The striking and surprising stories behind football’s stadium names

The striking and surprising stories behind football’s stadium names

While sponsorship deals can throw up some humorous alternatives to the once-traditional homages, there are brilliant and bizarre stories behind the names of some of football’s stages. From politicians to poets, linesmen to historical battles, a stadium’s calling-card comes in all sorts of shapes and sizes, whether they’re related to the club they belong to or not. 

Location often comes before anything else, even someone who has contributed to the history of the club; a player, manager or board member. Those criteria aren’t always followed, however, and sometimes stray away from sense altogether.

Our first stop on this nonsensical tour of football’s strangely christened stadia brings us to Spain. Fond of their club presidents, Real Madrid and Sevilla have immortalised their most influential ones with the title of their grounds. LaLiga minnows Huesca reside at the modest Estadio El Alcoraz and are competing in Spain’s top tier for the first time in their history this season. 

Opened in 1972, the 7,600-seater venue holds the name of the famed Alcoraz battle at the end of the 20th century. The confrontation saw the leaders of Aragon and Zaragoza battle as Peter I avenged the death of his father in an Aragonese victory. The tiny football club is now fighting for their place in the Primera and, after an understandably troublesome start, an unlikely escape has since made way for inevitable relegation. 

Counterparts Real Valladolid also decided to take a historical position on their ground, with 19th-century poet José Zorrilla y Moral the honorary bearer. Born in Valladolid 111 years before the football club was founded, Zorrilla’s name is under threat from a naming rights deal after Los Pucelanos announced plans to redevelop the stadium in February. During its hosting duties at the 1982 World Cup, it was given the nickname Estadio de la Pulmonia (pneumonia) due to its open sides and subsequent chilly breeze. 

Poetic creativity has filtered right across the Iberian state with Malaga’s La Rosaleda (The Rosegarden) and El Arcangel (The Archangel) standout fixtures in the country’s top two flights. Numancia’s Los Pajaritos (The Birdies) is disappointingly named after the neighbourhood where it resides rather than any prominent presence of any winged animals. 

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A bombard of sponsorship money and newly-built venues have papered over most of the traditional and cherished football grounds in the UK. Amongst a sea of Middle Eastern airlines and betting companies that now sit atop of entrances in London, Manchester and Stoke, you have the odd unearthed gem. 

When West Bromwich Albion moved to build their own home in 1900, they started construction on land covered in hawthorns bushes. It sometimes can be as simple as that and the name sticks. Wolves could possibly have the earliest sponsorship agreement in the history of the game, with their beloved Molineux coming from 18th-century merchant Benjamin Molineux, who purchased the land in 1744. That isn’t the stadium’s only first either: it also helped pioneer the introduction of floodlights.

Those involved in the World Cup final at Wembley in 1966 have been recognised across the country, with stands dedicated to Sir Bobby Charlton and Sir Bobby Moore at Old Trafford and the London Stadium respectively. Another key figure in that match is also remembered in a similar way, over 2,400 miles away. 

The national stadium in Baku, Azerbaijan has had a chequered past when it comes to its title. Russian leaders Joseph Stalin and Vladimir Lenin have boldly held this particular honour in the past but, in an attempt to move away from its Soviet roots, the Azerbaijani authorities decided to name it after one of their own. 

And so, with the apparent lack of Azerbaijani footballers, they took the unprecedented step and gave it to a linesman. You may not know the name of Tofiq Bahramov, but he is one of the most important men in English football history. He is “that Russian linesman” of the 1966 final who gave Geoff Hurst’s extra-time goal that put the Three Lions ahead. When England visited on World Cup qualifying duties in 2004, the likes of Hurst, Sepp Blatter and Michel Platini attended a ceremony dedicated to the late Bahramov before kick-off. 

While local governing bodies approved this change of name, a proposal doesn’t always go down well with everyone. Napoli once attempted to rename the San Paolo after club icon Diego Maradona, only to be met with a firm ‘no’ from the Naples city council. The city’s law states that public buildings cannot be named after someone unless that person has been dead for at least a decade. Maybe one day they’ll get their wish. 

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Due to the film star’s birthplace being in close proximity to the city, Sturm Graz christened their ground after Arnold Schwarzenegger in 1995. Three years later, they won their very first Austrian Bundesliga title and then defended their title the following season. Three OFB-Cups in four years between 1995 and 1999 also cemented the Terminator’s positive impact. 

Real Madrid visited in the 1998/99 Champions League group stages, coming away with a 5-1 victory while European champions Manchester United were 3-0 winners there in the same competition a year later. Due to political controversy for Schwarzenegger as Governor of California, Austrian politicians ordered for the ground to be retitled. Insurance company Merkur Versicherung now hold the rights, much to the Schwarzenegger’s dismay, no doubt.

Politics always seems to have some bearing on football, no matter where you are in the world, and controversial homages are not uncommon when it comes to divisive leaders. If you’re walking through Benina, a city to the east of Libyan capital Benghazi, you may stumble across the Martyrs of February Stadium, the home of several Benghazi football clubs. 

It’s Libya’s first all-seater stadium, holds over 10,000 fans and the name pays tribute to the people who died fighting against Colonel Gaddafi’s regime during the recent civil war. Before 2011, during Gaddafi’s reign, the ground was named after former Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, a close friend of Gaddafi during his time in power. The name was changed after civil war defeat for the long-time leader and the end of a suppressive dictatorship. 

Other political figures can be seen adorning stadium entrances across the globe, from the Estadio General Santander in Colombia – named after the country’s former president – the Stade Charles de Gaulle in Benin – titles after the two-time French leader – and the Teddy Stadium in Israel, in honour of Jerusalem’s former mayor, Teddy Kollek. 

The 31,000-seater venue played host to a handful of games during the 2013 Under-21 European Championship, including the final. Álvaro Morata scored the winner there against Russia in the group stages before Spain were 4-2 winners against Italy to claim the trophy at the same place. That night saw Thiago Alcântara net a hat-trick and it would’ve been sentimental if he’d had scored Spain’s only goal there a few years later in senior World Cup qualifying. Instead, it was Asier Illarramendi who played in the final at least.

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Other, more significant, international achievements don’t go unnoticed in South Korea. When they finished fourth as hosts at the 2002 World Cup, coach Guus Hiddink was given all sorts of royalties. Among the free flights with Korean Air, free taxis rides, a private villa on Jeju Island and honorary South Korean citizenship, the Dutchman has a stadium named after him in the Asian country. 

The Gwangju World Cup Stadium in, you guessed it, Gwangju was the setting for South Korea’s extraordinary shock win over Spain on penalties in the 2002 quarter-finals. It now bears Hiddink’s name as a dedication to his work with the national team and guiding an Asian nation to the World Cup semi-finals for the first time ever. Local team Gwangju Sangmu moved in after the tournament but were forced to leave town in 2011, when a new club in Gwangju was founded. Sangmu are now situated in Sangju and their squad is made up of young Korean players who are serving their two-year compulsory military service.

So, from Azerbaijan to Israel, Libya to South Korea, we’ll head back to the UK for one final stop. Looking down past British football’s professional ranks, you eventually come to Lewes FC in the Isthmian Premier Division in the seventh tier. The club was founded towards the end of the 19th century and nowadays aims to give equal pay to men and women playing for the club. 

The women’s side currently play in the FA Women’s Championship in the second tier alongside the likes of Manchester United, Tottenham and Aston Villa. Both men and women play their home fixtures at The Dripping Pan and have done since the club’s formation in 1885. The name is thought to have come from the land’s use by a salt-making industry as monks used the site to pan for salt at the base of the South Downs National Park.

Occasionally you see weird and wacky names only to find out that somewhere called Hunky Dorys Park is actually sponsored by a crisp company in Drogheda. The initial disappointment of finding out that those crazy christenings are just business investments is outweighed by the tales that some names tell when you delve into them. 

Whether they bring good luck to the club or political controversy, stadiums named after people are always that little bit more interesting. Football’s worldwide spread gives us titles that are lost in translation and those that just make no sense at all. But they’re the best ones. Why would you name your national stadium after a linesman from the 1960s? Why not? If you’re ever curious or confused as to why the ground you’re sitting in is called what it is, it’s certainly worth finding out.

By Billy Munday @billymunday08

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