When Real Madrid trooped off the pitch in March 2019 having suffered their heaviest defeat in Europe at the hands of Ajax, their latest era of Champions League domination was seemingly brought to an end. The team that had won three successive trophies and four of the last five tournaments had been knocked out of this year’s competition in ignominious fashion, prompting immediate recriminations as to what had gone wrong, and why.
Real had enjoyed a similar period of dominance in the initial years of the competition, winning the European Cup the first five years it was contested between 1956 and 1960, and culminating in the 1960 Final played at Hampden Park, Glasgow, when they thrashed Eintracht Frankfurt 7 – 3. However, although they were to reach two more finals in the following years, and won it again in 1966, they had lost their iron grip on the trophy, and would have to wait until the end of the Millennium before they became regular holders of the Cup again.
In both cases, it can be argued, one player, more than any other, was responsible for the club’s dominance; equally, it can be posited that their diminishing influence, or absence from the team altogether, was a vital factor in Real’s decline. The two men in question? Alfrédo di Stéfano and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Despite both achieving their greatest success with the Spanish team, neither was/is Spanish. Di Stéfano was born in Buenos Aires, whilst Ronaldo comes from the Portuguese island of Madeira. And both men had enjoyed considerable success before joining Real. Di Stéfano had a stellar career in South American football, first with River Plate in his native Argentina, and then, following a players’ strike, moving to Columbia and Millonarios. Ronaldo, for his part, began his career with Sporting Lisbon before honing his talents with Manchester United where he won the league title three times, the FA Cup once, the League Cup on two occasions, and the Champions League in 2009.
And, yet it was at Real that they established themselves as amongst the best ever to play the game. Ronaldo, of course, has since moved on to Juventus, and may yet achieve great things there. However, despite being in great physical shape, he is now 34 years old, and time will begin to catch up with him.
Cristiano Ronaldo vs Alfredo di Stefano: Trophies Won
|Spanish Super Cup||2|
|Champions League/European Cup||5||4|
|UEFA Super Cup||2|
|Intercontinental Cup/Club World Championship||1||3|
Both played as centre-forward for Real Madrid, although neither could be described as a conventional number nine. Di Stéfano, in fact, was often to be found dropping back into midfield to help orchestrate attacks, and was not averse to going even further back to help organise the defence. Ronaldo began his career essentially as a winger before assuming a more central position with Real as the fulcrum of their attack. Both though had great movement and mobility, excellent ability in the air, and superb striking prowess.
In terms of goal scoring statistics, both men’s records at Real were exceptional. Di Stéfano scored 308 times in 396 appearances for Los Blancos, which included 52 goals in 64 continental cup competitions. Ronaldo’s figures are even better. 450 goals from 438 appearances, with a record of better than a goal a game in La Liga.
However, it is his record in the Champions League that was truly exceptional – [stats accurate as of March 16, 2019] 105 goals in 101 appearances across nine seasons. To put that in to context, if the 15 goals he scored in the competition for United, and the four he has subsequently managed for Juventus, are taken into account, he is 21 goals better than the next man on the all-time list, his great rival Lionel Messi, who has 106 goals. And the pair of them out-distance by some way the third and fourth men on the rankings, both of whom also scored most of their goals in a Real shirt – Raúl with 71 goals, and current wearer of the number 9 shirt at the Bernabeu, Karim Benzema.
It can be argued that Ronaldo not only scored a lot of goals, but that many of them he scored were vital ones. Scoring in the 2014 Champions League final against Atlético Madrid, converting the match-winning penalty against the same opponents two years later, and then finding the net twice as Juventus were despatched 4 -1 in Cardiff in 2017. He equally scored many of the crucial goals that helped get them to those finals in the first place.
Di Stéfano v Ronaldo Head-to-Head [Goal Stats]
Both men’s statistics for Real Madrid alone are worth appreciating.
|Appearances||Di Stéfano||Ronaldo||Goals:||Di Stéfano||Ronaldo|
However, di Stéfano fans can counter with the fact that the great Argentine scored in each of their European Cup successes between 1956 and 1960, and that, in the 1960 final, he bagged a hat-trick in their 7-3 thumping of Eintracht Frankfurt.
Where there is a difference, at least in terms of goals, is the supporting cast around them.
This can be seen by comparing Real’s top scorers in the Champions League since the start of the 2015 – 2016 season. Even 9 months after leaving the club, Ronaldo is their top scorer by some considerable margin with 43 goals. The next eight men on the list barely surpass that. Benzema has 18 but he is the only other man to make it into double figures. When the decision was made by Florentino Pérez, Real’s President, to let Ronaldo go, the gamble was made that the rest of the team would compensate for his lost goals. It just has not happened. And a similar picture emerges in La Liga – Benzema has scored 11 times for them this season, and Gareth Bale 7 times, but, beyond that, their top scorer is captain and central defender Sergio Ramos.
By contrast, even in his most fallow season with Real in terms of league goals, 2016-2017, Ronaldo managed to score 25 times, and 21 times in other competitions. And, since he has moved to Serie A, he has already scored 24 goals in all competitions for his new club Juventus, with two months of the season still to be played.
Di Stéfano had other players around him who could score goals, such as left-winger Gento, and French attacking midfielder Alfred Kopa. And then, to add to what was already a potent mix, Hungarian Ferenc Puskás was introduced to the side in 1958. Known as the “Galloping Major” from his time with Honvéd and the Hungarian national side in the early 1950, Puskás was 31, unfit and overweight, after serving a two-year ban from football when he was signed in 1958. Yet, he enjoyed a remarkable late career with Real, scoring 380 goals in 367 appearances for them until he retired in 1966, and outscoring Di Stéfano in that famous Hampden final when he found the net four times. He helped transition Real as Di Stéfano aged and managed to keep Real competitive after 1960 – they won La Liga in the next four seasons he was there.
Ultimately, the Argentine was just more loved at Real than Ronaldo. After he retired from the game, he was named Honorary President of the club in November 2000, and the stadium at the training ground was named after him. When he died Florentino Pérez was in attendance when his coffin was put on public display. That is in contrast to Ronaldo who left the club because he did not feel wanted or specifically appreciated. In particular, he has cited a breakdown in his relationship with Pérez as one of the reasons he eventually decided to move to Italy.
In part, this may have been financial. Real are not as wealthy as they once were, and their days of signing Galácticos appear to be behind them. Ronaldo’s last deal at the club included an annual salary of €30 million (£26 million), which they would have been happy to get off their books. However, as his side left the field in Madrid after their salutary defeat by Ajax, Pérez must have been regretting his decision. And, a week later, Ronaldo rubbed further salt in the wound by scoring a brilliant hat-trick which helped Juventus overturn a two-goal first leg deficit against Atlético Madrid to progress to the quarter-finals of this year’s competition.
Of course, such riches were beyond the realms of imagination when Di Stéfano was playing his football with Real, even if he was paid well by the standards of the time. Comparisons are invidious, especially when made across generations. Football has changed so much in sixty years in terms of style, fitness, professionalism, standard of pitches, and even equipment, with lighter balls, and ergonomically designed boots, shirts and shorts.
So rather than decide who was better, the discussion may better centre on who had the greatest influence on the club. In that case, the preponderance of argument lies on the side of di Stéfano because of the fact that he helped lay the foundations for what Real Madrid have come to symbolise as a club. It was his team that began the indelible association of Real with the European Cup – later Champions League – and made the club famous to a wider audience. Ronaldo helped to build and enhance the legacy, but di Stéfano came first.
Ronaldo’s loss may, arguably, prove to be greater, but that is the fault of the present club hierarchy at Real. Either way, supporters of Real are lucky to have had two such great exponents of the game pull on the famous white shirts.
Andy is an exiled English football fan living in Cyprus. He loves all sports but football is his abiding passion, and he still has dreams every now and then about scoring the winning goal in a Wembley Cup Final, even though his playing days are long gone. He follows most major leagues, across Europe at least, and has a favoured team in each. When he’s not watching, listening, reading or downloading podcasts about football, he spend his time worrying about his beloved Arsenal.