Alfredo di Stefano, left, plays during a match at Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid in 1962. (Files/EPA)

Alfredo Di Stefano, the player Real Madrid has hailed as the most important component in its mid-20th century ascent to becoming a global soccer powerhouse, died July 7 at a hospital in Madrid. He was 88 and had a heart attack two days earlier.

His death was announced by Real Madrid.

Renowned for his speed, versatility and strategic grasp of the game, Mr. Di Stefano helped Madrid attain five straight European Champions Cups and was voted European player of the year in 1957 and 1959.

In a career spanning five clubs in three countries — Argentina, Colombia and Spain — from 1945 to 1966, Mr. Di Stefano scored 789 goals in 1,090 matches. In the process, he claimed top-scorer status once in the Argentine league, twice in Colombia’s league and five times in Spain. Only Raul Gonzalez has scored more goals for Real Madrid than Mr. Di Stefano.

Mr. Di Stefano was described as a player who believed success on the field came through physical effort and dedication.

“I don’t want to be idolized, I just want to play. And to do that you have to run and sweat,” he said.

Born July 4, 1926, in the Barracas suburb of Buenos Aires, near the port where British sailors introduced soccer to Argentina, Mr. Di Stefano learned the game in what he called “the academy of the streets.”

“In our neighborhood, we used to hold major [soccer] sessions that went on until it got dark, with everyone playing against each other,” he said.

Mr. Di Stefano’s father, Alfredo, the son of an immigrant from the Italian island of Capri, was a loyal fan of River Plate. His mother, Eulalia Laulhe Gilmont, was of French and Irish ancestry.

Having trialed successfully for River Plate, Mr. Di Stefano turned professional in 1945, joining Colombia’s Millonarios six years later. He won six league titles for the two clubs.

He played in Spain for the first time in 1952 and dazzled the crowd at a tournament commemorating Real Madrid’s 50th anniversary.

Barcelona signed Mr. Di Stefano in 1953 after agreeing to a transfer with River Plate, but the move was thrown into doubt when Madrid also negotiated his transfer — with Millonarios.

Although the Spanish federation authorized Mr. Di Stefano to play half of his four-year contract with each club, Barcelona opted out, alleging pressure from the Madrid-based ruling military dictatorship of Gen. Francisco Franco.

In his first season Mr. Di Stefano helped Madrid win its second league title, ending a 21-year drought.

Within three years, he helped Madrid lift the inaugural European Cup by scoring in a 4-3 win against France’s Stade de Reims.

The arrival at Madrid of Hungarian player Ferenc Puskas in 1958 led to an attacking partnership of dynamic effectiveness that allowed the club to retain the European title through to 1960, a record yet to be beaten.

Mr. Di Stefano’s last final in 1960 saw possibly his finest match. Before 127,000 spectators, he scored three times in Madrid’s 7-3 demolition of Eintracht Frankfurt.

The same year, he helped Madrid win the inaugural Intercontinental Cup between European and South American champions with a 5-1 aggregate victory against Uruguay’s Penarol.

He topped the Spanish league’s scoring standings in five of his 11 seasons with Madrid. He scored 49 times in 58 European matches, a record in the competition that stood for more than four decades.

Mr. Di Stefano left Madrid in 1964 to join Barcelona-based Espanyol for a two-year spell before retiring at age 40.

In 1963, Mr. Di Stefano was held captive by a guerrilla group during Madrid’s tour of Venezuela. He was taken at gunpoint from his hotel room and released unhurt two days later.

As a coach, he led Boca Juniors and River Plate to Argentine league titles and won the European Cup Winners’ Cup, the Spanish league title and the Copa del Rey with Valencia. He also managed Madrid between 1982 and 1984. Madrid appointed Mr. Di Stefano honorary president in 2000.

— Associated Press

Joseph Wilson in Barcelona contributed to this report.