Quarterfinals: Chelsea. He won 3-1 in London (with another hat-trick from Benzema). But it got complicated in Madrid: half an hour into the second half, the English won 3-0. But there is no knockout when there is mystique, 10 minutes from the end Rodrygo -one of Carlo Ancelotti’s wild cards- sent the game to extra time. And what happened? Yes, the superhero Karim appeared to lead Real Madrid to the semi-finals and knock out the defending champion.
In the prelude to the final it was his turn Manchester City, another nouveau riche in European football and another hard nut to crack. Pep Guardiola’s men had won 4-3 at home in a game that they should have won by more difference. Real Madrid, however, always managed to stay within range beyond the game process. The rematch, at home, seemed to end the adventure of Ancelotti’s boys. The 90 minutes were already counted and the citizens they won 1-0. Until Rodrygo appeared again from the bank, twice and in another burst, to transform sure elimination into hope. And hope, which is never lost, became qualifying when Benzema, when not, put his signature at 3-1 with a penalty.
There was more, also in the final. Opposite was another team with mystique, Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool, Liverpool, six-time European champion. He suffered throughout the game. They beat him up (24 shots on goal against 4). Thibaut Courtois had a performance of Superman and showed that he is the best goalkeeper in the world. Vinicius’s goal -the coach’s main bet- sentenced the 1-0. That’s how Madrid wins too: stuck against their goal. Champions. The 14, as they call it, is already in the biggest soccer showcase in the world.
Curiosity or not so much: Real Madrid won 14 of the 17 Champions finals. The three he lost were against teams also associated with mystique. The Benfica of the days of Eusebio, the Inter of Helenio Herrera and the Liverpool of the eighties.
Alfredo, the crack that left the legacy
The Blonde Arrow -as they called him; before boy, his nickname was the German– He was in his time for his club -between 1953 and 1964- what Lionel Messi was for Barcelona until a handful of months ago. An invitation to victory and enjoyment. Cristiano Ronaldo? Beyond his stellar numbers, maybe a step below. Styles aside. And discussions, too.
The Alfred of Barracks. The one who had scored his first goals in Huracán, the one who stood out in River, the one that shone as a star in the constellation of the Blue Ballet of Millionaires of Bogotá, in days when Colombian soccer was pure magic. But the masterpiece was missing. Although he was about to move to Barcelona, Real Madrid managed to take him home. And that arrival changed everything forever.
Alfredo Di Stéfano, with the River shirt.
In his eleven seasons with Real Madrid scored 307 goals in 396 matches. On that path he was great, he added titles at every step: eight Leagues and five European Cups in a row, between 1956 and 1960. That team owned everything. He toured Europe knocking down rivals, beating them in every way available (with luxuries or with epic): in those five finals he converted 18 goals and set a record by scoring seven goals (in the 7-3 against Eintracht Frankfurt, in 1960, at Hampden Park in Glasgow, with three goals from Alfredo and four from his perfect partner, Ferenc Puskas).
Mysticism is built, as Di Stéfano pointed out, in the most complicated moments and in the decisive moments. The data that supports Alfredo’s opinion serves: he scored goals in the five consecutive finals that Real Madrid won. And in four of the five big dates he converted the first, which – it is often said – is the most important, the one who opens the games, the one who leads the way.
The leading role of Real de Alfredo continued in Europe, after those successive conquests. Although without so much brightness or feeling of unbeatability. He reached two Champions Cup finals in the following four years. In the first, he lost to Eusebio’s best Benfica of all time -La Pantera de Mozambique, representative of Portugal-; and in the second, he was able to beat Luis Suárez’s granite Inter, the Iniesta of his time, the only Spaniard to win the Ballon d’Or.
Tribute to Alfredo Di Stéfano during a Real Madrid match, at the Santiago Bernabéu stadium. Photo: EFE/Alberto Martin.
The coach was the Argentine Helenio Herrera, creator of that team Nerazzurri and one of the most successful technicians in history. The man had two weaknesses: the Catenaccio and the Don Alfredo game. By way of comparison to another huge footballer, HH used to say: “Pelé is a violin; Di Stéfano, the entire orchestra”.
Not only that, with Alfredo the mystique of Real Madrid was forged, the eternal champion.