What you need to know:
- When they utter the name Santiago Bernabeu in pride or in dread, many football fans globally don’t know that they are keeping alive the legend of a man of vision and selflessness
- Why we name public spaces after particular individuals should be easy to explain. It is to recognise their achievements and to ensure that their good example is not forgotten and that it will serve as an inspiration to successor generations. It gets harder when we enter the arena of who gets to be honoured and why they deserve the honour.
- Determination of who an important person in a community is largely depends on the culture of the community in question
The Santiago Bernabeu Stadium, home of Real Madrid, is a monument to the city’s most illustrious football son. It is also about the complex relationships between communities and the public servants who manage their affairs.
In the world of sport in almost every country, people have had their versions of a Santiago Bernabeu; individuals they have acclaimed in life and then either immortalised in death or erased from memory.
Bernabeu was a striker for Real Madrid before the Spanish Civil War which was fought between 1936 and 1939. On retirement, he took up managerial and later directorship roles. And then war broke out. During the conflict in which he was himself a soldier, no professional football took place.
When the guns fell silent and the game could again be played, Bernabeu returned to his old club only to find it in ruins.
All around him was evidence of the war’s bitter outcome: dead and disappeared club officials, decaying buildings, looted trophies and memorabilia, destroyed records.
Bernabeu just went to work, self-assigned. He sought and contracted players from wherever he could find them and assembled the best staff he could convince to come on board.
After a violent match between Madrid and FC Barcelona in 1943, the government forced both club presidents to resign and Bernabeu assumed the Madrid presidency. He would occupy this seat for the next 35 years.
Madrid’s rivals – Barcelona, Atletico and Athletic Bilbao – had emerged from the war in much better shape but that did not impress Bernabeu. With remarkable vision and tenacity, he restructured the club, placing a lot of emphasis on quality people.
It was always about the club and never about him. Yet he also kept an eye on the wider football ecosystem, aware that the development of the game at large was essential for Madrid to thrive.
Bernabeu is the man who started what is today the commonplace practice of recruiting players from any country in the world as long as they can make the desired contribution. His Real Madrid squad became a kaleidoscope of national flags and the club is credited as being the one that put together the world’s first truly multinational team. All he was interested in was quality – not parochial tribal pride.
In 1955, a journalist from the L'Équipe newspaper named Gabriel Hanot sought to interest Bernabeu with the idea of an international football tournament involving the leading clubs in Spain and the southern European neighbourhood. Bernabeu thought the idea was bright and being the man of action that he was, he ran it with colleagues from inside and outside Spain. It grew and Bernabeu continued to lend it his formidable energy and imagination.
The result is today’s European Champions League, the world’s most prestigious club tournament, for which he is honoured as the founding father. He then turned his attention to building a home for Real Madrid that befitted its reincarnated status.
At that time, the project was derided as overambitious. But he pressed on and the stadium was opened in 1947, becoming the biggest in Europe at the time. Today it sits more than 81,000 people.
Bernabeu died in 1978 at the age of 82. He died during that year’s Fifa World Cup in Argentina and Fifa declared three days of mourning during the tournament.
In 2002, it posthumously awarded him the Fifa Order of Merit. Real Madrid named its colossus of an arena after him in tribute to his contribution to its revival and development.
When they utter the name the Santiago Bernabeu in pride or in dread, many football fans around the world do not know that they are keeping alive the legend of a man of vision and selflessness. But thanks to the gratitude of the Madrid community, they do.
Why we name public spaces after particular individuals should be easy to explain. It is to recognise their achievements and to ensure that their good example is not forgotten and that it will serve as an inspiration to successor generations.
It gets harder when we enter the arena of who gets to be honoured and why they deserve the honour.
Here, culture plays a big role. The determination of who an important person in a community is largely depends on the culture of the community in question.
For example, some cultures venerate artistic excellence. People in such communities are likely to name public facilities after their musicians, actors, sportspeople, writers, sculptors and the like.
But in cultures where such pursuits are held in low esteem, even the geniuses that lifted them to great heights are likely to die and be forgotten quickly.
Of course, culture keeps changing. Since our independence, the Big Man syndrome is the dominant part of our culture. The people revel in a plethora of terms exalting bigness.
They crave to be called “boss”, “chief”, “mkubwa”, “mdosi”, “sonko”, “mhesh”, “budaa” even in cases where the number of people under their responsibility is limited only to their individual themselves.
The most prominent Big Man in the country is the politician of any rank. He or she gets to drive lesser people off the road, to keep you waiting until there is nothing else you can do that day and to hog the names of public facilities. He may have had little to do with architecture or building construction all his life, but he will get his name on the housing estate.
He may have made no significant contribution to the field of medicine, but his name will be on the hospital building. And, of course, he may only reluctantly have attended a sports meeting because it was the vote-seeking season, but his name will adorn the stadium.
The pitfalls of hurriedly naming public facilities after individuals without due process is that they become subject to revision later. And that revision can be harsh; how many times have you seen people kicking statues of fallen dictators and carting away their bronze body parts to keep as mementos or to sell them in the market to interested collectors?
I think it would be a good thing if Kenya moved away from arbitrariness and adopted good practice such as widespread consultation and debate when it comes to naming public spaces after individuals. There should be broad consensus that those so honoured deserve their accolades.
Even after people die, which should be the only time that they can be accorded such honours, there should be unhurried process. There are good reasons for doing this and not least is the answer to this question: why the hurry? (The world’s oldest continuously running organisation, the 2,021 year-old Catholic Church, has never been in a hurry to make its saints. It usually waits until all the living witnesses to a candidate’s life have died before that candidate can reach the status of sainthood. This eliminates any prospects of somebody coming forward with damming information about a person who has already been canonised).
Of course, the secular world can’t do it this way – but there is the template.
Back to the kind of people whose names we should put on the rims of our stadiums. Here is an interesting story. Shortly after the end of World War II, Brazil won the right to host the fourth edition of the Fifa World Cup which was slated for 1950.
The two previous editions of the tournament in 1942 and 1946 had been cancelled because of the war.
To host the competition, authorities decided to build a showcase stadium in the city of Rio de Janeiro.
The idea immediately ran into powerful headwinds. The congressman of the area, an influential man named Carlos Lacerda, objected to the building of a stadium at the chosen site in the Maracana neighbourhood.
Lacerda was a political enemy of the city’s mayor who favoured the project. He had what it took to derail the construction.
This led to one of the most unusual outcomes in the often adversarial relationship between authorities and sports journalists. It remains a curiosity in the world to this day.
Mário Rodrigues Filho was a sports journalist who had started his career in a newspaper owned by his father before taking it over upon the old man’s death.
He wasn’t cut for the business of running a media house but a great writer he turned out to be. He was nicknamed “the creator of crowds” because of the way he got people to fill up stadiums with his fine reportage.
He coined phrases such as the “Fla-Flu Derby” describing the epic meetings of Rio clubs Flamengo and Fluminense which have stood the test of time.
He became a noted author but it is his 1947 book, O Negro no Futebol Brasileiro ("The Negro in Brazilian football") detailing the influence and achievements of black footballers in his country that is most acclaimed as a classic of Brazilian sports literature.
Filho adopted the Maracana project with a zealot’s devotion, becoming something of a one-man advocacy campaign machine.
In 1947, a short three years before the World Cup was to begin, the city of Rio opened the competition for the design and construction of the stadium. In August 1948, the first cornerstone was laid.
The first game of the World Cup was slated for June 1950 so there was less than two years to go before the completion of the stadium. Even then, the pace continued to lag and gangs of workers, sometimes reaching 2,000 in number, were added to the effort.
By the time of the opening match, the place looked like a veritable construction sight. Yet the world’s biggest sports arena now stood and according to official figures 199,954 spectators watched Brazil lose to Uruguay in the final game they only needed to draw to take the cup. Unofficial estimates put the crowd size at 205,000.
The building of the Maracana Stadium continued until 1965 when it was officially complete. In September 1966, Mário Filho died of natural causes.
Citing the fact that he was largely responsible for the construction of Brazil’s – and one of the world’s – most iconic sports arenas, the city of Rio de Janeiro passed a resolution in honour of Filho.
It changed Maracana’s official name to Estádio Jornalista Mário Rodrigues Filho by which it is known to this day.
People continue to call it by its short neighbourhood nickname, the Maracana, which is a little like simply saying Kasarani Stadium instead of Moi International Sports Centre.
But Rio authorities had made their point; to them, no political figure was worthy of the honour of having the arena named after them. That dedicated sports journalist was. I know of no other such case in the world.
Roy Gachuhi, a former Nation Media Group sports report- er, is a writer with The Content House. email@example.com