There are times when you wonder whether Gianni Infantino has ever interacted with an actual human being, somebody who might tell him how ridiculous he sounds or do something about his white trainers. Maybe this is how he has always been, gabbling away in the language of the football wonk, involuntarily spewing out inane statistics and ludicrous proposals.
Even by the standards of the kneejerk populism of modern political figures – Build a wall! Tax cuts! Universal … err… maths! – Infantino’s suggestion that every country should name a stadium after Pelé was absurd even if Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau have fallen into line. Perhaps he was paying some sort of tribute to Pelé by saying something ridiculous he thought local media wanted to hear.
How exactly would this work? Would the football associations of each country hold a grand draw to decide which club would be forced to change? What sort of jurisdiction does he imagine football federations have? This isn’t Stalin changing the name of St Petersburg after Lenin’s death. Why would any country want a stadium named after a great from elsewhere? Good luck getting that to catch on in Buenos Aires.
And what of Brazilians, and Santos fans in particular? Might they not feel that they have some sort of ownership of their legend? Who can imagine where Infantino, who lives in Doha, might have got the idea that things can be changed at a moment’s notice on dictatorial whim?
The process isn’t straightforward, even in Brazil. In April 2021 an attempt to rename the Maracanã after Pelé was vetoed by the state governor of Rio de Janeiro. “The truth,” the Assembly speaker André Ceciliano pointed out, “is that Maracanã will be eternally called Maracanã.” Nobody, after all, ever refers to it by the name it took on in 1966 to honour a fabled sportswriter, the Estadio Jornalista Mário Filho.
And that perhaps is the wider point. Stadiums are called whatever people call them. When Mike Ashley tried to rename St James’ Park he was met with widespread opposition: nobody in Newcastle referred to it as the Sports Direct Arena. That was a specific case, a brand being pushed by a hated owner, but even when stadiums are renamed after popular figures, they often retain their old name.
In Italy, Internazionale and Milan are still generally said to play at San Siro, not at the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza. Few have heard of Camilo Cichero or Alberto José Armando, the two Boca Juniors presidents after whom their stadium has at various times been named, but in Argentina everybody knows La Bombonera.
There is something pleasingly demotic about that, but of course Infantino and Fifa despise the spontaneous. Who knows what fans might get up to if they are actually allowed to be fans? Far better to drown them out with the asinine banalities of a pre-match hype man. There is something very powerful about a popular movement that leads to a change of name. That could be marking a tragedy, as when York City renamed a stand at Bootham Crescent after David Longhurst, the midfielder who had died on pitch during a game in 1990. Or celebrating a legend, as Napoli did in converting the San Paolo into the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona. Or as Cremonese’s mayor has proposed following the death of Gianluca Vialli.
There is the potential for naffness, of course. Tokenism is rarely far away and the financial obsession of the English game means stadiums here tend to be named after sponsors, but football generally is good at memorialising. In fact, it memorialises more than almost any other industry or cultural activity. There’s an element of self-perpetuation: if they have a statue, we must have one. But there’s something more going on.
In a globalised world in which traditional groupings are constantly fragmenting, football still offers a sense of identity and place. That the spate of stadium-building ushered in by Viktor Orbán’s government in Hungary has culminated in the Puskás Arena is entirely in keeping with his project to promote Hungarianness as something great and unique. If sport is, as George Orwell said, war minus the shooting, it makes sense that where once we erected statues to admirals and generals, we now erect them to managers and centre-forwards.
But it doesn’t have to be sinister. A statue marks a sense of continuity and, in reaching back to past glories, offers an aspirational model: if you can match the standards of Ted Bates, Billy Bremner, Sergio Agüero or whoever, it says to younger generations, you too will be honoured.
When so many stadiums and town centres are becoming homogenised, a statue of a local hero is an easy way to denote difference, to highlight identity. It is no coincidence that the boom in football statues has come over the past 30 years as clubs started moving away from their traditional grounds into new stadiums. How better for Sunderland to announce that the Stadium of Light is still Sunderland than by erecting a statue of their FA Cup-winning manager Bob Stokoe?
Naming reflects local concerns. The Treaty of Prespa between Greece and what is now North Macedonia in 2018 included an agreement from the former Yugoslav republic to reduce its claims to continuity with the ancient kingdom of Macedonia. That meant the Philip II Arena in Skopje (named after the father of Alexander the Great and, as far as I’m aware, the figure from the most distant past to have a football ground named after them) had to change its name. It may seem odd to outsiders that it now honours Toše Proeski, a singer killed in a car crash in 2007, the so-called Elvis of the Balkans, but it is a decision that answered a public need to commemorate him.
And that is as it should be. Whether through a statue or the name of a stadium, football offers an opportunity for communities to celebrate the figures they want to celebrate. It should be an organic process that comes from the ground up. But that is something Fifa, increasingly out of touch and totalitarian, cannot grasp. It wants to impose a regimented symbol of mourning, a gesture that is impractical and devoid of true feeling. Which says a lot about the nature of Infantino’s Fifa.