What’s in a name? The sporting icons, war heroes and great leaders who lend their names to the temples of Italian football.
Within just a few hours of Diego Maradona’s passing, the mayor of Naples tabled a motion to rename Stadio San Paolo in his honour. It was a spontaneous response, but one entirely in harmony with the public mood. In his prime, Diego was a deity to the Napolitani, having elevated an entire city from its malaise. Three decades on, rivers of grief now flowed through the city’s streets.
The symbolic custom of naming a stadium after a fallen icon is a well-trodden path in Italy. Diego Maradona’s name is a contemporary addition to a roll of honour that stretches as far back as calcio itself. The names of Luigi Ferraris, Giuseppe Meazza and Renato Curi are ingrained, paradoxically, in the consciousness of any Italian football disciple. They are capable of evoking Sunday afternoons past; the vibrancy and colour of the curva, the rhythmic worship of the tifosi. Yet at the same time, many of these figures are strangers to us. Who are they and what were their stories?
In this two-part journey around the peninsula, we discover the long-since departed figures who lend their names to the temples of Italian football.
The Celebrated Performers…
A great many stadia are named after the footballing greats who graced the turf, setting new standards and delivering moments of ecstasy. And that was the course followed in Milan in 1980. Stadio San Siro was renamed in honour of Giuseppe Meazza who had passed away the previous summer. As a three-time Scudetto winner and former coach, Meazza is inextricably linked to Inter’s history, but his two World Cup victories (1934, 1938) and a two-season spell in the red and black of AC Milan ensure that the diminutive forward’s legend transcends tribal boundaries in Milan.
Another icon from this golden generation for calcio was Silvio Piola, who has not one, but two stadia named after him. Perhaps more remarkably, they are located just 20km apart in rival Piedmont towns. Piola book-ended an illustrious career with spells at Pro Vercelliand Novara. He remains the highest scorer in Serie A history (274 goals) and secured a place in the nation’s hearts when he struck two goals in the 1938 World Cup Final.
Nereo Rocco enjoyed moderate success on the field with home town club Triestina, but it was after his playing days ended that his legacy truly began. He built a legendary AC Milan side, which captured two Scudetti and a pair of European Cups under his stewardship. Rocco is widely credited as the godfather of the fabled catenaccio style, which defined Italian football for many decades. When Trieste’s new stadium was constructed in 1992, there could only have been one choice for the name.
The Prematurely Departed…
The death of a player in his prime inevitably evokes an acute sense of loss. It serves as a reminder to us that even our heroes are bounded by mortal limits. Naturally, such events demand a profound response. Several clubs commemorate players who tragically perished during, or as a direct consequence of a match. Promising young midfielder Renato Curi (Perugia) was said to be on the verge of a call-up to the national team when he suddenly and unexpectedly suffered a fatal heart attack on the field. Reflective of an era when goalkeepers were afforded little protection, Piercesare Tombolato (Cittadella) and Bruno Nespoli (Olbia) were both custodians who died from injuries sustained during a match.
In January 1946, Crotone were en route to play a friendly match against local side Castrovillari, when their vehicle lost control on a slippery road and overturned. The accident claimed the life of their talismanic captain Ezio Scida, after whom the stadium was subsequently named.
Armando Picchi was the captain and lynchpin of the Grande Inter team. The tenacious libero won three scudetti and two European Cups as a member of Helenio Herrera’s all-conquering team, before beginning a career in coaching. However, a short battle with cancer took the life of a cherished son at the age of just 36. His memory is enshrined in the name of the stadium in Livorno, the hometown club for whom he played and coached.
The 1949 Superga disaster claimed the lives of the most dominant team ever seen in Italian football. Fittingly, they remain the only team that are collectively remembered in a stadium name (Turin’s Stadio Olimpico Grande Torino). Several members of that historic side are also commemorated in their places of birth and by former clubs. Mario Rigamonti (Brescia and Lecco) and Romeo Menti (Vicenza and Juve Stabia) have the honour of multiple venues named in their memory, whilst Danilo Martelli’s memory is preserved in his home province of Mantova.
The War-Time Heroes…
The devastation of war permeates every corner of society. Many of Italy’s footballers were drawn into conflict and, sadly, a great many did not return. These respected figures who sacrificed their lives are remembered through municipal monuments across the peninsula. Spezia’s Alberto Picco had a remarkable, but tragically short life. He had been a founding member of the Ligurian club, he was their captain, their first goalscorer, director and treasurer. His football career and professional work as an accountant were interrupted by the military call of the Great War. Picco was just 21-years-old when he met his destiny at the hands of Austro-Hungarian artillery in the Alpine region of modern-day Slovenia.
Just two months after Picco’s death, another member of the footballing community was lost in almost identical circumstances. Luigi Ferraris had been a midfielder for Genoa in the nascent championships of the early 20th century, before perishing in the Venetian Alps. The silver gallantry medal awarded to Ferraris is buried deep beneath Genoa’s Gradinata Nord, placed there in 1933 when the city’s stadium was renamed in his honour.
In a similar vein, Empoli preserve the memory of record goalscorer Carlo Castellani, who never returned from the Mauthausen concentration camp in World War II. He retired from playing in 1940, but continued to support the club financially using wealth from his family’s business empire. In Spring 1944, the Fascist regime began to round up agitators associated with a wave of industrial strikes. They came for Castellani’s father, a well-known anti-fascist and socialist, but found him in ill-health, so Castellani junior stoically took his place on the death car departing for Austria.
It is not always necessary for wartime heroes to have excelled in sport to be recognised. The municipal stadium in Venice is named after a celebrated aviator who originated from the city. Pier Luigi Penzo saw active service during the First World War; shot down over the Adriatic and subsequently captured and interned in Austria. However, this experience did little to diminish his sense of adventure after the conflict had ended, participating in dangerous rescue missions in the Arctic. Penzo met his destiny in the skies over France in 1928 when his plane clipped power cables in poor weather. His body was recovered and returned to Venice, whereupon Italy’s second-oldest stadium was named in his honour.
The stadia in Chiavari (Virtus Entella) and Carpi are used to memorialise the bravery of Second World War partisans. Stationed in the hills of Chiavari, Aldo Gastaldi became a key protagonist of the Italian resistance as the north of the country entered into cooperation with Germany. A strong-willed leader, motivated by a fierce sense of justice and freedom, Gastaldi proved himself to be a shining light of the liberation movement. Sandro Cabassi was a courageous freedom fighter, who ran away from home aged 18 to join the liberation struggle. He was captured, tortured and placed in front of a Fascist firing squad. Staring down his destiny, his powerful words caused his would-be executioners to hesitate, forcing their commander to take a pistol and perform the deed himself. His symbolic sacrifice for the freedom of others is remembered in Carpi.
In part two, we continue our journey around Italy, meeting celebrated club officials, visionaries and sporting icons from other fields. And one important exception who stands out from the rest.
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Words by: Tom Griffiths. @CalcioEngland