The fight for di Stefano: How one transfer changed the course of European football history

The year is 1953. Barcelona is coming off of two consecutive league titles, adding up to five in total. Real Madrid only won two league titles in its history, both of them coming 20 years ago. In reality, Real Madrid was nowhere near the prestigious club that it is today. However, one signing changed the course of European footballing history for good.

1950s were a different time in Spain. Franco ruled the state since the end of civil war in 1939. The “White Terror” in Spain ended a few years ago, where Franco purged the “enemies of the state” or basically anyone who didn’t agree with his regime. This goes without saying, but repression and fear were engraved in the hearts of Spaniards. Same goes for football clubs who were, for example, forced to change club names from their regional language to Spanish (i.e. Athletic Bilbao became Atlético Bilbao). 

Alfredo di Stefano was a player under contract with River Plate. The Argentine was loaned out to Colombian club Millonaros. Both Barcelona and Real Madrid knew how good he was, so wanted di Stefano, and they wanted him bad.

The Catalonians struck first. They made a deal with River Plate, the original owners of di Stefano’s contract. As you can expect, Real Madrid made a deal with Millonaros, the team di Stefano was loaned to. What happened after is a saga covered in mistery and narratives from both sides, and the absolute truth will probably never see the light.

Di Stefano was bound to go back to River Plate in 1954. With di Stefano dissatisfied, he left Millonaros earlier and went directly to Barcelona. There, he participated in Barcelona’s training sessions and even played a couple of friendlies. Safe to say that the team with Kubala and di Stefano would be an unstoppable force. But it wasn’t meant to be. After a bunch of legal complexities, the Spanish government came to a conclusion. Very simple, weird and unorthodox conclusion – each team will have di Stefano for a year at a time.

Kubala and di Stefano in Barcelona shirts
Kubala and di Stefano together in Barcelona shirts

Obviously, neither Barcelona, Real Madrid or di Stefano are happy with the solution. At this point, Barcelona was closer to getting the deal done. They only needed one side, Millonaros, to agree. However, Bernabeu (Real Madrid president at the time) instructed his negotiators to tell Millonaros that any offer from Barcelona will be topped by Real Madrid. The stalemate was on, and both teams didn’t want to renounce their rights. In the aftermath of this, there’s a sheet of mystery covering the actual events.

Given that Spain was a centralized dictatorship, Barcelona was always looked upon as the natural enemy, even with the government picking the management in Barcelona board – there was always a hint of suspicion. There were numerous report of Barcelona president at the time, Enric Marti, receiving all sorts of threats and pressure from the above in order for Barcelona to renounce their rights to di Stefano. Even di Stefano confirmed that he heard those rumors at the time. Another factor adding into this is the fact that Marti stepped down as the president only a year after becoming one (1952-1953).

The whole di Stefano case was a mess and only added the fuel to the fire of those saying that Real Madrid was Franco’s club. The truth isn’t so simple; regime didn’t favor Madrid up until this point, and securing the rights of di Stefano to Real Madrid could be attributed solely to the fact that Real was a club from the capital – Barcelona was not.

As for di Stefano himself, he didn’t care much. As di Stefano said himself, he didn’t care who he was gonna play for, he just wanted to play.

The di Stefano transfer saga also shows just how much of an impact a player can make. Barcelona was the more successful club up until 1953 because they had Laszlo Kubala playing for them. Real Madrid became the most successful club in the 20th century because of di Stefano, with Barcelona trailing behind by a long margin. The roles were only reverted at the beginning of the 21st century with Barcelona signing Ronaldinho, who was succeeded by Messi.

There are these small fights being fought between big clubs all the time – Barcelona had the opportunity to sign Asensio before he exploded at Real Madrid. Real Madrid went all-in to get Barcelona’s 16-year old wonderkid Ansu Fati. Obviously, some of them aren’t as low-key given that Neymar saga took all the headlines in Spain this summer (and will continue to do so). It’s fascinating to see just how big of an impact a sheet of paper with a signature can make.

A lot of insight for this post was inspired by Sid Lowe’s excellent book about Barcelona and Real Madrid rivalry – Fear and Loathing in La Liga.