Di Stefano the greatest
Who is the greatest player ever - Pele or Maradona? It is a question I get asked all the time. It's a tricky one - and often seems to me a bit like two bald men fighting over a comb.
They were exceptional talents, to be enjoyed rather than compared, especially in the aggressive tone usually employed in the debate.
But the more I think about it the clearer my own answer, for what it's worth, seems to be. They ask Pele or Maradona. I say Di Stefano.
The comparisons on playing styles are always difficult, especially when dealing with different eras. But I think I'm on safe ground arguing that there has never been a footballer more influential than Alfredo Di Stefano.
He never played in a World Cup, but club football belongs to him. The world's two leading international club competitions bear his mark - one obviously and directly, the other indirectly.
Di Stefano was the last great product of the golden age of Argentine football, the 1940s, when he starred for River Plate. After the big players strike there in 1948 he was snapped up by Colombia's newly-launched league, and helped get the professional game off the ground there as the star of the great Millonarios side. And in 1953, at the age of 27, he went to Real Madridand changed the course of history.
When the European Cup, as the Champions League was then known, was launched in the 1955/56 season there was no guarantee of success. World War Two was still very recent, though the continent was rebuilding and starting to pull away from post-war austerity. The English authorities were sufficiently suspicious of the whole thing to discourage Chelsea from entering the inaugural version.
In hindsight, such an attitude appears ridiculous - because it meant that English crowds were missing out on the Di Stefano show.
Bobby Charlton got a close look in 1957, when he watched from the stands in the first leg of the semi final, Manchester United away to Real Madrid.
"Who is this man?" was Charlton's instant impression. "He takes the ball from the goalkeeper; he tells the full-backs what to do; wherever he is on the field he is in position to take the ball; you can see his influence on everything that is happening... I had never seen such a complete footballer. It was as though he had set up his own command centre at the heart of the game. He was as strong as he was subtle. The combination of qualities was mesmerising."
All of Europe was going through the same experience. Di Stefano took the game of football up to a level the continent had never seen before. He was not the driving force behind Real Madrid winning the first five European Cups, he was also chiefly responsible for the quick success of the competition. Everyone wanted to see his Real Madrid side.
Just as had happened after Uruguay won the 1924 Olympics in Paris, some South American talent had set off a fever for the game in Europe. If Leeds United wear white, if there is a club in the US called Real Salt Lake, and if the European Cup was an instant hit, then much of the credit belongs to Di Stefano.
Some would even argue that as the leading light in Real's galaxy, Di Stefano helped improve foreign perceptions of Spain, thus encouraging the tourist boom and consequently hastening the country's integration into mainstream Western European politics following the death of the dictator Franco.
That might well be going too far. But I don't think that it is excessive to argue that, without ever intending to, Di Stefano helped bring into life the Copa Libertadores, South America's European Cup equivalent.
There were serious impediments to launching such a competition in the continent of Di Stefano's birth - South America is huge, and transport structure, far from perfect even today, was rudimentary.
An attempt had been made in 1948 to gather the continent's best clubs for a tournament in Chile - Di Stefano played for River Plate - but although it was a success the timing was wrong; the players strike was about to erupt in Argentina, which had the effect of forcing the country into footballing isolation and driving Di Stefano to Colombia.
So there was no follow up, and no thoughts of a competition staged on a home and away basis - until an invitation arrived from Uefa.
Back on the other side of the Atlantic, the success of the European Cup was making people curious. Could there conceivably be a better team than Real Madrid somewhere out there? Did the continent that produced Di Stefano have any more where that one came from?
Uefa, then, proposed to the South American Federation that an annual game be staged between the champions of the two continents. All South America had to do was find a method of deciding its champion. And thus was born the Copa Libertadores, whose 50th version kicks off in earnest this week.
Without Di Stefano's exploits with Real Madrid it would not have got off the ground so soon.
Comments on this piece in the space provided. Other questions on South American football to firstname.lastname@example.org, and I'll pick out a couple for next week.
From last week's postbag:
Since the mid-90s I have paid close attention to the Under-20 tournaments with a keen interest in Argentina. During many of these tournaments, we have witnessed the emergence of quite a few Argentine talents. This edition, however, doesn't seem to be as fruitful for them. Are there any underlying factors which have caused these below-par performances? Is it due to a lack of talent, or was the presence of Pekerman's vision that brought them so many talented players and titles?
One win in nine games speaks for itself - it was a very poor South American Under-20 Championships from Argentina, and they can have no complaints about failing to qualify for the World Youth Cup.
On the other hand, I always think that this level is more about developing players than winning titles. The easiest way to win youth titles is to bulk up, to go with physically strong youngsters who may have this advantage tken away from them as other players fill out physically.
To their credit, Argentina don't do this. They look to develop small, technically gifted players - but without the likes of a Messi or an Aguero, this can be risky. It was clear why they were so disappointed that Chelsea wouldn't release Di Santo - it's hard enough for the senior side, with Messi, Aguero and Tevez, to play without a target man striker. For this team, without a really outstanding individual, it was all but impossible.
Some of the big name players - like Insua and Zuculini - had very disappointing tournaments. I'd heard so much about Benavides, but he didn't show much either. There are others - Salvio, Velasquez, Bella - who showed promise. Thee key thing, though, is that people learn from the experience.
I'm a West Brom fan and I was wondoring what you could tell me about our new signing Juan Carlos Menseguez. I'm aware he had a spell in Europe with Wolfsburg, how did he get on and how good is he?
I'd love to be proved wrong, but I'll be surprised if he does much for you. He was one of those prodigies, whisked away to Europe before he'd made his mark in Argentine football - the fact that he moved back home at the age where you'd expect him to break through shows that he didn't live up to expectations.
I saw a fair bit of San Lorenzo last year, but very little from Menseguez that impressed. He spent most of the time on the bench, and looked a sluggish, heavy treading individual when he came on. The club have a spiky, aggressive striker in Bergessio who might be worth a look - I'd certainly have more faith in him than in Menseguez.