Owen NeilsonComment

THREE STADIUMS, A TEAM AND A ROAD: REMEMBERING ROMEO MENTI

Owen NeilsonComment

How do you pay tribute to a legend? Here's *exactly* how to do it.

Football pays homage to the great and the good through various touching appreciation. At the bottom, above conversation in the pub of course, are songs, “I still see that tackle by Moore and when Lineker scored Bobby belting the ball and Nobby dancin,” that sort of thing. In England most clubs will honour a real legend with a staute, Billy Wright outside Molineux, Billy Bremner at Elland Road, Sir Stanley Matthews at The Britannia. Great managers get roads; Sir Matt Busby Way, Brian Clough Way, Sir Alf Ramsey Way. That prospect certainly gives the adage; Where there’s a will there’s a way, a more physical feel. Finally there’s stands; the Matthew Harding Stand at Stamford Bridge, the Gill Merrick Stand at Birmingham City and so on.

However the English, unlike their European cousins, stop short of actually naming stadiums after players and managers. Perhaps it’s the effacing character, the importance of the collective over the individual, the tradition, or in the Emirates and Etihad Arena case, money’s importance over the individual.

In Spain and other countries the greatest honour, or greatest fortification of one’s legacy is having a stadium named after you, or naming the stadium after yourself. Santiago Bernabeu Yeste, the former coach, player and president of Real Madrid is immortalized at the home of Los Meringues. City rivals Atletico’s ground is also named after former president Vicente Calderón. If you’re really lucky, like Alfonso Pérez you can have a stadium named after you despite never playing a first team game for the club, as is the case with Getafe.

In Germany as in England, this honour is increasingly difficult to bestow on a player or manager since some bright spark realized the commercial potential of selling the naming rights of a stadium. Unless you go by Karl Volkswagen or Lukas T-Mobile, the egocentric champion will have to settle for a brass bust or €50 million in career earnings... The Bundesliga is consistently praised for its financial stability so not too much mud can be thrown at the shiny, ultra modern Allianz Arena or the LTU Arena, but there is still the Fritz Walter Stadium where Kaiserslautern plays. Named after the former Red Devils forward, Walter played for over 20 years scoring an unbelievable 327 goals in 384 games and captaining Germany to their first World Cup triumph in 1952.

Italy is really the sick man of Europe in terms of the modernity of its stadia, but despite the financial losses it preserves a solid sense of history, much like Spain, with former presidents and players identifiable by the names bestowed on the miniature principalities crumbling in cities around the peninsula.

The largest in the country is the Giuseppe Meazza, remembering the Inter Milan legend and perhaps Italy’s greatest striker. Were it not for a quirk in Italian law and a successful stomach stapling operation Napoli could run out at the Stadio Diego Maradona, and no doubt one day they will.

Being asked to endorse vegetarian burgers would be a thrill for most people, so to have a song or statue bearing your name and memory; to become part of a club’s speech and folklore is more than most footballers’ dream of when they first lace up their boots as a child. Only the likes of Maradona could turn up to training at a new club and harbour any ambitions of posthumously putting their surname to the monument that would host their talent, having three just seems churlish.

Yet one player who graced the divisions of Italian football holds that claim, but was as reserved and taciturn as the great Argentinean is controversial and outspoken.

Born in Vicenza in September 1919, Romeo Menti is widely considered one of the best right wings of his era for the completeness of his style. It’s attested he had strength and shooting ability and could execute beautiful free-kicks and smash home penalties.

In 1935, three days after his sixteenth birthday Menti made his debut for Vicenza and in his second season played in the new Stadio Littorio, the ground that would eventually bear his name. Two years later, already beloved by fans of the Biancorossi he scored 21 goals in 30 games before a 68,000 lira move to Fiorentina.

The renaissance capital was to become his home from home, and the “Silent Canon” helped La Viola into Serie A in his first season scoring 17 goals in 29 games. Menti also played in Fiorentina’s first Coppa Italia winning side of the same year and had continued success with the Tuscans. In 1940-41 he had another blistering season, scoring 18 in 29 and helped Fiorentina finish equal 3rd  in one of their greatest seasons since the club’s inception. His prodigious skill and natural speed nearly quintupled his value as Torino, desperate for its second Scudetto took the winger north for 300,000 lira.

“The Fox” as he also became known scored 14 in 28 in his first season and got another 8 as I Grenata took the title the following year. As the Second World War took hold of Europe Menti asked to be closer to his family and played nine games for Milan in 1944. After that he turned out for SC Stabia, a town 30 kilometres south of Napoli, in a war league combined from teams in Serie A, B and C which Stabia won.

He played one more season at Fiorentina before returning to Piedmonte to become part of the championship winning Il Grande Torino. The team led by goal machine Valentino Mazzola passed into legend winning four consecutive Scudetti scoring 212 goals in 142 games and winning the league at a canter from in order, Juventus, Milan and Inter.

Despite the unparalleled success and playing for one of the great sides in the world, Menti’s nickname the ‘Silent Canon’ was apt as much for his inclination to solitude and quiet as his goal-scoring prowess as a former Fiorentina teammate said, “We realized that without ball at his feet he suddenly became meek and quiet, with his sad smile that belied his shyness and kindness, he seemed ashamed.” And for all the swagger and power of Torino, Menti was reluctant to play against his old club, “I still remember when we met here in Florence and in matches between Fiorentina and Torino. He came forward with a kind face and was the first to greet me and hug me saying: “I do not want to play against you, it makes me sick to play.”  Sounds like Carlos Tevez.

His qualities didn’t go unnoticed and Menti made his dream debut for the Azzurri, playing in his beloved city in 1947 and the winger scored a hat-trick against Switzerland going on to collect seven caps in total with five goals.

In May 1949 as representatives of Italy’s finest team, Torino flew to Lisbon for a friendly with Benfica to celebrate the end of Captain Francisco Ferreira’s career. On the return journey in foggy conditions the Fiat G.212 plane carrying 27 passengers and four crew crashed into the Basilica on the hill of Superga and tragically everyone was killed.

A sad end to blessed lives, and immediately after the crash, Menti’s former club Vicenza renamed their stadium in their fallen son’s honour as it remains to this day.

In 1984 as Stabia looked to rename their stadium fans found an old commemorative plaque from 1949 in the old sports facility.  They insisted, in memory of the great player, despite making only a handful of appearances for the club, Romeo Menti should be the name of their stadium.

At least with two there is a connection. A.C.Montichiari, a Lega Pro side from Lombardia also named their stadium in tribute to the quiet professional who loved Tuscany, but as tribal and regional as Italian fans are, it doesn’t matter.                                                               

But to Menti it did. If three football stadiums weren’t enough, there’s also an amateur team called GSD Romeo Menti and a road with his name. Despite all of those tributes, respectful, fitting and appreciative as they are from the two ends of Italy, he is known to have said above all, he’d play with Fiorentina for nothing.

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