Tuesday night in the Copa Argentina saw two sides with proud achievements in Argentine football come together, as Primera División Quilmes beat Primera C side Ferrocarril Midland 3-1 to advance. Quilmes were the first criollo team (that is, a side made up of locals) to win the Argentine championship, back in 1912, after it had been dominated for its first two decades by teams founded by and largely made up of British expatriates. Midland have spent most of their history between the divisions now known as Primera C and D (the fourth and fifth tiers of the Argentine pyramid), but their most well-known distinction is going 50 games unbeaten (a mark they reached in 1989) – a South American record at any level. Less well-known, though, is that at his peak, between his legendary spells at Millonarios of Colombia and Real Madrid in Spain, Alfredo Di Stéfano turned out for them. What follows is the story of how that happened.
Di Stéfano started out at River Plate, but after breaking into their first team during one of the club’s golden eras, he – like many other Argentine players and indeed those from other countries, including even a few Englishmen – moved to Colombia to take advantage of the fat contracts being offered by Colombian clubs. At the time, Colombia was operating outside the auspices of FIFA, meaning the country’s clubs were able to poach players from abroad without having to pay transfer fees, and the Colombian league was in an era remembered today as El Dorado.
If you’ve read a lot about Di Stéfano, you might be aware that when he moved to Spain, there was a huge debate about whether he had actually been signed by Real Madrid (who had negotiated with Millonarios to buy his contract out) or by Barcelona (who had negotiated with River Plate, who of course still held his registration with FIFA). At one point, the suggestion was floated by the RFEF (Real Federación Española de Fútbol, the Spanish FA) that Di Stéfano could play four seasons in Spain; one for Barcelona, one for Madrid, then one for Barcelona, then one for Madrid, at which point Barça realised it had all got a bit silly, and told Madrid they could just have him.
When the Madrid transfer eventually went through, though, FIFA made clear Di Stéfano wouldn’t simply be able to move to Spain and start playing right away – he’d have to wait before his transfer could be cleared. As a result, records of Di Stéfano’s career don’t show any matches played between his farewell game for Millonarios, a friendly against Rapid Vienna on the 19th February 1953, and the 23rd September that same year, when he made his Real Madrid debut against French side Nancy (the game ended in a 4-2 defeat for Madrid).
This is where some doubt arises as to dates. Most of the story is told very well by this blog post from 2008 (in Spanish), but there it’s claimed that Di Stéfano’s spell at Midland took place in late 1952. If it was indeed between his two more famous clubs, some time in 1953 would make sense, but perhaps the Midland appearances were a little before his official farewell from Millonarios. As an amateur, non-AFA-affiliated club at the time, Di Stéfano’s FIFA-imposed wait between clubs wasn’t an issue, and he was talked into turning out for the club by Fausto De Santis, a friend of one of the club’s directors, who happened to be president of Huracán, where Di Stéfano had played on loan from River for a season a few years beforehand.
Though the date situation is a bit confusing, there’s no doubt Di Stéfano did turn out for Midland; this Q&A session with readers of Marca, done two years ago this week, confirms as much. There, Di Stéfano says he played ‘a friendly’; it seems he actually played three matches, but only started one.
Di Stéfano’s first appearance for Midland was the second half of a previously called-off match against Defensores de Moreno, which ended in a 3-1 win. ‘He barely talked with anyone in the dressing room, and it seemed like he was a bit shy. It was clear he was a very polite person, though,’ says Aníbal José, who played outside right in that match (the quotes in this post are taken from the Periodismo y Deportes blog post linked to above). His second game was, depending whether we take José’s version or that of then club vice-president Fernando Cetinio, either a 3-1 defeat or a draw. Both agree that Di Stéfano only played a few minutes.
After that match, one spectator remarked that Di Stéfano had been, ‘playing as if to avoid injury, rather than to win. He just walked around, flicking the ball with backheels and taking his time, whilst his team-mates were killing themselves for the win.’ José again; ‘after the defeat, someone mentioned that it had been a league game and that there had been money at stake, and Di Stéfano, taken completely by surprise, lamented, “Oof, I didn’t know that!” and immediately asked us, indignant, “Why didn’t anyone tell me?!”‘
The third match is probably the one Di Stéfano is talking about when he claims he only played one game for Midland. It was against Ferro de Merlo, who today are a handball club. And clearly, the full ramifications of the game’s importance had been explained to history’s greatest ringer for this one. La Saeta Rubia (‘The Blond Arrow’) started the game, and the result was an 8-1 win for Midland, with Di Stéfano scoring four, three of which were free kicks ‘that flew straight into the top corner,’ according to José.
This wasn’t Sócrates turning out for Garforth Town as a publicity stunt, or Edgar Davids moving to Barnet at the end of a long and distinguished career. It wasn’t even Pelé going to New York Cosmos, or analogous to any of today’s old veterans heading to the Middle East for one last big payday. This was one of the greatest footballers of all time – perhaps the best all-round player ever – at the very peak of his abilities, turning out for an amateur side for a few games right in the middle of one of the most trophy-laden playing careers the game has ever seen. When he played for Midland, Di Stéfano had already won six trophies with River Plate and Millonarios, as well as the 1947 Copa América with Argentina. He had another 15 trophies still waiting for him when he moved to Europe. He’d scored 137 goals and played for two different national teams, and would score another 457 goals (including 23 for a third national team, Spain) thereafter. But in a small part of the western suburbs of Gran Buenos Aires, it will be the four forgotten goals that are remembered, albeit by fewer and fewer fans each year as those who remember seeing them grow older.
Both Real Madrid (against Manchester United in the European Cup) and Millonarios (against San José in the Copa Libertadores) were in continental action on Tuesday night. That seems like a good enough reason to make known that they’re not the only two of Di Stéfano’s former clubs who were playing on that day.
A couple of thank yous here: first, to my ex-girlfriend’s dad, who’ll never read this, but who back in 2006 first told me that Di Stéfano had once played for Midland, whose stadium is not far from the house they lived in then. And secondly, to the author of that Periodismo y Deportes blog post linked to in the body of this article, which is almost the only source I found about this almost entirely forgotten story.