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The last dribble

Di Stéfano was a god to young Spaniards back in the day; now he needs all the support he can get

I don't promise that this will be my last article about soccer, but it is my first and probably last about a famous soccer player — or with him as pretext. Excuse my impertinence, but the player is so famous he is etched in the memory of one of the few schoolboys who were not soccer fans, back in the days when every boy was a fan - perhaps even more so than today. His name is Alfredo Di Stéfano.

In school during recess only four or five of us would gather in a corner of the schoolyard, while all the rest kept up a swarming soccer match that went on, break after break. We spoke of books or fantasies, proud of these things yet haunted by the inferiority complex that went with our condition as freaks and nerds. Teachers would throw out sarcastic remarks about us while we dodged the balls that came our way, driven by a hard, not always unintentional, kick. How I came to hate that heavy ball, always clotted with mud, that could come hurtling from any direction. I still hate it. For me there is no good football but a dead football, a deflated one.

Throughout my childhood, Di Stéfano was the icon of soccer and with it, of celebrity and glory. Given my early antipathy to this obligatory sport (just a bit obligatory even now, when the sports sections of newspapers and newscasts are full of it to the point of overdose at the expense of anything else), I suppose I ought to have viewed Di Stéfano with the disdain of King Lear dismissing an odious villain as a "base soccer player." But in fact the golden aura of his figure, compounded of agility and precision, fascinated me.

I am one of those who believe in the excellence of living legends not so much as individuals but as paragons of humanity. I am not one of those who sneer: "He can't be that good." I prefer: "He does have something, I admit." At the school film club I saw Saeta rubia (or, Blond arrow), featuring Di Stefano. Judged as cinema, it was not exactly Escape to Victory. But it was enough to make me a fan of the protagonist. What it did not achieve was to motivate me to go and see a soccer match live - ever. Miracles don't happen every day.

Later I learned that, although Di Stéfano and I did not have soccer in common, we were both fans of the horse races. I was told that when he played in Argentina every now and then he would run to the bench to consult with a person that many people thought was some kind of mentor in field strategy, but in fact was informing him of the latest results at the race track in Palermo where some promising trials were going on. And in Madrid, at the Zarzuela hippodrome in the good old days (or so they are remembered by those who were young then) he always had his preferential seats with a few other players in whose company ladies celebrated, for their beauty was never lacking. There for the first time — and, I fear, the last — I saw Sofía Loren in person. She, I freely admit, impressed me more than the whole Real Madrid lineup put together.

The referee in the sky

This whole trip down memory lane is à propos of the photograph in which I see the light-footed champion of yesteryear trapped in a wheelchair and in sad litigation with his family. It appears that he has been endeavoring to dribble the ball onward into a sunset love affair, and that the reality principle — that great implacable referee in the sky — has blown the whistle on him for a penalty. I know nothing of the matter except for what I read in the papers, but I am rooting for him whatever happens. To end this with an apt quotation, I propose the famous line of Andrés Fernández de Andrada: "O Death, come silently, as in an arrow." Blond arrow or dark, it's all the same.

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