Crowds mourn Real Madrid hero Di Stefano

Spaniards mourn Real Madrid hero Di Stefano

Madrid (AFP) - Spaniards flocked to pay homage on Tuesday to Real Madrid legend Alfredo Di Stefano, one of the world's greatest footballers, who inspired millions of fans during the dari days of the Franco era.

Hundreds of people queued around the block by the towering walls of the club's Santiago Bernabeu stadium where Di Stefano's body lay in state, a day after he died following a heart attack, aged 88.

Inside, mourners bowed and crossed themselves as they passed in front of his coffin, which was draped with a white Real Madrid flag.

The numerous silver trophies he helped the team win were lined up nearby.

Known as "the Blonde Arrow", Di Stefano was a hero of the all-conquering Real sides of the 1950s and 1960s.

Among Tuesday's mourners, Real Madrid's captain Iker Casillas embraced members of the former player's family, who sat dressed in black in front of big garlands of white flowers.

He paid tribute to Di Stefano's influence on the club.

"His generation of players forged that courage, that hunger and that fighting spirit, which have been passed on from decade to decade," Casillas was quoted as saying on the club's website.

Following tributes from sportsmen around the world as well as the Spanish government and royal family, the press called Di Stefano a "genius", a "legend" and a "complete player".

Fans fondly remembered the man who transformed their club into one of the most successful in the world.

"I feel gutted. He was the greatest," said Javier Lopez, 28, waiting in the queue at the stadium in a white Real Madrid shirt, with a tattoo of the club's shield on his arm.

"If it wasn't for this man, Real Madrid would be nothing. He defended, he directed play and he scored goals."

Di Stefano had entered a coma after suffering a heart attack on Saturday. He died on Monday at 5:15 pm (1515 GMT) at the Gregorio Maranon hospital, Real Madrid said in a statement.

- Timeless -

"He has left us, but his legend will live forever," Real Madrid chairman Florentino Perez told a news conference on Monday evening.

On Tuesday, Madrid sports daily Marca left its cover all white except for a small black-and-white photograph of the back of a departing Di Stefano waving in his number 9 shirt.

The club said fans could view the coffin throughout Tuesday and on Wednesday until 1300 GMT and then a private funeral would be held.

The director of rival sports daily AS, Alfredo Relano, said Di Stefano's exploits on foreign football fields gave Spain pride in the 1950s, during the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco.

"In the poor, isolated, aged and introverted Spain of the second half of the 1950s, there was something to hang on to: Real Madrid, the European Cup, those remote games in Belgrade, Vienna, Brussels, Glasgow," Relano said.

"The old, strong and prestigious Europe only bowed to us if Real Madrid was there. And Di Stefano."

Daily newspaper El Pais declared on its front-page: "The genius of football dies" above a black-and-white picture of Di Stefano, leaping into the air after scoring in the semif-inal of the 1958 European Cup.

"Alfredo Di Stefano was a timeless player for all times, for eternity," the paper said.

Queueing patiently outside the Bernabeu, 86-year-old Jose Luis Saura said he worked at the club for decades and remembered Di Stefano celebrating with staff after winning the Spanish league in 1954 in his first season with Real.

"I got on well with him, as a player and as a person," Saura told AFP. "He was friendly to everyone."

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