By Ken Pendleton - USSoccerPlayers (August 24, 2006) — In the late 1940s, Real Madrid president Santiago Bernabéu built the massive stadium that now bares his name because of his hopes for Real’s future rather than because of what the club had already accomplished. They had not captured the league championship since 1933, and had only won a grand total of two, but Bernabéu dreamed that they would become the greatest club in Spain and a symbol of national pride recognized the world over.
The stadium opened in 1947, but success did not quickly follow. The club’s two most bitter rivals — Barcelona and Atlético Madrid — divvied up the next six championships. And matters looked like they were going to get far worse after Barcelona started pursuing an Argentinean center forward named Alfredo Di Stefano.
Actually, scouts for both Real and Barcelona discovered Di Stefano during the same match — a friendly between Di Stefano’s Colombian club Millonarios of Bogotá and the Swedish club Norrköping. Di Stefano scored both of Millonarios’ goals and after Bernabéu met him he simply remarked, “This guy smells of good football.”
It looked like Barcelona had the inside track to sign him. They had already secured an agreement with River Plate, the Argentinean club that legally controlled his rights, but they still needed to get Millonarios, who had effectively stolen him from River, to agree to terms.
To put it modestly, Barcelona made a complete hash of the negotiations with the Colombians. First, the person they hired to conclude the negotiations, Joan Busquets, was a director at CF Santa Fe, Millonarios’s rivals in Bogotá. He promptly made a very low take-it-or-leave-it offer. After it was refused, he proceeded to sign Di Stefano while Millonarios was touring Venezuela. Di Stefano soon moved to Spain and even practiced with Barca, but River insisted that the Spanish club must still settle with Millonarios.
The chief negotiator for Barcelona, Ramón Trias-Fargas, came very close to reaching an agreement. The Colombians lowered their asking price from $40,000 to $10,000, if, in addition, the Spanish club would pay back the $5,000 Di Stefano owed them and let them keep the proceeds from an exhibition match. Trias-Fargas had entered into the negotiations with the understanding that he could offer whatever felt was necessary, but Barcelona’s president Marti Carreto balked and said that they would not pay more than $10,000.
This is where things start to get controversial. Real had managed to come to terms with the Colombian club, but FIFA ruled that Di Stefano’s contract with River took precedence. This should have cleared the way for Barca, but the Spanish federation passed a law that clubs could not import foreign players. Barcelona was then informed that they would make an exception for the Argentinean — if they would agree to share him with Real Madrid. Real would have use of him in the 53/4 and 55/6 seasons and Barca in 54/5 and 57/8.
Carreto and Bernabéu signed off on just such an agreement on September 15th, 1953, but the compromise created such a furor in Catalonia that Carreto resigned a week later. The interim board decided to back out of the agreement and surrendered Di Stefano’s rights to Madrid for 4.4 million pesetas, the amount they had paid to River.
The rest is well and truly history. Two weeks later, Di Stefano scored four times to lead Real to a 5-0 win at the Bernabéu and send them on their way the ’54 league championship, and the ’55 league championship, and a total of eight in his 11 years with the club. Along the way they won the first five European Cups and were well on their way to being named FIFA’s Club of the Century.
Di Stefano was debatably the best player of all-time. He was Total Football all by himself, as he seemed to be playing all 10 outfield positions at the same time and simply could not stand to be away from the action. He had no weakness, save possibly his ego — but is it bragging if you are superior to everyone else? Although he was not really a striker, he scored more than 800 goals, led the Spanish league in scoring five times, and scored 49 goals in the European Cup, including at least one in the first five finals.
More praise could be heaped on him, but that’s not the purpose of this story. Why did the Spanish federation intervene and why did Carreto agree to the absurd idea of sharing him?
Right from the beginning of the negotiations, Trias-Fargas had sent telegrams to Colombia in code because he felt the Spanish government was determined to help Real sign him. In his view, Barcelona represented resistance to Generalisimo Franco’s fascist government. “‘Football in our country has become a very important issue, as it is the only way we can collectively convey our regional aspirations. Therefore the Di Stefano question is a national problem. That is why the telegrams are being sent in code form. We know for a fact that our telephones are being bugged by the government of Madrid, which claims to be defending the integrity of the Spanish state.”
Bernabéu, by contrast, was proud of the fact that he fought with Franco and had helped “liberate” Catalonia during the Spanish Civil War in the late ’30s. The government had a hand in helping him become president of the club and they shared a mutual interest in using the club as a symbol of national unification. Barcelona had won the four of the six previous Spanish titles and the Copa Latina, a precursor of the European Cup, in 1952. To this day, most Catalonians think that the Spanish government interfered because they could not stomach the idea that Di Stefano would join the already-stacked squad and cement their position as the most successful club in Spain.
Given this, Trias-Fargas concluded that the negotiations had been undone by the meddling of the Spanish government rather than by incompetence of Carreto and Busquets.
Be that as it may, Bernabéu now had the player to fulfill his stadium’s ambitions and Barcelona would have to wait 40 years — or 15 years after Franco’s death — to lay claim to being the dominant power in Spain.