How late Real Madrid great Alfredo Di Stefano could have joined Barcelona
Tale over signing of Alfredo Di Stefano still sparks bitter dispute, especially among those who claim dictator Franco intervened
As many fans pointed out after his death this week, Alfredo Di Stefano helped turn Real Madrid into Europe's most successful football club. But things nearly went very differently.
The shady tale of his signing for Real still provokes bitter dispute - especially among those who claim the country's dictator, Francisco Franco, intervened to help Madrid poach the player from their fierce rivals Barcelona.
"It was a humiliation for Barca," said the journalist Jordi Finestres, author of a book about the affair.
When he first came to Spain in 1953, the Argentine-born star headed not to the capital but to Catalonia, where Barcelona were on the verge of signing him.
The club even has a photograph on its website of Di Stefano wearing a Barcelona strip next to the team's hero of the moment: the Hungarian-born goalscorer Ladislao Kubala.
But Di Stefano's signing ran into complications. He had left River Plate in his native Buenos Aires for the Colombian side Millonarios in 1949, but the Argentine club still claimed he was their player.
Barcelona negotiated with River Plate and struck a deal to buy the player from them. They failed, however, to reach any such deal with Millonarios, who sold the rights they claimed over Di Stefano to Real Madrid.
Spain's Football Federation tried to settle the dispute by an extraordinary ruling that decreed Di Stefano should play alternate seasons for Real Madrid and Barcelona for four years.
Historians of Barca say the club ended up selling Real the full rights under pressure from Franco's authorities.
"All possible obstacles were put in Barca's way to stop them signing Di Stefano when they had followed the correct procedures in negotiating with River Plate, his rightful employer," said Finestres.
Alfredo Relano, editor of the Madrid sports newspaper As, believes the story "is all an invention from the late 1970s", however.
"It is a very complicated matter and it is easy to claim that Barca bought Di Stefano and that then Franco decided he should end up with Real Madrid. But the idea that the Francoists went after Barca is false," he said.
"Franco would not have been so interested in helping Madrid when they had not won a single title until Di Stefano arrived."
The question of how football history would have gone if Di Stefano had signed for Barcelona fascinates fans, however.
Di Stefano inspired Real to five European Cups and they never looked back. In May, they won a record 10th European title.
In the 1950s, the prospect of Barcelona uniting two maestros of the day in the same squad was mouth-watering. But political tensions hung over the separatist-minded Catalonia region and its relations with Madrid.
"Barca, led by Ladislao Kubala, was winning everything and Real Madrid hadn't won the league since 1933," said Finestres.
"The idea of Barca having Kubala and Di Stefano scared the centralised, Francoist Spain of the time a lot."