history | 2015-04-27
The Di Stéfano case explained
When politics gets in the way of football
Don Alfredo Di Stéfano (Barracas, Buenos Aires, Argentina, July 4, 1926 - Madrid, July 7, 2014) sadly passed away in the middle of a World Cup, the only competition which eluded him during his career. One of the football world’s great symbols and the best player in Real Madrid’s history had left us forever. As a player, he was the closest thing there was to the famous false number nine about which we talk so much today. He learned how to play this position watching his master, Adolfo Pedernera, who, in his time, had learned everything from Carlos Peucelle. Together, they make up the magic trident of Argentine football, a mirror into which every single star the country ever produced has looked into. In his younger years, Don Alfredo was extremely fast, like a fallow deer. This speed and his blonde locks which flowed at that time led to a journalist from El Gráfico baptizing him as The Blonde Arrow (La Saeta Rubia), the nickname which would follow him for his entire career. As the years passed, he got better at holding up the ball and playing with his head. Technically, he was excellent; his ball control was magnificent and he won every duel, from dribbling and shooting to giving assists. Aside from this, he was a player of great charisma and personality, a leader both on and off the pitch; a winner who could single-handedly carry his teammates.
A grandchild of Italians on his father’s side and French/Irish on his mother’s side, he learned his trade at the modest Sportivo Barracas in his Buenos Aires neighborhood. At 17 years old, he signed for River Plate. After being loaned to Huracán for a year, he consolidated his place in the starting XI at the Monumental, and even managed to change the traditional Maquina slow, passing build-up play made famous by the men of Núñez to a more direct style of play. Due to a players' strike in Argentina in 1951, he signed for Millonarios of Bogotá, who were led by his master, Pedernera. His fame continued to grow and, before long, he was one of the most sought-after players in European football, especially after the role he played in Real Madrid’s 50th anniversary tournament. In 1953, FC Barcelona attempted to sign him and came to an agreement with River Plate (who owned his rights), while Real Madrid came to an agreement with Millonarios of Bogotá (the team for which he played). It was the famous Di Stéfano case which had a Solomon-esque judgment from the Spanish Football Federation: The Blonde Arrow would play one season with each of the two teams. Faced with this judgment, the Barcelona board ended up stepping down and giving up the rights to the superstar. Throughout this article, we will focus on the details of the signing of this legendary footballer.
The story of the controversial signing of Alfredo Di Stéfano has been judged differently by those from each of Spanish football’s main trenches, Madrid and Barcelona. The complicated plot behind the signing of the Argentine star deserves a detailed analysis, through all the facts and documents that exist, as it is perhaps the clearest example throughout all of Spanish history of the influence of politics in football. The signing of the Argentine star coincided with a more open and progressive background which characterized the Franco government. In August 1953, the State signed the Concordato with the Vatican and, a month later, they would do the same with the USA in the so-called Pact of Madrid, which meant that Spain would cede ground space to the Americans so that they could establish military bases in exchange for money and military equipment.
The matter had its concrete beginnings in 1949, when the Argentine footballer, who was 23 at the time, decided to take advantage of a strike by Argentine footballers to move to Colombian football – specifically, Millonarios of Bogotá, who played in the División Mayor, a national championship which was organised outside of FIFA. In times when the astronomical wages of today’s footballers weren’t customary, the best South American players saw their salaries multiplied; consequently they had no doubts about moving to this championship, although this meant that they were unable to play in transnational championships.
From 1951 onwards, after the so-called Pact of Lima, Colombian teams were able to play against their foreign counterparts in exchange for regularizing their situation. The agreement stated that, from 1954 onwards, the Colombian entities would be forced to return the foreign players to their original clubs. In the meantime, they weren’t allowed to transfer them. In March 1952, Real Madrid celebrated their 50th anniversary by organising a three-way tournament with Nörrkoping and Millonarios. In the match between the team from Chamartín and the Colombian club, the main highlight was that blonde, long-legged footballer who covered every single blade of grass. The following day, his name resonated throughout the sports press and was etched into the memories of the scouts of the world’s most important clubs.
At the end of 1952, Di Stéfano went on revolt again - just as he had done when he left Argentina - and decided to stay in Buenos Aires. He did not return to Colombia, fed up with a type of football plagued by “local friendlies and dangerous plane journeys.” He moved on, leaving a debt of 4,000 pesetas with the Colombian team (this was the amount that he had collected in advance for the next season).
The Argentine star’s rebellion coincided with a serious injury to Barcelona’s best player, Ladislao Kubala, who had been diagnosed with lung disease which put his playing career in jeopardy. With this setback, Josep Samitier, the blaugrana scout, saw Di Stéfano as the perfect replacement. Kubala recovered much earlier than expected and was able to play again. This didn’t stop the operation to sign the Argentine, as the blaugrana scout believed that pairing the Hungarian with the Argentine would make FC Barcelona the best team in Europe.
To ensure the Argentine’s ultimate transfer, Barcelona would have to come to an agreement with River Plate, the club of origin who had in their possession the player’s transfer, Millonarios, the club who had his rights until October 1954 and the player himself. There were no problems at all with the footballer, while River Plate agreed to a transfer fee of $80,000 (the equivalent of 4,000,000 pesetas), of which half would be paid up front. On May 17, 1953, Di Stéfano arrived in Barcelona and played a few unofficial games in the Barcelona shirt, while the details of his signing were being worked out and an agreement was being reached with Millonarios. The Catalan club hired the young lawyer, Ramón Trías Fargas, to negotiate with the Colombian team. The Colombian club, angered by the player’s leaving, blamed Barcelona for his running off. Because of that, despite being aware that they would be unable to play the player again, they demanded $40,000 for his rights, as well as the $4,000 that the player owed due to his transfer having been moved forward. In response to this, Barça offered $10,000. After some hemming and hawing, the Colombian negotiators brought the figure down to $30,000. Trías Fargas was put in contact with Martí Carreto, who told him that the operation should be concluded with $25,000. After days of negotiations, the president of Millonarios proposed that Barcelona, on tour in Venezuela, go to Bogotá to play three games for free in exchange for the footballer’s rights. Following this exchange, president Martí’s attitude in the negotiations changed in a strange manner, declining the offer and telling the lawyer to propose to the Colombian club that it should be them to travel to Venezuela. Finally, Trías Fargas reached an agreement which, for Barcelona, couldn’t be bettered: A friendly in Bogotá, with the expenses to be paid by the Colombians, and Barça would cover the Argentine forward’s debts. Aside from this, the lawyer agreed to another friendly match against another team in Bogotá, for which the club would earn $7,000. After all of this, Barcelona would leave Colombia with the player’s rights and with cash profits.
When everything seemed to be finalized, the response from the blaugrana president was incomprehensible for anyone who had followed the negotiations: “It is impossible, nothing can be done. We cannot accept this, it’s $10,000 or nothing. They can take it or leave it.” The mediator, Trías Fargas, translated the surprising reaction to the Millonarios president, who responded: “For some reason that I cannot grasp, Barcelona don’t want to work things out.” That was when Real Madrid pounced; knowing that Barcelona hadn’t concluded the operation, they sent their closer extraordinaire, Raimundo Saporta, to Bogotá to try and seal the player’s transfer for a fee of $30,000.
Trías Fargas still wanted to settle the matter, but found himself up against the permanently negative and difficult to understand blaugrana president and his board of directors. So mysterious was the stance of the president Martí Carreto that one of the Colombian club’s representatives in the negotiations, José Carlos Castillo, a former Barcelona legend, addressed him in the following manner: “Admit that, for reasons which I don’t know or am interested in, you don’t want to come to an agreement on the Di Stéfano matter.” The president’s answer was a bait-and-switch in economic terms, despite Trías Fargas making him aware that if the club played the two friendly matches in Bogotá, the player would end up in the Barcelona ranks for free and, on top of this, Barça would earn money. Nevertheless, the president didn’t answer the lawyer and he bid him farewell “with a sigh of relief.” Although, theoretically, Trías Fargas’ job had ended, on his return to Barcelona, he met with the directors Narcís de Carreras and Albert Llach, who were the ones who had hired him in the first place. There, the lawyer discovered that the board of directors had authorized a payment of $20,000 for the Di Stéfano operation and that nobody on the board knew that the Colombian club had agreed to resolve the problem with the two friendlies which would have been played in Bogotá.
At this point of the story, you may ask what exactly led the Barcelona president to take a decision that was so illogical for his club’s interests. Sid Lowe’s last investigation, in which he was assisted by Jordi Finestres and Xavier García Luque, sheds light on the subject. The English journalist and historian recovered a dossier from the secretary-general of the Spanish traditionalist Falange which had the title “Subject: Di Stéfano.” Said dossier begins with a telegram which General Moscardó, national sports delegate, sent to the Minister General of the Movement, Raimundo Fernández Cuesta, in which he “strongly” urged him to approve an order “prohibiting the signing of foreigners in order to avoid uncomfortable attitudes and situations.” This telegram was written at the beginning of August 1953, when FC Barcelona was close to finalizing the player’s signature.
An extract from Trías Fargas’ report which explains president Martí Carreto’s position.
Meanwhile, Real Madrid had taken advantage of Barcelona’s indecision to attain the rights from Millonarios. On that very month of August, on the 16th, specifically, the agreement was made public in Hoja de Lunes. That same day, the president of the Spanish Football Federation sent a letter to General Moscardó, which was also part of the “Subject: Di Stéfano” dossier. In that same dossier, the president of the Football Federation, Sancho Dávila (a cousin of José Antonio Primo de Rivera), explained that he had been following through the press the matter of the signing of the Argentine player and that this was the reason for the telegram. He clarifies that Millonarios “cannot transfer Di Stéfano to any club anywhere in the world without River Plate’s permission, since that is the club to which he is to return in October 1954.” He even makes technical comments, such as “it seems like Di Stéfano will surpass Kubala.” He also informs him that “it appears that Barça obtained River Plate’s approval at the start of October 1954 and Madrid got the same approval from Millonarios just now. But … Millonarios cannot transfer without the permission of River (who aren’t giving it), nor can River send the player to Barcelona on loan until October ’54.” In his long letter, President Sancho Dávila goes on to say conclusively: “Just today, Hoja de Lunes had Di Stéfano’s transfer from Millonarios to Madrid on their front page… what’s interesting is that said signing is a waste of paper, because they don’t have the approval of River Plate or, beyond that, the authorization from the Spanish Football Federation.”
The dossier also contains a letter from Sancho Dávila to the Minister General of the Falange, Raimundo Fernández Cuesta, in which he explains the Di Stéfano issue. Additionally, he called him back from San Sebastian, where he was going to attend the imminent DND (National Delegation of Sports) celebrations, capitalizing on the fact that the Head of State was on summer holidays in the Ayete palace in the Basque capital.
Meanwhile, the player himself had a dramatic change of heart in a very short period of time. While on July 24, he had told the daily newspaper Marca that he wanted to play at Barça, a month later he met with Santiago Bernabéu, with whom he reached an economic agreement immediately. At the beginning of September, Real Madrid requested that the Spanish Football Federation make an exception and allow them to sign Di Stéfano, despite the fact that he was a foreigner, claiming that the negotiations for his signing had taken place prior to the ban on recruiting foreign players – the same argument Barcelona used to secure the player’s transfer. The Federation made an exception to the rule of signing foreign players and now had to find a way to resolve the problem. It was at this point that the case came into the hands of FIFA, who chose Armando Muñoz Calero (former president of the Spanish Football Federation and instrumental in Kubala’s signing for Barcelona) for the role of mediator. His Solomonic decision was that Di Stéfano would play one season with each of the teams, alternatively. So Real Madrid would benefit from his services in the seasons 1953/54 and 1955/56, while Barcelona would have him in 1954/55 and 1956/57. After these four seasons, the clubs should come to an agreement. The player was presented at Real Madrid on the same day that the Barcelona president, Martí Carretó, stepped down. A few days later, the rest of the board stood down and were replaced by a commission of six former presidents. It was this same commission who surrendered the player’s rights to Real Madrid in exchange for 4.500,000 pesetas.
Here is where the facts end, but rumors still abound as to why Martí Carreto didn’t want to obtain the player’s rights from Millonarios or why he didn’t inform the board about the progress made by Trías Fargas in negotiations, pulling out all possible stops to ensure that the operation wasn’t carried out. In the book, Converses con Fabià Estapé, the economist recalls how the government scared the Barcelona board off with the announcement that the money that they had paid in advance to River Plate for Di Stéfano hadn’t passed through the Institute of Foreign Currency, which was a prerequisite at the time. This mistake could have led to the inspection of the executives’ businesses, the majority of which were textile firms. Almost 30 years later, Narcís De Carreras, the director who would later become club president, confirmed Mr. Estapé’s version of events. According to De Carreras, Martí Carreto received a phone call from a senior member of the ministry of commerce who told him: “Up until now you haven’t had any problems with the Institute of Foreign Currency, but if you insist on this Di Stéfano business, anything could happen.”
A similar account was put forth to the authors of the Di Stéfano Case by Martí Carreto’s nephew, who claims that his uncle received a phone call from the highest echelons of the government with the following message: “Martí, be reasonable, you have a family, after all.” This same testimony was confirmed by Martí Carreto’s grandson, Enric Vidal-Ribas: “My grandfather told me that the government made some very serious threats which reached all the way from the club to his family and his business.”
On February 9, 1955, the lawyer Trías Fargas sent a clarification letter to Martí Carreto in which he apologized for the tone in the report he had written and showed sympathy towards the former president:
“While writing my report on the Di Stéfano matter, I did it without being fully aware of all of the details. The current situation is different, as my information about what went on behind closed doors is more complete. On this basis, I can only but recognize that my report is involuntarily biased. The facts referred to are correct, but my interpretation of them isn’t. I now know that your actions throughout that entire period were done not for your own personal gain, but with the best interests of FC Barcelona at heart.”
There are other testimonies about this. In 1980, in an article in La Vanguardia, the journalist Lluis Permanyer (son of the director of the same name who was present at the negotiations) revealed the extent of the pressure which the blaugrana president was under. In this article, he pointed out that the president was summoned to a meeting at the Spanish Football Federation. According to Permanyer, the Federation’s top executive, Mr. Muñoz Calero, showed Martí Carreto a report detailing a payment of $1,000,000 to River Plate and the flying of a Catalan flag at a match played by Barça in Caracas. After showing him the report, Permanyer claims that Martí was threatened with a full investigation of his textile company. Aside from this, Permanyer’s version (which is accepted by other publications) states that general Moscardó received a phone call every 15 minutes to keep him informed of the conversation.
It is reasonable to believe that this personal pressure made president Martí Carreto give up on signing the Argentine player. Beyond partisan interpretations of the matter, it is worth noting that the Real Madrid president, Santiago Bernabéu, knew how to use his contacts at the highest level of the government to enable him to bring the player to his team. During the Civil War, Bernabéu was a volunteer for the Nationalist faction, where he fought under the orders of Muñoz Grandes. It is worth noting that during the first 14 years of the Francoist regime, Real Madrid didn’t win a single La Liga title, therefore you cannot really say that they were the team of the regime, at least not during these initial years. Between 1939 and 1953, Barcelona won five La Ligas and four Copas del Generalísimo, compared to the two Copas won by Real Madrid who, at that time, were considered the capital’s second team, behind Atlético de Madrid.
Di Stéfano managed to wear the Barcelona colors in two friendly matches. He appears in this photograph with his close friend, Kubala.
Having clarified this point, it cannot be denied that there was participation from the highest echelons of the administration in Real Madrid’s favor, you may speculate that the main reason was the close relationship that existed between Bernabéu and high-ranking members of the central administration. You may also contemplate the possibility that, for the leaders of the dictatorship, the idea of Kubala and Di Stéfano in the same team was far from ideal since, more than likely, any team that had both of them would have reigned supreme at a European level. You may speculate that the government didn’t want a team from Spain’s periphery with a Catalan past representing them in Europe.
Di Stéfano’s quality was evident from the beginning; he was the foundation upon which would be built the Real Madrid side who would win the first five European Cups consecutively, and with whom the team who were sixth in the Spanish trophy rankings in 1953 would go on to become the dominant side in Europe.
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WRITTEN BY: Ángel Iturriaga
A renowned Barcelona historian, Ángel (41) is one of the authorities when it comes to our club's past. Author of renowned books on Spanish football such as The Dictionary Of FC Barcelona Players (2010), The Dictionary of Coaches & Directors of FC Barcelona (2011), and The Dictionary of the Spanish National Team Players (2013). Ángel is mostly known for his biographical novel Paulino, the biography of one of the greatest ever Barcelona players he co-wrote with David Valero.