Argentina's preparations for its semi-final clash with the Netherlands were overshadowed yesterday by news of the death of Alfredo Di Stéfano, the country's greatest ever player after Diego Maradona.
His death at a hospital in Madrid aged 88 follows a heart attack on Saturday as he left a restaurant near the Bernabéu stadium. He had suffered from cardiac problems since 2005.
Argentina's current star player Lionel Messi took to Facebook to pay homage to his predecessor writing: "The world lost a legend today, Don Alfredo Di Stéfano. An amazing man on and off the field. My thoughts are with his family and friends."
A centre-forward, Di Stéfano was ranked by many alongside Pelé and Maradona as one of the greatest footballers of the 20th century, despite never having appeared in a World Cup. He was undoubtedly the most successful player in the history of Real Madrid driving the club to an unequalled five consecutive European Cups between 1956 and 1960, scoring in all five finals, a remarkable feat which helped turn Los Merengues into one of the most glamorous teams in world football.
He also won eight Spanish league titles while at Madrid, of which he was later honorary president, and in total scored 789 goals in a career that spanned 1,090 games and twice saw him elected European player of the year. Despite the acclaim Di Stéfano always said he was a “poor imitation” of the greatest player he ever saw play, Arsenio Erico of Argentine club Independiente.
Nicknamed the ‘blond arrow’, he was born in 1926 the Buenos Aires neighbourhood of Barracas and claimed Irish descent through his maternal grandmother once telling an interviewer: “The Irish blood means there is something of Great Britain in me, for that I am very grateful, as England has done much for football and continues to do so.”
He made his debut for River Plate in 1945, winning the league with them in 1947 as part of a fearsome attack known as La Máquina – the Machine. A player strike the next season prompted a move to Colombia with Bogotá side Millonarios before heading for Europe where he was the subject of a bitter dispute between Barcelona and Real Madrid.
Though at international level he represented first Argentina and later, after a change of citizenship, Spain, he never appeared in a World Cup thanks to Argentina's decision to boycott the 1950 and 1954 editions of the event, followed by Spain's failure to qualify in 1958 and an injury in 1962.
Several other members of the Argentina squad in Brazil took to Twitter to express their condolences. Gonzalo Higuaín, who also played at Real Madrid and on Saturday scored the goal that put the country through to its first World Cup semi-final in 24 years wrote: “A big embrace to the Di Stéfano family, we have lost a great, thank you for everything”. His team-mate Pablo Zabaleta posted: “I never saw Di Stéfano play, but without doubt the world of football is in mourning. RIP.”
Yesterday morning Argentina trained behind closed doors at the team’s base in
as coach Alejandro Sabella started the process of finding a replacement for the injured Ángel Di María.
The Real Madrid star limped out of his side’s 1-0 victory over Belgium with a torn hamstring and now faces a race against time to appear again in the tournament.
According to Spanish sports daily As the player has not given up hope of playing a role in the final should his team-mates overcome the Netherlands in tomorrow's semi-final. He is already reportedly undergoing stem-cell treatment in order to try and accelerate his recovery by regenerating damaged cells which reduces inflammation and repairs torn muscle.
Favourites to replace Di María for the against Holland are Enzo Pérez, who came on for him against Belgium, and Maxi Rodríguez who started Argentina’s first game against Bosnia but has not featured since in the campaign. Left-back Marcos Rojo is expected to return to the side following suspension with José María Basanta returning to the bench.
Also available again is striker Sergio Agüero who could feature against Holland after missing the second round and quarter-final games after picking up an injury in the final group game after which it was initially reported that he would be out for the rest of the tournament.