Argument

The Star Who Never Played at the World Cup

The Star Who Never Played at the World Cup

BUENOS AIRES — I’m Argentine, and the year that I lived in Spain, many people asked me about Alfredo Di Stéfano.

I was born in 1975, but his career had ended in 1966 and I didn’t remember if he had starred in any World Cups. In fact, he only went to the World Cup in Chile in 1962, wearing Spain’s jersey, and couldn’t play a single minute because of a spinal injury. His persona, which the Spanish compared to Diego Maradona or Pelé, captured my attention, and so I interviewed him. I wanted to ask him why he had chosen to play for Spain instead of staying with Argentina’s national team, something similar to what happened this year with Diego Costa.

Di Stefáno had first played for Argentina in Ecuador in 1947, in what was then the South American Championship, today the Copa América. It was one of the two games he would never forget, he said. (The other was his debut for the Buenos Aires club River Plate, two years earlier.) By the end of the tournament, Di Stéfano was one of the two top scorers on the winning team, with six goals in six games. In 1949 he played four friendlies with Argentina without scoring and never again represented the country of his birth.

On the face of it, the problem was the government of Juan Domingo Perón, which lasted from 1946 to 1955. For political reasons, Perón excluded his own team from international tournaments such as the South American Championships of 1949 and 1953 and the World Cups of 1950 and 1954. In early 1955, before the coup against Perón, Argentina returned to the South American Championship, but Di Stéfano, who was already shining at Real Madrid, wasn’t selected to play.

"They were different times," the player nicknamed The Blond Arrow told me at the Real Madrid veterans’ hall in the Bernabeu Stadium. "Today you go from Madrid to Buenos Aires in 12 hours, but before it took 36 or 44," he said as he sipped a non-alcoholic beer at the age of 73. In other words, the choice of national team was a matter not just of heritage but also of convenience.

But Di Stéfano may also have suffered from the controversy of his earlier transfer to Colombian football, which existed outside of FIFA rules, after a players’ strike in Argentina. Some rumors even suggested he played a few friendly matches for Colombia’s national team, though in other interviews he denied any recollection of those matches.

Whether the rumors were true or not, he didn’t have to wait long to change his footballing nationality. In 1957, when he had lived in Spain for four years, he became a citizen of his new country and didn’t hesitate to switch his sky blue and white shirt for a red one.

It wasn’t the first time that an Argentine star migrated to Europe and ended up repudiating his national team. Back then it was allowed, even routine. At the World Cup in Italy in 1934 the Argentines Raimundo Orsi, Enrique Guaita, Luis Monti, and Atilio Demaría played for the hosts and were champions. Omar Sívori and Humberto Maschio also joined the Azzurri in Chile in 1962. Even today, when changes of nationality are not permitted for active players, some Argentines opt for new colors; David Trezeguet was world champion with France in 1998 and Mauro Camoranesi with Italy in 2006. But unlike them, Di Stéfano bore no blood from his adopted country; his parents were a mix of Italian, French, and Irish.

Di Stéfano first played for Spain in 1957. That year he played seven matches and scored seven times, but his new team still didn’t qualify for the World Cup in Sweden in 1958. But in 1961, the Blond Arrow struck a critical goal in a 2-1 away win against Wales that sent Spain on the road to Chile. "If I hadn’t scored that goal, we wouldn’t have qualified," Di Stéfano asserted. Without him, La Roja could only beat Mexico, 1-0, and was eliminated in the first round after losses to the eventual champions and runners-up, Brazil and Czechoslovakia.

Argentina could have used Di Stéfano in both Sweden and Chile. In both tournaments, it didn’t escape the first round, either. Yet fortunes began to change. Di Stéfano played 24 more matches for Spain, scoring 16 times, but never featuring in the World Cup. By 1964 his star had faded, and Real Madrid transferred him to Espanyol in Barcelona. He retired there in 1966, while Spain crashed out of the World Cup in the first round once again. By contrast, Argentina made the quarterfinals for the first time since 1930.

Di Stéfano was surely one of the greatest footballers of the 20th century, along with the likes of Maradona, Pelé, Johan Cruyff, and Franz Beckenbauer. Yet unlike them, he never came close to grasping the ultimate prize of the World Cup. In fact, he lamented missing the final of the European Cup of 1962, between Real Madrid and Benfica, more than his failure to appear on global football’s biggest stage. For a man of such flexible allegiances, perhaps that was to be expected.

Translated by Daniel Altman