It's unfortunate that it can take a great player's death for us to go back and really appreciate what a talent like Alfredo Di Stéfano brought to the sport. That's especially so in America, where the popular notion of soccer involves Brits inventing the game, Pelé and Brazil mastering it, us continuing not to care, and then then a few global icons—Ronaldinho and Beckham then, Cristiano and Messi now—coming around.
Lost in that gross conflation of soccer's rich history are the abilities of a huge number of greats, among whom Di Stéfano is, maybe, tops. We've already touched on the basics of his career, and his stature as the galvanizer of the soccer superclub era for the single embodiment of soccer superclubs, Real Madrid. What can never be overstated is the reason why he was so revered and became an icon on the two most soccer-crazed continents. It came down to his unique, transcendent style of play.
You know when you're watching little kids play basketball—like, really little, second or third graders, big enough to handle the ball a little but too small to shoot outside of about 10 feet? There's always that one kid head and shoulders better than the rest, usually the one with a couple older brothers and the house next to the park, who's been practicing for a while. In games with his peers, his talent is so superior that he pretty much does everything.
On offense, he takes the ball up the court, peers around the floor at the amorphous array of bodies for a teammate to pass to, and often decides to just put his head down and charge into that muck himself, somehow careening out the other side with a neat little layup that no amount of picks or passes could've bettered.
On defense, he's like a one-kid tornado, flying around the floor, always harrying the ball no matter where it goes. It's not a zone or man defense, it's "the good kid guards the kid with the ball, the rest of us make way." It would all be off-putting to the others if it wasn't so obvious that letting him do his thing was their best chance to win.
While no one would claim that Alfredo Di Stéfano—especially not the version that played for the late-'50s, early-'60s Real Madrid juggernaut that was the crux of why the team was named FIFA's Club of the Century—played with a bunch of scrubs not fit to share a pitch with him, that was more or less his style. When he played, he did everything.
The Blond Arrow is most renowned for a goal-scoring prowess that saw him net 418 goals in 510 appearances while at Madrid, but knowing how he scored so much is more important to understanding him than the mere fact itself.
Above is footage from a Barcelona-Real Madrid match in 1960. In that highlight reel, you can see a lot of what made Di Stéfano so unique. (If you're looking for him, he's the burly guy with the blond hair in the number 9 shirt.) He was the team's center forward, but very rarely was he the furthest man on the pitch. Usually, you see him deep in midfield, charging forward with the ball, transitioning from defense to midfield to attack all by himself. He always wanted the ball. One highlight that makes all his compilation videos is when he runs up and takes it away from one of his own teammates.
This video, from the 1957 European Cup semifinal against Manchester United, further exhibits his particular quality. In those days, soccer was a game of space. The WM formation, consisting of three at the back, two in what we'd call defensive midfield, two in attacking midfield, two wingers and a striker was the formation of the day. It required its players to cover lots of ground, which meant there were often huge pockets of space to be found. The next, from the 1960 European Cup final, is much the same.
The basic attacking ethos in that era was to spread everyone out and get the ball to the open man, who would then gobble up as much space as he could before running into a swarm of defenders, then try to find a teammate in another pocket to do it all over again.
This created a game of specialists. You needed a couple quick players to sprint into space and send in crosses from wide, a cadre of men in defense with iron lungs and a willingness to chase after a player in space, a big center forward with a soft touch who could power in those crosses with either a strong header or a perfectly angled flick of the boot, and maybe a couple of guys adept at picking incisive passes to cut through all the bodies in the final third.
Di Stéfano was probably the best on his team at each of those. He was as big as anyone else on the pitch, and athletic enough to corral long balls with the hardest of defenders. He was as agile as any winger, and could dribble past multiple defenders trying to impede his progress towards goal. His stats tell the story of his goal scoring, but even then he was the team's most creative passer, able to snake the ball through the tiniest of openings with each and every part of his foot.
Even with all of the goal scoring and the mazy dribbling and the dropping deep to start attacks and charging back to tackle a ball he'd lost, it was the way he operated in space that was revolutionary. The game in his day was about maximizing the copious amounts of open space that was available; Di Stéfano was at his best in those times when there was practically no space. Foreseeing a future where the dominant defensive strategy would be constant, immediate pressing, Di Stéfano was completely at ease with bodies around him. He could feint this way and that, feather the ball around before leaving the defenders in the dust, or wait until enough defenders are magnetized in his direction to back heel a perfect through ball for Ferenc Puskás to run onto.
Before there was Total Football, there was Alfredo Di Stéfano running up and down the pitch, commanding his entire team from any spot on the entire field back when most were taught to stick to their positions. Before there was the modern focus on first touch and close control, there was Alfredo Di Stéfano cushioning in 50-yard long balls and dribbling amid a fog of defenders, when most were content only to sprint in the clearings. He was a player well ahead of his time, and it was what made him the iconic player of his day, and one of the greatest to step foot on a pitch.