MADRID (AP) — Former Argentina and Spain great Alfredo Di Stefano thinks he may have played football against newly elected Pope Francis when the two were children kicking balls around in the streets of Buenos Aires.
Writing in his regular column in Spanish sports daily Marca, Di Stefano said he grew up in the same neighborhood as fellow Argentine Jorge Mario Bergoglio, and that his compatriot's elevation to the papacy "has filled me with great joy."
While the 86-year-old Real Madrid legend is 10 years older than Francis, he recalled childhood scenes where most of the kids in the neighborhood used to play free-for-all football until past sunset.
"Pope Francis and I went to the same school in Buenos Aires," he said. "He lived in a church two blocks from my family's house, where my sister Norma still resides."
Di Stefano said most children in his neighborhood were keen players and that it was likely a young Bergoglio would have been among them.
"In our neighborhood we used to hold major football sessions that went on until it got dark, with everyone playing against each other," he said. "Maybe the pope was one of the guys I played football with in the street."
Di Stefano said he was already a big enough talent for most local children to know who he was, and that it was likely the pope would have remembered if they played together.
"At that time I was the famous one because from a very young age I belonged to River Plate's youth team, everybody knew me," Di Stefano said.
Di Stefano went on to become arguably the best player of his generation, starring for Real Madrid between 1953-64 and leading the club to five straight European Cups. He switched nationality to represent Spain, and later moved back and forth between Spanish and Argentine clubs during his coaching career.
Di Stefano is an honorary president of Madrid, and his interest in football meant he missed the moment when his compatriot emerged as the new pope.
"I must confess that while everyone else watched the white smoke live, I saw it later," he wrote. "I was, as always, watching a football game."