Santiago Bernabeu first breezed into Real Madrid football club in 1909 at the tender age of 14. Soon he was spending all his free time there, clearing and lining the newly-rented playing fields. By the age of 17 he was first-team centre-forward, and later team captain before he hung up his boots in 1927 after 15 years of loyal service, and no less than 1,200 goals to his name. Almost immediately he was elected club "representative" - a kind of manager, before going on to serve as assistant coach, secretary, technical director and director.
It can be safely said that Santiago Bernabeu knew Real Madrid inside out by then, but it was a fluke of history that helped propel him to the head of his chosen club. On 15 September 1943, following a Real Madrid vs Barcelona clash, violent crowd incidents led to the government demanding the presidents of both clubs step down. Consequently, Santiago Bernabeu, a club director at the time, was elected caretaker president of Real Madrid'a position he would hold until his death on 2 June 1978.
His early years at the helm of the club were anything but easy with the civil war having taken its toll. The training fields had all been destroyed, the coffers were empty and the club was in dire need of new players. Bernabeu's first initiative was to build a new stadium, for which he tirelessly drummed up support, exerting all the influence at his disposal. Work began in 1944 and the Nuevo Chamartín stadium, with a capacity of 120,000, opened its doors for the first time in 1947.
With the club now back on track, "Don Santiago" could turn his attention to football matters. For the club's 50th birthday Real played a friendly match against Millionarios de Bogota and conceded two goals to the Colombian side's blond Argentine striker, a certain Alfredo Di Stefano. Bernabeu took one look and knew he had to have him. Whatever it took, Di Stefano would play for Real Madrid.
"Real Madrid, the team who reinvented football", Gabriel Hanot
Di Stefano provided the long awaited kick-start the club needed, and after 21 years in the wilderness, Real finally won its third Spanish title. The superbly gifted Di Stefano would finish "pichichi" (topscorer) in the Liga on five separate occasions during Real Madrid's golden age. Bernabeu's ambition soon extended beyond Spain's borders. He was instrumental in founding the European Cup, a title Real would win a record five consecutive times between 1955 and 1960, and nine times in all so far. Di Stefano would score a staggering 49 goals in 58 European matches?
Bernabeu's Real Madrid had become more than a successful football club, they were now a myth. In 1955, the supporters club voted - against the president's wishes - to rename the stadium "Santiago Bernabeu", the ultimate homage from the "socios" to the man who had built their club brick by brick.
The president ran his club with boundless enthusiasm until he passed away. In his 35-year reign Real won a staggering number of trophies, 71 cups in total, including six European Cups, sixteen Ligas, six Spanish Cups and one World Club Championship. Perhaps the most touching show of respect for Santiago Bernabeu came from his friend Gabriel Hanot, editor of the French sports newspaper l'Equipe, who wrote: "Real Madrid, the team who reinvented football".