2. Alfredo Di Stéfano
There is undoubtedly no more important player to the history of Real Madrid than Alfred di Stéfano. So much so that I bet there are people who will be upset he does not rank first on this list (more on that later), perhaps president Florentino Pérez himself is among them.
Di Stéfano was special. He could play anywhere, and he was by far the best player in the world of his time. He should get more GOAT shouts, alongside compatriots Lionel Messi and Diego Maradona. Because Di Stéfano was a classy, one-of-a-kind player who still stands as Real’s fourth-highest scorer with 269 goals.
Karim Benzema rightfully is praised for being a great all-around player and more than just a scorer, but Di Stéfano defined that even more. The namesake of Real Madrid’s current training ground, Di Stéfano won LaLiga eight times and the European Cup fifth times, setting the tone that Los Blancos would be the greatest club of all time forever and ever.
Vital as an ambassador to the club after his playing days, Di Stéfano ensured that he class of Real Madrid would be enduring. There are so many great legends of this club, but nobody has contributed more to Real over the course of his life than Di Stéfano. There was nothing the two-time Ballon d’Or winner could not do.
1. Cristiano Ronaldo
And having said all that, Alfredo Di Stéfano, though he may clearly be the most important player in Real Madrid history in terms of his meaning and foundational impact, is not the BEST player in the story of this historic institution.
Cristiano Ronaldo is the greatest goal-scorer of all time, and his peak goal-scoring excellence came at Real Madrid. Whether it was finishing the finest counterattacking moves of our time with Jose Mourinho or combining with Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema to devastate Champions League opponents, CR7 was ruthless. The version we saw when he first joined from Manchester United is the single greatest player I have ever seen. He was brute strength, annihilating speed, and technical excellence like we have never seen before. What he was doing can never be repeated, and the demands he placed on himself physically led to irreversible knee damage.
Yet after he had to change his game because of a chronic injury, Ronaldo became even more successful, turning into a clinical machine who raised his game on the most important nights. There is no three-peat without Ronaldo. No “La Decima”. Real Madrid with Ronaldo hung with Barcelona during its most dominant period in history. And then Ronaldo’s Madrid dominated the European game like no modern team ever has, turning back the clock to those Madrid sides from the 50s.
Before Ronaldo, Real Madrid could not get out of the purgatory of the Round of 16 of the Champions League. They were not too far off from Manchester United territory. Ronaldo was the best player in the world at a team capable of winning the UCL in any given year, yet he left United for the challenge of returning an even more historic club to its former glory.
451 goals in 438 games. That is a number so mind-boggling already, but when you factor in that we are talking about a player who averaged over two key passes per game in multiple league seasons and five seasons with double-digit assists.
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I could go on and on about the numbers. Three LaLiga seasons with 40 goals. The most goals in a Champions League campaign. The hat-tricks. The consistency. Everything.
But what might matter most in Ronaldo’s legacy is the fact that he is the best player to play for the best-ever club – and the player who put them back on top.