The Di Stéfano affair - once and for all
Now that Di Stéfano has passed away I find myself once again hearing the recurring accusation from Barcelona that he went to Real Madrid in an operation designed to rob Barcelona, as part of a supposed desire on the part of Franco (or the Franco regime) to make the side from the capital the best team in Spain - at the expense of Barcelona.
It’s not true. It’s a snowball that was set rolling in Barcelona on 30 November 1980, following an article by Lluís Permanyer, son of the vice-president of Barcelona at the time the events occurred. This, in my opinion, presented a distorted version of the case.
A tangled case, as half truths tend to be.
To Permanyer’s original article a slew of fantasies have been added, which have only enriched a myth that is easy to believe. The international press have contributed to disseminating the story to the outside world. And it fits in with the idea of a belligerent Franco utterly opposed to Catalonia’s aspirations for independence.
But it didn’t happen like that. Di Stéfano didn’t play for Madrid because the idea occurred to Franco (or his regime). I know it’s hard to ‘dissuade the convinced’, but it seems, to me at least, only fair to try.
It happened like this:
Di Stéfano had fled Buenos Aires side River Plate in August 1949 to play for Millonarios of Bogotá, Colombia. Up to this point all the versions of the story agree. A ‘pirate’ or ‘breakaway’ league had been set up there, signing players from a variety of backgrounds (many from Argentina, but not exclusively), without paying transfer fees.
FIFA reacted by removing the Colombian FA’s association member status. And they placed a prohibition order, which prevented teams from the rest of the world from playing friendly matches against sides from the Colombian pirate league.
The situation wasn’t desirable for FIFA (club football the world over was at risk from a country that wasn’t paying transfer fees) or for the Colombian clubs themselves, who couldn’t bring in any extra income from the international exhibition matches, a means of, at the time (before television and international tournaments), bringing in a lot of cash.
So, in 1951 an agreement, called the ‘Lima Pact’, was reached at a FIFA meeting in the Peruvian capital. Under the pact, it was agreed that ‘fugitive’ players would continue to be owned by their corresponding Colombian clubs until the end of their contract, at which point their rights would revert to their original clubs.
Meanwhile, the Colombian teams couldn’t sell any of the players involved as they didn’t hold rights over them beyond the period of their contract, whilst the ‘clubs of origin’ (as we could call them) had no rights over the player until their contract with the relevant Colombian club had expired.
With this resolved, the Colombian clubs were now able to play friendlies abroad. This allowed Millonarios to go on a tour of Europe, which included taking part in the main activities to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Real Madrid: a triangular round-robin tournament between Madrid, Norrköping and Millonarios. Millonarios won it and Di Stéfano left everyone impressed.
That happened in March 1952.
Bernabéu was fascinated by the player, and was interested in signing him, but Alfonso Sénior, president of Millonarios told him he couldn’t sell him, due to the terms of the Lima Pact. José Samitier, at that time technical secretary of Barça and an extraordinary man in every way (astute, likeable and highly-skilled at personal relations...), was also impressed by the player.
That same summer Real Madrid travelled to Caracas, to the tournament known as the ‘Small World Cup’. There, Madrid and Millonarios played two more matches, which, incidentally, ended up in a brawl. And there was one more game between the two sides, in Bogotá. Whilst the players were fighting on the pitch, the executives were getting friendly in the VIP boxes.
At the end of 1952, after playing friendlies in Chile, Di Stéfano decided to leave Millonarios and stay in Buenos Aires. He was now 26, terrified of flying (a phobia he never overcame) and his father and bought a large ranch where he was expected to lend a hand. He had married his girlfriend from his neighbourhood (they remained together until she died), and had two daughters to look after. He was fed up with the constant stream of exhibition matches with which Millonarios was funding itself.
Before deciding to stay in Buenos Aires he had received an advance of $4,000 on the salary he was due from Millonarios for his contract to the end of 1954. He justified his decision on the grounds that Millonarios had enjoyed his services without having to pay a transfer fee and that they had, over the duration, made his life difficult. Additionally, he’d played outstandingly for Millonarios. He felt he had a right to the money.
Therefore, at the start of 1953, Di Stéfano was in Buenos Aires having decided to retire from football. In principle he had no desire to return to River Plate, where before running off to Colombia he’d had problems, because he’d been one of the most prominent footballers in the players’ strike that had led to a massive defection of players to Colombia.
It was at this time that he received a visit from an envoy from Barcelona: Domingo Vals Taberner y Riera. Barça had discovered that László Kubala had a serious lung condition that had the club fearing for his career. Enric Martí Carreto, club president, charged José Samitier with the search for a star to fill the gaping hole his absence would leave.
Samitier immediately thought of Di Stéfano.
Di Stéfano received Barcelona’s envoys and, after various conversations, encouraged by his father and knowing that in Spain, in general, the side would travel by sleeper trains, decided to accept.
Barcelona paid River Plate four million pesetas and Di Stéfano came to Spain to play for Barcelona. On 22 May 1953, Samitier was waiting for him at Madrid Barajas airport. Di Stéfano arrived with his family. They travelled by road, spending the night in Zaragoza and arrived the day after in Barcelona.
But in the meantime, two things had happened.
1. Kubala had recovered. Barça had once again won the league, and were about to win the cup too.
2. Millonarios President Alfredo Sénior, after hearing about the operation, had complained to FIFA. Sénior, who was an important figure in international football, was right. Di Stéfano belonged to Millonarios up to the end of 1954; only as of January 1955 would he return to being a River player. The rights Barcelona had bought had no effect until then.
Barcelona were taken off guard by this news, because they were still arguing the Kubala case with FIFA. In reality the Spanish Federation was arguing it in their name.
(Anyone interested in this and really wants to know the truth, can read the relevant chapter of my books, Nacidos para incordiarse [Born to squabble])
To summarise, we can say that Kubala, a fugitive from Hungary, was accepted by Spain for his value as anti-communist propaganda. Bernabéu tried to sign him, but the Federation, whose secretary, the esteemed Ricardo Cabot, an important figure in Barcelona, diverted him to Barça. He was first of all camouflaged as an amateur, until he played as a professional. Up to the World Cup in 1954, at the corresponding FIFA Congress, Barcelona didn’t have his international transfer. By that point he’d spent two years playing for Barça as a professional, during which time Barcelona had won the Cup (‘52), League and Cup (‘53), League and Cup (‘54) consecutively. This is possibly the time to say that if there was one player the Franco regime broke its back over it was Kubala, even using him directly as anti-communist propaganda in the film Los Ases Buscan La Paz (The Aces seek peace).
As I say, whoever wants to find out precisely what happened can read the aforementioned chapter.
Di Stéfano arrived in Barcelona. In those early days he was seen alongside Kubala, watching a match which featured España Industrial (later called Condal) - then an affiliated side of Barcelona.
The photographs of Di Stéfano wearing a Barcelona shirt are from that time - one of them, perhaps the most widely-known, shows him squatting alongside Kubala. In another they are pretending to play each other. In a different image the Argentine is seen controlling a ball. They come from an article published in Vida Deportiva (Sporting Life), a magazine of the time. The photos were taken at Les Corts, then Barcelona’s stadium. They don’t relate to any match.
But for Barcelona the signing soon turned into a problem, because FIFA, with whom they were still awaiting the relevant litigation over Kubala, advised the Spanish Federation that Di Stéfano couldn’t play for Barça.
And during that time he didn’t, although it has frequently been maintained that the opposite was the case. He played a few friendlies and testimonial matches later on, as he did with other clubs, which I’ll demonstrate further ahead. It was fairly common practice at the time.
As I was saying, it has frequently been maintained that Di Stéfano played three matches for Barça that summer. That isn’t true. There is no record of those matches. They don’t appear anywhere. Records exists of a few ‘informal’ matches, which I’ll come to later.
Anyone interested can look back over the Mundo Deportivo or La Vanguardia archives (the internet makes it easy nowadays) of those summer months of 1953. If you prefer a quicker option, you can consult the splendid book Barça Eterno by Toni Closas and David Salinas, which covers every match in Barça’s history to an impressive degree of detail.
It’s a truly extraordinary piece of work. A pocket version the size of a cigarette packet – not even that – also exists printed on Bible paper. It’s extremely useful.
Whoever wishes can discover that, after the Copa final (which they won, beating Athletic Club 2-1), Barça played three friendlies that summer: one in Perpignan, another in Manresa and a third in Badalona - on June 25, 28 and 29 respectively. Di Stéfano did not play in any of them.
After that, Barça went to Caracas, Venezuela to play in the ‘Small World Cup’, where they would play against a Caracas XI, Corinthians and Roma. Two matches against each within a round-robin format in which each team met twice (16, 18, 23, 26 and 28 July and 1 August). Before returning, Barça also played against Curaçao on 4 August.
Di Stéfano did not go on that tour. Barça could not take him because he belonged to Millonarios, who had lodged a complaint about the case.
As Barça left for the tour, Martí Carreto declared that he would take advantage of the trip to resolve the ‘Di Stéfano affair’. And true to his word, he called a meeting with Alfonso Sénior, but failed to come to an agreement. Sénior asked for 27,000 dollars, equivalent to 1,350,000 pesetas: a third of the amount Barça had paid to River. Martí Carreto did not consider this reasonable. He felt that Millonarios were looking to pocket an excessive sum of money for a player who was not even available to play for them and who, in effect, had actually left. Carreto told him that, if necessary, he was prepared to leave him inactive for a year and a half, until Millonarios’ period of ownership expired. That’s what he stated publicly, which, quite understandably, didn’t go down at all well with Di Stéfano.
So, talks between Barça and Millonarios inevitably broke down. And it is at this point that Sénior opened talks with Real Madrid, a club he had a good relationship with. And, on the insistence of their assertive vice-president Álvaro Bustamente, Madrid decided to buy Millonarios’ portion of his rights for $27,000. Raimundo Saporta travelled to South America to make the payment.
It is worth making two points here:
1) If Martí Carreto had paid the 27,000 dollars to Millonarios, Di Stéfano would have automatically become a Barça player.
2) Madrid could not exercise their rights to Di Stéfano, because the Lima Pact established that Colombian clubs could not transfer the rights of the players affected by the case, only hold them until their contracts ran their course.
Di Stéfano, therefore, was barred from playing, until at least January 1955.
So what did he do to fill time during that summer of 1953? He grew impatient, restless. To keep him active, Samitier organised three matches for him; the three matches which, it is claimed, he played for Barça that summer, and which he did not. One of the matches was FC Palafrugell versus Barcelona’s amateur side. Di Stéfano played for Palafrugell, not for Barcelona. The photos are below.
Another was a match in El Masnou (which happens to be my mother’s hometown), a match between ‘summer visitors’ and ‘residents’. In publicity hand-outs and posters, Di Stéfano, César Rodríguez and Kubala were given a star billing as the ‘summer visitors’. In the end, Kubala did not appear, I guess so as not to draw too much attention. Di Stéfano was in Barcelona in a semi-clandestine state.
The other match was in Sitges. I haven’t found a photo of it.
The photo that appears below tends to be wielded as proof that Di Stéfano did play for Barcelona, before Francoist greed saw him ‘stolen’ for the benefit of Real Madrid.
However, this photo was taken at a match played two years later, on 12 June 1955, against Vasco da Gama, when Di Stéfano had already played two full seasons at Real Madrid. He appeared in the match, which Kubala missed, as a guest. Barça won 1-0, Isidre Flotats getting the only goal of the game.
Anyone who is in doubt can visit the readily consultable newspaper archives of El Mundo Deportivo or La Vanguardia and look over those days. Or read the book mentioned above compiled by Closas and Salinas.
You need only observe that Di Stéfano is flanked by Ramón Villaverde and Luis Suárez, who were not at Barcelona in the summer of 1953. Suárez arrived at the end of the 1953-54 season, and Villaverde joined for the 1954-55 campaign.
I repeat: Di Stéfano had been playing for Madrid for two years; he had won those first two league titles with the club, something they had not managed since the days of the Second Republic, when they had won the only two championships they had to their name until the genius’s arrival.
That wasn’t the first time that Di Stéfano had played a friendly in Barcelona since signing for Madrid. On 26 January 1955, he had also played a match between the Catalan XI (which, though it might seem strange now, played with some regularity during the Franco regime) against Bologna.
That was the first time that Kubala and Di Stéfano played together, because Di Stéfano had not yet gained Spanish nationality and they had not been able to come together for the national side. The side was made up of players from Espanyol and Barça, topped off with Di Stéfano. Kubala gave up his number nine shirt to Di Stéfano. The forward line was Estanislao Basora, Villaverde, Di Stéfano, Kubala and Dagoberto Moll. The Catalan XI won 6-3. Those who were there remember it as an outstanding match.
By now, I’m sure some will be thinking it’s rather odd that Di Stéfano made those two trips to Barcelona to appear as a ‘home player’. But to understand that, you have to take yourself back to that period. At that time, when fixture lists were less tightly packed and there were greater doses of courtesy, it was quite common for big names to agree to bolster other teams for testimonials or international matches. Today, that sounds odd. Could Lionel Messi play in a friendly for Madrid, or Iker Casillas for Barça?
But, at that time, it was common. Here are a few examples:
Kubala himself played for Real Madrid in Luis Molowny’s testimonial, forming a forward line in which he came together with Di Stéfano. Enrique Collar, Atlético’s glorious left winger, also featured in that attack.
Likewise, Di Stéfano, Molowny and the central defender Oliva pulled on the Atlético strip for Adrián Escudero’s testimonial.
And here we can see Di Stéfano between Arsenio Iglesias and Pahíño at Cuenca’s testimonial in the colours of Deportivo La Coruña.
And, later on, Di Stéfano once again in a Barça kit at Kubala’s testimonial, which was played on 30 August 1961. Kubala, Di Stéfano and Ferenc Puskás appear in the photo below.
I don’t know if it was down to any other intention, but with regularity I see the photo of the first two without Puskás. That was taken during Barça’s epic 4-3 win over Stade de Reims. Featuring in that Stade de Reims team was Lucien Müller, who joined Madrid the following year and then, immediately afterwards, moved to Barça.
But I’ll get back on track. Di Stéfano lived in a flat in Calle Balmes which Barça gave him. On the same road Josep Samitier had an office for the textile business which he had set up with a business partner. To keep himself amused, Di Stéfano would sometimes visit him. The monotony was only broken by the three games he played. The indifference with which he was met in Barça offices didn’t go unnoticed.
Saporta visited him there. He was received with short shrift and Di Stéfano challenged him:
“What do you want?” he asked, “Have you come here to stop me from playing?”
Saporta assured him this was not the case – telling him that they wanted to sign him and needed to convince Barça that what they had bought was in effect the rights from River Plate. As an act of goodwill he advanced him money. By now Di Stéfano’s finances were depleted and he had the added frustration of feeling he was being fobbed off by the club.
As the date for the proceeding neared, the Federation consulted FIFA, who in turn delegated the arbitrage to FIFA committee member and former Spanish Federation president Armando Muñoz Calero. Muñoz Calero was an Atlético man, not a Madridista (he was the Atlético vice-president during the 1970s). Several years earlier, he had also personally taken Kubala to his home village of Águilas in Murcia to be baptised – a prerequisite for obtaining Spanish nationality.
And so Muñoz Calero was chosen to judge the case. FIFA had proposed that Di Stéfano would combine careers at both clubs - playing his first and third seasons (53-54 and 55-56) at Real Madrid, and his second and fourth (54-55 and 56-57) with Barça; not two seasons with one club followed by two at the other as might have been the arrangement.
In the meantime, there were further complications – a new cut-off date had been set by the National Sports Council, which prohibited the transfer of foreign players after 24 August.
Barça nevertheless decided to launch one final attempt through Sénior, who was in Madrid. It was vice-president Narciso de Carreras, rather than Martí Carreto (who had a poor relationship with Sénior) who travelled to Madrid in attempt to seal the operation once and for all. But Barça failed to sway Sénior, who insisted that he had sold his part to Madrid and that he did not want to reopen the debate.
Marti Carreto then tried to sell his part to Juventus who, sensing future problems, refused to accept. The Italians were not interested in a player who had been inactive for more than a year and a half. He then attempted to re-sell the rights to River, who also declined. Both of those underhand manoeuvres were conducted without Di Stéfano’s knowledge or consideration; that irritated him, and as a result, he became far more inclined towards joining Madrid.
In the end Barça agreed to Muñoz Calero’s proposal and both clubs signed the pact. At the same time, they made a plea to the National Sports Council through General Moscardó, requesting that the deadline for signing foreign players might be extended so that the dispute, which by then was fast becoming a national problem, could be resolved one and for all.
Martí Carreto and Narcisco de Carreros both separately told me that they were pressured into accepting the agreement. I believe them. The Federation envisaged a battle with FIFA, because the dispute between the two Spanish clubs was preventing a player from playing at the same time as the Spanish Federation was insisting that FIFA obtained the transfer of Kubala from their Hungarian counterparts.
Neither of them spoke about personal threats. Martí Carreto told me that it was insinuated that he wouldn’t have it easy with Foreign Exchange when taking his business dealings abroad. Narciso de Carreras told me that he felt spied upon when he was at the Palace. It’s feasible, but more than anything I think that was on Madrid’s part.
In any case, Martí Carreto’s manoeuvre of trying to get rid of Di Stéfano by sending him to Juve or selling his rights back to River Plate didn’t help.
Moscardó travelled to Pazo de Meirás, where the Spanish cabinet had convened to consult his superior, the Minister General Secretary for the Movement, Fernández Cuesta. The trip is what makes a lot of people directly associate Franco with the subject. The mention of General Moscardó’s involvement doesn’t help, it has to be said. But at that time he was the National Minister for Sport, and he travelled to obtain the authorisation to change a decree.
This authorisation was not exactly for Di Stéfano being allowed to play for Madrid, but for him to be allowed to play for a year with Madrid, then for Barcelona, back to Madrid and finally his fourth season in Spain at Barça again.
On 19 September, after gaining the corresponding authorisation, the National Sports Council permitted all foreign signings that had been arranged before 22 August. With this new ruling, in addition to Di Stéfano, Dutch player Faas Wilkes joined Valencia, Chilean Andrés Prieto signed for Espanyol and Frenchman Charles Ducasse was able to play for Valladolid.
Martí Carreto, unhappy with what had transpired, stepped down. Barça named Agustin Montal senior to take charge as interim president until Francesc Miró-Sans’s re-election.
Di Stéfano’s signing was presented to the Federation on 22 September. The next day he played in a friendly against Nancy. Madrid lost 2-4. In minute number 67 he scored his first goal as a Madrid player. This match is remembered for a spectacular photo taken by a Chilean photographer. Note the black socks. The white ones didn’t come until later, with the European Cup and night-time midweek games.
On Sunday 27 he made his league debut against Racing.
Following the fifth round of games Madrid were two points ahead of Barcelona. In week six, the two sides were to meet at Chamartín (as the stadium was known before it was given Santiago Bernabéu’s name). And it was this week that Barça decided to sell their part of Di Stéfano to the Whites: “Per vosaltres el pollastre” (“you lot can have the chicken”). They were not happy at having to share a player - especially not with Madrid. Before the match between the clubs played on 25 October, a document was signed, with Madrid paying Barça four million pesetas (the fee the Catalans had paid River), plus interest..
From this moment, Di Stéfano was exclusively Madrid’s. The Whites won the match 5-0.
Everybody knows what came next: the league title (their first since the Civil War), then five consecutive European Cups... Madrid had been transformed.
That was the long and short of the matter – if you choose to believe my account. Madrid had the patience to get their man.
Barcelona tell it in a different way, which to me seems far from the truth. If Martí Carreto were to have paid Sénior the amount that he wanted, Di Stéfano would have been Barça’s.
If Franco were to have been so determined in making Madrid a force to be reckoned with, he would have started doing so much earlier; I say. For when all of this happened, Madrid hadn’t even won a single league since before the Civil War -and the two they had won were lifted during the Second Spanish Republic. After the war, Madrid found themselves up against stiff competition from many teams, including in their own city, Atlético Aviación, a fusion of Atlético Madrid and the military Aviación side, created during the war to play exhibition games with proper players or talented soldiers. Atlético Aviación won the first two post-war leagues. The period during the 1940s is the only time during Madrid’s history when they played second fiddle to their city rivals. And they were also below Barcelona, Athletic Club and even Valencia.
The 1940s, years when the country was under the iron fist of Franco’s rule, were the worst years in Madrid’s history.
That all changed forever after Di Stéfano arrived. By the 1960s, Madrid were well-established and had now been converted, de facto, into a tool of the State. And that is the perception that many still have today. They sometimes abused their privileged status but it that was something which occurred in the 1960s, not before - and as a consequence of what Di Stéfano did for the team. Their special status was not initiated by the long arm of the State, but in fact by Bernabéu’s sheer tenacity, together with Di Stéfano’s extraordinary ability.