More than once, I've heard the Spanish journalist Iñaki Gabilondo say: "When someone talks about a footballer as the best ever and that footballer isn't Alfredo Di Stéfano, I know right away they didn't get to see Di Stéfano in action." Cristiano Ronaldo didn't see Di Stéfano play, of course. One man who did, and played with and against him many times, is Luis Suárez, Spain's Ballon d'Or winner in 1960; and whenever he's asked on the Spanish radio programme 'Carrusel', he says Di Stéfano is the greatest: "They'd put two men on him for the whole game, and even still he'd win the match for his team." The reason I'm bringing all this up is the minor storm that Cristiano has caused by proclaiming himself the best in history. The history of the game goes back a bit, so some perspective is needed.
Cristiano, Messi, Di Stéfano, Pelé...? Each generation has its preference
Cristiano's been the best in the world in five of the last 10 years. Lionel Messi has been the best in the other five. The most that can lead us to say is that the pair have shared hegemony over the football world for the last decade. Before which there were other stars: Diego Maradona, Pelé, Di Stéfano... Each with their own style, each with their own achievements. When we talk about these things, I notice that everyone tends to have a preference for the first great that they saw. The beginning of Gabilondo's relationship with football coincided with Di Stéfano. Those who came to the game with Maradona in his pomp see him as the best. Today's generation are usually split between Messi and Cristiano. The advantage that Gabilondo and Suárez's generation has is that they've seen them all.
Why did Di Stéfano only win two Ballons d'Or, you ask? Well...
People say to me: "Why did Di Stéfano only win two Ballons d'Or, then?" Well, it was created alongside the European Cup in 1955/56. When the first was handed out, he was already 30. He came second, to Stanley Matthews, which I suspect was a kind of olive branch to the English so that, having sat out the tournament's first season, they'd enter the second. In '57, Di Stéfano won it by a mile. For the sake of variety, he was then declared ineligible in '58, and the prize went to Raymond Kopa. Having made themselves look a bit silly with such a nonsense, the powers-that-be brought him back into contention in '59 and, aged 34, he won it. The fifth was the one scooped by Suárez. When the award turned 30, each of its previous recipients voted for the best of the lot, choosing Di Stéfano as the 'Ballon d'Or winner to end all Ballon d'Or winners'. Me? I'm part of the Gabilondo-Suárez generation.