How Alfredo Di Stéfano and Ferenc Puskás became football’s most prolific partnership

How Alfredo Di Stéfano and Ferenc Puskás became football’s most prolific partnership

This feature is part of Duology

The authoritative magazine on all matters football, World Soccer, with its pool of renowned expert correspondents, can be relied upon to settle the majority of arguments relating to the game.

At the end of the last century, the editorial team set out to survey their readers to find out who they considered to be the best footballers ever seen in the 20th century stating: “We at World Soccer like to believe that our readers are more discerning than those of other football magazines, with a greater appreciation of the game and its tactics.”

The majority of players who found a place in the top 10 were, unsurprisingly, forwards but they were often the sole focal point of a single team rather than operating in a goal-scoring partnership. Lying in sixth and seventh position were the only two strikers whose careers had coincided at the same club. They played together for Real Madrid for a total of six seasons. They were Alfredo Di Stéfano and Ferenc Puskás, born within nine months of each other and who, at Hampden Park, Glasgow in 1960, unleashed the full range of their goal-scoring genius.

It was the time before the advent of saturated coverage of European football. Most football fans in the United Kingdom could probably tell you that Alfredo Di Stéfano and his partner Ferenc Puskás were the best strikers in Europe, if not the world. Few, however, had been able to glimpse their skills apart from the odd clip on television or a feature at the cinema on Pathé News.

Magazines such as Charles Buchan’s Football Monthly or annuals such as the Topical Times or Football Champions could only herald their achievements via the printed word and the occasional piece of colour photography, at a time when most young supporters were just as likely to get their weekly football fix from reading about Melchester Rovers. All that was about to change.

For footballing cognoscenti of a certain age, the memory of the first live European Cup Final they ever witnessed on their television screens lives on forever. It is 18 May 1960 and at Glasgow’s Hampden Park the combined talents of Di Stéfano, the Argentine, and Puskás, the Hungarian, are about be transmitted to an expectant Home Nations audience via their primitive monochrome television sets.

Read  |  When Real Madrid offered Alfredo Di Stéfano to Manchester United

The BBC had even taken the bold step of displacing the great figure of TV mystery of the time, Koran, whose usual invitation to a half hour of intrigue was withdrawn to make space for the live coverage of the game. As the BBC commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme mused on air, “Koran always seems to know everything but he didn’t know he would not be on television tonight!”

By 1960, The European Broadcasting Union was able to provide the technical cooperation needed for the simultaneous transmission of television broadcasts across national borders. After the success of its pan-continental televising of the iconic Eurovision Song Contest from 1956 onwards, they made the bold choice to expand into sporting coverage. As a result of this pioneering decision, The United Kingdom and twelve other countries were set to be treated to a footballing master class.

A capacity crowd of 127,000 packed into the stadium to watch Eintracht Frankfurt take on the might of Real Madrid, who had won the previous four finals. The West German side had faced the Scottish Champions Rangers in the semi-final and put twelve goals past them over the two ties. Real would have to be at the top of their game to overcome them.

During those 90 minutes, football aficionados were treated to a wonderful exhibition of skill from Real and the inspirational goal-scoring duo of Di Stéfano and Puskás. After 18 minutes, Frankfurt took the lead and almost made it 2-0 when they hit they hit the bar. The Spanish giants looked bewildered. Then Di Stéfano started to dominate proceedings. On 27 minutes he tapped in a cross to level the game and then, just before the half-hour mark, he pounced on a parry from the Frankfurt ‘keeper Loy to score his second. It was time for Puskás to respond and he did emphatically, scoring from an extraordinarily difficult angle to add Madrid’s third on the stroke of half-time.

Just before the hour mark, Puskás added the fourth Madrid goal from the penalty spot and five minutes later completed his hat-trick with a rare header, the cross supplied by Paco Gento. Not content with this, on seventy minutes Puskás drilled in an unstoppable shot with his legendary left foot to put his team 6-1 up. Eintracht pulled a goal back but shortly after Puskás slipped a pass through to Di Stéfano who raced past the German defence to complete his own hat-trick. Eintracht scored one last goal. It didn’t matter.

The Spanish matadors’ emphatic slaying of Eintracht Frankfurt by seven goals to three is the most famous final in the history of the European Cup. Many football commentators are adamant that this was the best cup final ever seen. It was the match that suddenly opened British eyes to the wider European game. When the final whistle blew Di Stéfano had notched a hat-trick, yet his performance had been overshadowed by his compañero Ferenc Puskás who had slotted home an astounding four goals. He is still to this day the only player to achieve this feat in a European Cup final. The Times described it as “a European Cup final of high artistry, superb forward play and astonishing goals.” In 2007, World Soccer magazine judged it to be the third best game ever seen.

Read  |  The immortal talents of Ferenc Puskás

The scoring feats of both Di Stéfano and Puskás have stood the test of time. They had combined to score seven goals against top quality opposition in the final of Europe’s most prestigious cup competition. No other striking duo has ever come close and this is even more remarkable considering that they were both, at the time, 33 years of age.

Bizarrely enough, Puskás was at the centre of a bitter controversy which meant that the final almost did not take place. After Hungary unexpectedly lost the 1954 World Cup final to West Germany, a team they had defeated 8-3 at the group stage, Puskás claimed in an interview with France Football that his opponents had been doped, citing the fact that a number of them came down with jaundice after the final as evidence. He later retracted these claims, but many German officials had considered his slanderous remarks to be beyond forgiveness and they took the unprecedented step of prohibiting any German side from playing against a team which featured Puskás. The striker was forced to send a formal letter of apology for his rash allegations to ensure the game went ahead as scheduled.

The result meant that Real had won the trophy for five years in a row. Nevertheless, this was the first occasion that Di Stéfano and Puskás had played together in a European Cup final as injury had forced the Magyar to miss the 1959 version. It was the last time that they were to win the competition as the passage of time was starting to catch up with them but what an impression they had left on the British psyche.

Subsequently Real lost to their Iberian neighbours Benfica in the 1962 final yet what is sometimes overlooked is that Puskás scored another hat-trick at the age of 35, making him the only player to score three goals or more in two European Cup Finals.

Alfredo Di Stéfano was born in Buenos Aires on 4 July 1926 where, according to legend, he built up his extraordinary stamina running through the streets of the capital. He started his phenomenal career at River Plate, at the age of 19, although initially he was loaned out to Club Atlético Huracán where his dashing play and eye for goal earned him his sobriquet ‘La Saeta Rubia’ or the Blond Arrow.

At this time, Argentine football had descended into a state of paralysis due to an acrimonious players’ strike and Di Stéfano took advantage to leave his native country. Torino, who had lost most of their squad in the devastating Superga Air Disaster wanted to build their new team around him but, in 1949, like several South American players, he signed for the appropriately named Millonarios of Bogotá who were able to offer fabulous wages to attract foreign players as Colombia had left FIFA and were therefore not bound by its restrictions. A few English internationals of that time such as Neil Franklin of Stoke City accepted the financial incentives to play there as well. Di Stéfano was a prolific striker for his club scoring 100 goals in 110 appearances.

In 1952, Millonarios undertook a tour of Spain and beat Real Madrid 4-2 in a friendly match. He instantly caught the eye of the club President Santiago Bernabéu and a bid immediately followed. However, his performances had been noted by several leading Spanish clubs, including Barcelona which resulted in a Byzantine struggle for his signature. Here the situation became complicated. Barcelona thought they had clinched a deal with his original club River Plate, Real Madrid were convinced that they had come to an agreement with Millonarios. The Spanish authorities produced a ludicrous compromise, Di Stéfano would play alternative seasons for both clubs.

Original Series   |  Duology

Suspiciously, he did not make an immediate impact during his first six appearances for Real and after some insipid and uninspiring performances, Barcelona decided to sell their interest in the player. It was a decision they would live to regret. In his first full game as a fully-fledged Meringue he scored four goals against the Catalans themselves. Although never proven, many suspected that General Franco had been the Deus Ex Machina behind the signing.

Di Stéfano was the top scorer in the Spanish league for four of the next five seasons and he netted in every European Cup final from 1956 to 1960. No player has ever scored in five consecutive finals since. He notched 308 goals in 390 appearances for Madrid, including 54 in 62 European matches.

As a player he displayed arrogance and selfishness but operating in the role of a deep-lying centre-forward, he was extremely effective. As the doyen of football correspondents Brian Glanville noted, “to his strength, stamina and electric change of pace, Di Stéfano added superb ball control.” A young Bobby Charlton opined that “he had never seen such a complete footballer.”

Alfredo became the heart and soul of Real. He was the conductor, his fellow players the instruments. He played an individual version of total football, long before the term had been coined. He stated, “I think nothing of popping up at centre-half or full-back to cover a colleague who has to leave his position.” In addition to scoring an abundance of goals himself, he also created so many for other players.

Real won LaLiga in his first two seasons, and again in 1956/57, but from 1955 onwards the club had a new focus to establish themselves as the best side in Europe via their dominance of the newly created European Cup. During these years, Di Stéfano had been paired with various strike partners such as the Brazilian Didi and Frenchman Raymond Kopa but none were to have the success that his partnership with Ferenc Puskás was to produce.

Puskás was born in Budapest on 2 April 1927. He became an integral part of the mythical Magyar team that had destroyed England 6-3 at Wembley in 1953 and then narrowly missed out on winning the World Cup final in 1954. He played for the Army side Honvéd FC who were returning from a European Cup tie against Athletic Club when the Hungarian uprising of 1956 took place. The insurrection was quickly suppressed but Puskás and several of his teammates decided not to return to Hungary and, as a result, FIFA effectively placed him in ‘quarantine’ and he was banned from playing.

Santiago Bernabéu was desperate to add Puskás to his 1950s version of the Galácticos, seeing him as the ideal partner for Di Stéfano now that Kopa had returned to France. Despite opposition from other board members, he signed him prior to the start of the 1958/59 season, using his intermediaries to persuade UEFA to lift the FIFA suspension. Puskás himself was seemingly nonplussed by his interest, protesting, “I can’t play. I’m too fat.”

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Puskás, who was now 31, had put on over 18 kilos in weight and had a visible belly. He was no longer the Galloping Major but the Madridistas now affectionately called him ‘Pancho’. The Madrid coach was given the order to get him fit. However, the talent and the eye for goal had not diminished. During his initial training sessions with Real his teammates were stunned to watch him place a set of 10 posts 10 yards away and unerringly knock each one over with the power of his famous left foot.

In his garden, he hung plastic rings of differing sizes form a crossbar and spent hours practising putting the ball through them. Several high-profile European teams had shown interest in signing Puskás so for the fascist regime of Franco having a “communist” superstar move to Spain was a considerable propaganda coup.

Puskás proved to be the perfect foil for Di Stéfano but more importantly he was happy for his partner to be considered the star of the team. In the final game of his first season, he and Di Stéfano were level as the top scorers in LaLiga. Puskás rounded the goalkeeper but instead of scoring, passed the ball across an open goal for his partner to bury it into the empty net. Di Stéfano had found his perfect partner.

Puskás scored 240 goals in 260 appearances for Real, including 35 goals in 39 European Cup appearances. He was the top scorer in LaLiga for four seasons. Not bad for an overweight, ageing player with a beer belly. Puskás was an out-and-out goalscorer, he would never come back for the ball or spray it around the field, which was why he complemented Di Stéfano so perfectly. The partnership worked because he acknowledged that his striking cohort was always going to be the star man and he was content with that. He accepted that at Real, Di Stéfano brooked no rivals on his podium as Didi and Kopa had found to their cost.

Their partnership lasted for six seasons, from 1958 to 1964, and they both made their final appearance together with a combined of age of 70, as Real lost 3-1 to Internazionale in the final of the European Cup in Vienna. By the start of the following season, Di Stéfano had departed for Espanyol.

Both men were in their early-30s when their partnership was created and together they won four consecutive LaLiga titles, a Copa del Rey, as well as winning a European Cup in addition to being losing finalists on two occasions, making them arguably the most prolific and successful scoring partnership to have performed at the top level of European, if not world football.  Undoubtedly, it seems, the readers of World Soccer knew what they were talking about.

By Paul Mc Parlan @paulmcparlan

Edited by Will Sharp @shillwarp

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