The Di Stéfano Signing
Perhaps nothing epitomized the backroom politics of the Franco regime better than the protracted battle between Barcelona and Real Madrid for the signature of Alfredo di Stéfano. (For more about Di Stéfano’s career, CLICK HERE.) In the constant arms race to dominate Spanish football, both teams became interested in Di Stéfano after his dazzling performances for Millonarios captivated Spain during a friendly tournament in Madrid.[i] Barcelona reacted quickest, and through Catalan lawyer Ramon Trias Fargas, they easily reached a transfer agreement with River Plate, who was still di Stéfano’s official employer according to FIFA.
However, this agreement was conditional on the consent of Millonarios. Franco therefore sought to disrupt Barcelona’s advances through Barcelona’s “chief scout” Josep Samitier, a notorious playboy who Franco frequently bribed with favors elevating his lifestyle.[ii] At Franco’s indirect suggestion, Samitier entrusted the Millonarios side of the deal with Joan Busquets, a director of Millonarios’ Colombian rivals Santa Fe. Busquets deliberately lowballed the negotiations with his rivals, allowing Real Madrid to reach an agreement with the Colombians.[iii] For his part, Barcelona’s president Marti Carretó did quite little to control the matter, leading to suggestions by Trias Fargas that Carretó too was a “government stooge”.[iv]
Of course, Franco did not control FIFA, who ignored the unsanctioned Colombian league and approved Barcelona’s deal, even allowing di Stéfano to play for Barcelona in two friendlies.[v] He did, however, control the State. When Barcelona were near to a deal, the Spanish government passed a law outlawing the purchase of foreign players, putting control of the matter once again in Franco’s hands.[vi] Demonstrating the farcical nature of its new law, the State then brokered a deal itself, whereby di Stéfano would alternate yearly between the two clubs.[vii]
Carretó surprisingly capitulated to the agreement, perhaps explained by the claims that he operated under the orders of El Generalísimo. However, he soon resigned under intense pressure from the entirety of Catalonia, which disapproved of any deal linking their club with Franco’s Nationalist ideologies.[viii] The interim board of directors then handed di Stéfano’s full rights over to Real, in exchange for a repayment of the sum originally paid to River Plate. “The Blond Arrow” would go on to score 216 goals for los merengues in his illustrious career, winning them eight league titles and five consecutive European Cups among other awards.
As a whole, the saga of Alfredo di Stéfano’s signing is symbolic of Franco’s authoritarian power, and it provides a microcosm of his methods. Franco built much of his primary power by using backroom politics to cement total control of the State. In buying off figures like Samitier with the State’s money and patronage, Franco created a vast network of allies. This network was strengthened by tying the futures of those individuals to his own position as controller of the State[ix], proven by Samitier’s continuing friendship with Real’s president Santiago Bernabeu.[x]
Furthermore, by threatening visible figures such as Carretó, El Generalísimo flexed the State’s muscle to demonstrate his control over those in high positions.[xi] When individual ties were irrelevant (such as after FIFA’s ruling), Franco’s control over the Cortes, the legislative body, still allowed him to control Spanish affairs. Essentially, Franco had totally internalized any external influences on his politics.[xii]
It seems that in sum, Franco created a cycle that fed on its own activity to consolidate control over the entire nation. As he personally gained influence with Spain’s powerful elite, so the power of the State grew. This, in turn, allowed him to influence more and more people and institutions. Eventually, such activity reached the bounds of its expansion, uniting everyone who he could buy off or coerce, and suppressing the uncompromising ideologues, such as Catalan nationalists.[xiii] However, because Franco was the one who exerted such influence, it was the man himself, rather than his position, that remained central to this system of patronage and coercion. The Spanish State’s survival until his death, combined with its collapse immediately afterward, prove as much.[xiv]
Di Stéfano: Spanish Icon
Di Stéfano’s international legacy is an oft-unexplored wrinkle to this story, as he shone a positive light on the Spanish State when he turned out for the Spanish national team. Like at Real Madrid, Franco sought to project a glorious image of Spain to its citizens through the team. To this end, he nationalized the world’s best players in order to ensure victory, including the Czech Kubala and Hungarian superstar Ferenc Puskas.[xv] Di Stéfano was naturalized in 1956 despite having previously represented both Argentina and Colombia.[xvi]
Di Stéfano’s impressive performances in 31 caps led to 23 goals for Spain, leading many to believe that he would have been the country’s all-time leading scorer, had he started playing for Spain earlier.[xvii] Bizarrely though, the world never had a chance to ever admire “The Blond Arrow” on the biggest stage. Argentina didn’t enter the World Cup in 1950 or 1954, Spain didn’t qualify in 1958, and di Stéfano withdrew due to injury from Spain’s ill-fated 1962 campaign.[xviii]
In fact, none of the naturalized players ever played in a World Cup, but Franco nevertheless achieved his goal when Spain hosted and won the 1964 European Championship with a Spanish-born side. True to form, the Spanish press drew parallels to the Nationalists’ triumph over its major enemy, Communism, with overtones that El Generalísimo’s regime had saved the country as a whole.[xix] Franco had again succeeded in using football to convey a specific positive image of the Spanish State, an image he worked to uphold continually until his death in 1975. As for di Stéfano, the Argentina native is considered Spanish, and he was named Spain’s “Golden Player” of the last 50 years at UEFA’s Jubilee.
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[i] “Fútbol Factory.” 3 June 02. Cadiz. 15 Oct 09. <http://web.archive.org/web/20071020024744/futbolfactory.futbolweb.net/index.php?ff=historicos&f2=00001&idjugador=11> (Translated via translate.google.com)
[ii] Ball, Morbo, 126
[iii] Ball, Morbo, 126
[v] Futbol Factory
[vi] Ball, Morbo, 126-127
[vii] Futbol Factory
[viii] Ball, Morbo, 128
[x] Ball, Morbo, 128
[xi] Solsten, “The Franco Years”
[xiii] Solsten, “The Franco Years”
[xv] Murray, World’s Game, 104
[xvi] Futbol Factory
[xvii] Ball, Morbo, 125
[xix] Murray, World’s Game, 104