The other day, during the AS awards ceremony, Luis Suárez, the only Ballon d’Or winner born in Spain, insisted that the best player in History (I write it with a capital) was “Alfredo,” as he said it. Alfredo di Stéfano, it was understood, who was his direct rival: “Every opposition team had someone marking him and even then he would organize the team and score the goals that were required." His is the general sentiment of everybody who lived in that era. I remember even now that during the presentation of of one my books journalist Iñaki Gabilondo said something along the lines of: ‘When you ask someone who is the best player in history and they don’t say Di Stéfano, I know that that person is too young to have seen him play.”
I mention it here because now that Leo Messi has won five Ballons d’Or (and he’ll surely will more) and Cristiano Ronaldo has four, many people ask me how it is possible that Di Stéfano only ever won two. I think there is an explanation. The Ballon d’Or began in 1956, the same year as the first edition of the European Cup. Di Stéfano was in his third season in Europe and had already celebrated his 30th birthday. Stanley Matthews won the first Ballon d’Or at the age of 41, beating Di Stéfano to the award by a narrow margin and after excelling in a match between England and Brazil. Di Stéfano had led Madrid to the first European Cup title, scoring in the final against Stade Reims in Paris. He was the best player in the tournament.
That first Ballon d’Or went to England, maybe due to the interest in getting English clubs interested in joining the fledgling European Cup, which they didn’t in its inaugural year. Di Stéfano was edged out in the voting 47 to 44. The second Ballon d’Or, in 1957, he won convincingly. In 1958, he was declared ineligible, on the basis of the idea at that time that nobody would be awarded the trophy more than once. He would have won that year without a doubt; Madrid had won their second European Cup, as well as the league title. It went instead to Madrid’s French midfielder, Raymond Kopa. In 1959 Di Stéfano won again, at the age of 34. The following year he came fourth, behind Luis Suárez, Ferenc Puskas and Uew Seeler. In 1989 he was awarded the Super Ballon d’Or. They knew that they owed him something.