ANDREW BOULTON casts his sceptical gaze towards the heroism, hubris, horror and hilarity of statues in football.
Spend any length of time in Nottingham’s Old Market Square and you will see what we will politely refer to as ‘sights’. Teenage skateboarders tumbling churlishly against the concrete, their drastically over-exposed underpants providing little genuine protection against pavement burns and pigeon sick. Maudlin office workers weeping quietly into jacket potatoes so enormous they could briefly be mistaken for human heads. I even once saw a man angrily thrashing a phone box with a fishing pole.
Amongst the oddities of the day you’ll also notice people – a surprising number of people – saluting Brian Clough. The Clough statue, on the corner of King and Queen Street, is a beacon for public affection. Warm exchanges pass between the citizens of Nottingham and this monument on a daily basis. Parents and grandparents explain, with little success, that this ragged looking character had twice led little Nottingham Forest to become the finest team in Europe.
For a generation that sees little beyond Messi and Ronaldo (and the specific button combination that executes physiologically impossible overhead kicks on FIFA) the idea of Forest as European Champions is, understandably, difficult to comprehend.
Perhaps it is the sheer impossibility, the impenetrable disbelief that has grown over a 35-year decline that defines the need for such a statue. How appropriate that less than a mile away from Clough’s effigy, stands an equally prominent statue of Robin Hood, a fellow outlaw whose deeds can only be contemplated in the modern world as a myth.
Of course, aside from the girth of our potatoes and the inventiveness of our lunatics, Nottingham is not unusual in celebrating its football heroes. A fascinating research project led by Dr. Chris Stride and Ffion Thomas for the University of Sheffield has compiled a database of football statues throughout the world, recording over 400 across 56 countries.
From the earliest tribute, sculpted in 1903 (an anonymous player in Copenhagen) there has been a recent boom in immortalising footballers and managers. Dr. Stride notes that almost 95% of the world’s existing statue population has emerged since 1990.
‘The primary reasons for this increase are football clubs’ marketing strategies based around branding through nostalgia and authenticity, along with the desire of fans to project their club’s distinct identity in an increasingly globalised game’ explains Dr. Stride.
It is, on face value, a slightly depressing explanation. At best it is an inducement to fans – a club affecting the same kind of artificial empathy they use to sell your children a third kit that appears to have been designed by squirrels gnawing on a printer cartridge.
Some statues are, I’m sure, chiselled from nothing more profound than a raw slab of commercialism. And perhaps, in this particular era of professional football, a universal monument to cynicism is a fitting tribute.
But it seems there should be, and often is, a great deal more to this curious idolatry.
For example, there are the statues that capture remarkable moments in a club’s history. Outside Old Trafford, ‘The United Trinity’ by the renowned sculptor Philip Jackson is a fitting way to remember the incredible frontline of Bobby Charlton, Denis Law and George Best – with 665 United goals between them and each a former European Player of the Year. (Tellingly it is Charlton, the one with the most enduring influence at the club who clutches the ball – some who have left Old Trafford in unhappy fashion may suggest he still does.)
And, yes, the relationship between Charlton and Best was not necessarily always as fraternal as the statue suggests, but this was never supposed to be a monument to anything more complicated that sporting magnificence.
Jackson has also been responsible for another prominent shrine to distant victories, perhaps the most distant of them all. The World Cup Sculpture, or simply ‘The Champions’, can be found near West Ham’s soon to be departed Boleyn Ground. It recreates English football’s most famous photograph – as Hammers Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst and Martin Peters, with Ray Wilson of Everton, celebrate their 1966 World Cup victory.
Rival fans occasionally sneer at West Ham for celebrating a trophy they didn’t themselves win. For West Ham fans however, the source of the victory isn’t especially up for discussion.
Of course, the act of building a shrine to achievement is very much intended to preserve and perpetuate a club’s legends. Dixie Dean, for example, is remembered as a brawny guardian outside Goodison Park – his muscles bearing the exaggerated definition of an action figure. Based on this representation of the man, he could quite easily burst a banana boat between his thighs.
Yet it’s difficult to argue with the act of immortalising those individuals who defined a club, the ones who changed everything.
Outside the Camp Nou, Hungarian striker László Kubala is captured a second before he inevitably thunders a trademark free kick into the back of the net – or perhaps some inattentive defender’s unguarded groin.
Kubala was the driving force behind the famous 1951-52 ‘Cinq Copes’ team. More than the five trophies they won that year, it was a season that reignited pride and belief in the club. It has even been argued that the allure of this remarkable Hungarian was the catalyst for Barca’s move to a larger stadium. The creation of the Camp Nou forever legitimised the Barcelona ideal of being ‘more than a club’. And, according to Sid Lowe, the Camp Nou was ‘the house that László built’.
Of course football clubs, like any successful enterprise, are rarely carried on the shoulders of one individual, or even a single period in time. Tellingly, when Arsenal chose to commemorate the figures that took them to their own magnificent new stadium they gave thanks to three different generations.
The vision and invention of Herbert Chapman, the leadership of Tony Adams and the contemptuous brilliance of Thierry Henry were all chosen as cornerstones for an esteemed modern club. The Wenger statue is sure to follow (if he can be persuaded to splash out on bronze or marble – perhaps an effigy in empty Fanta cans awaits).
Incidentally, the statue of Adams in particular raises an interesting, if rather unkind, point. While some players, physically and spiritually, lend themselves to immortality, some have faces more suited to a plaque on a park bench.
Handsome, lean and endearingly arrogant, the statue of Henry feels cinematic and inspiring. Yet, while no one could question Tony Adams as a leader, his statue – arms outstretched in celebration of an unlikely goal – still strangely feels like a whispered joke. Perhaps a more familiar pose – like tugging a shirt, triggering a perfect offside trap or jabbing a sly thumb into an opponent’s pancreas – would feel like a better presentation of the man and the player.
What most clubs choose to ignore as they commission their tributes is the inescapable dalliance with hubris. The inevitable downside to enshrining your most glorious moments is that they serve as a cruel mirror to any modern failings.
At Elland Road, Leeds United’s most successful manager and captain – Don Revie and Billy Bremner – gaze down upon a beastly mess, trembling in their bronze boots for the day when Massimo Cellino decides to smelt them down and build a cathedral to his own boundless benevolence.
At least Leeds’ decline has been a blow softened by time, the steady erosion of belief with each period of increasingly dubious stewardship. At Manchester United the statue of Sir Alex Ferguson – looking a little too much like a kindly granddad for one of football’s most notorious shits – glares down at a club that began to flounder with him just a few steps outside the front door.
A celebration of glory is invariably a burden to any club in pursuit of it. Whether through the recent gloom of Ferguson’s shadow or the distant, lingering shade of Revie, to enshrine the standards by which all coming generations will be judged is an act of supreme confidence or hopeless presumption. Sensibly, Nottingham Forest decided to celebrate their most incomparable manager in a place where the current incumbent does not feel his disobliging glare.
Of course, erecting a statue isn’t just an invitation to the mischief of fate, there are plenty of earthly forces ready to riff on a rival’s vanity.
From the cheekiness of dressing Jack Walker in a Burnley kit to the more malevolent acts of daubing Billy Bremner’s face in Huddersfield blue, a club’s statue inevitably becomes a beacon for local one-upmanship. It’s a peculiar brand of iconoclasm that seems to manifest itself either in strangely old-fashioned japes or crude acts of violence. A silly wig or a sledge hammer to the neck.
Satisfyingly, the preserve of statue-bothering isn’t a strictly British affliction. In Douala, Cameroon a (frankly baffling) statue of Samuel Eto’o has been decapitated (possibly in the name of art), while even a statue of Pelé in Salvador has had his arms snapped off.
Rather generously though, there are some clubs who save opposition fans the trouble of making their statues laughable.
The North East is a particular hotbed for unintentionally entertaining monuments. At St. James’ Park, Alan Shearer is captured in a pose supposed to recreate his famous goal celebration.
But fans have likened the unusual stance to everything from the Gangnam Style dance to a man raising a tentative hand to indicate he has just won the pub’s meat raffle. Tellingly, Shearer’s only comment was to thank the sculptor for giving him hair.
Never to be out-rubbished by their neighbours, Sunderland chose to remember their FA Cup winning manager, Bob Stokoe. The pose was meant to depict a jubilant Stokoe dashing on to the pitch during their 1973 final win. Unfortunately, the reality is the stuff of nightmares – a wild-eyed maniac lunging towards you, arms outstretched in readiness to scoop up your children and gnaw on their tiny bones.
If it’s any consolation, no one appears to be safe from an unflattering statue. Diego Maradona, for example, is subject to an abundance of sculpted tributes – including a distinctly unbiblical cameo in a Neapolitan nativity scene.
And yet, even such a lofty figure in the game can be artistically mistreated. To celebrate the Argentinian’s 50th birthday a fan in Naples created a papier mâché figure in his honour. If the reality of the player is defined by a muscular poetry, the likeness is best described as looking like a paper bag filled with damp coconuts.
Of course if there’s one thing funnier than an unflattering likeness it’s an obsequious one. Step forward then, the enormous bronze statue of Cristiano Ronaldo. Actually, judging by the size of his disturbingly engorged genitals, I’m not sure he could (or indeed should) be stepping anywhere.
Unveiled by the man himself in his childhood home of Funchal in Madeira, the statue depicts Ronaldo in his typically hammy free kick stance. Add to that a perplexingly disproportionate mass of testes and even Ronaldo had the decency to look a little sheepish.
And even for an industry that measures design in half-and-half scarves and Gazprom billboards, no one hesitates to sneer at a tribute gone wrong.
Down at Southampton, an attempt to celebrate Ted Bates – a man who had devoted half a century of service to the club – ended in a fan revolt. The initial statue, bearing a haunting resemblance to Jimmy Krankie, lasted just a week before fan fury led to it being replaced with a less mirthful attempt.
The Bates affair – as nobody calls it – is probably the starkest examples of one of the most peculiar contradictions in this strange business of football statues. To earn a statue one must be, by definition, an instantly recognisable character. And yet so many clubs produce a likeness that the subject’s own children would be reluctant to accept a lift from. As an expression of devotion it’s rather like writing your true love a song that sounds exactly like an old woman furiously gumming dry Weetabix.
Of course, there are far worse scenarios for a fan than to see their heroes inadvertently besmirched by a well-meaning club. Imagine, if you even can, if the club had done it on purpose.
Eternally mistreated Blackpool fans are one of the few clubs to have had their own statue used as a weapon against them. Known by none as the Lancastrian Gandhi, Chairman Karl Oyston responded to fans’ growing annoyance by spiriting away a statue in honour of Stan Mortensen – scorer of a hat trick in the Tangerines’ 1953 FA Cup final win.
Incredibly, tampering with a club legend failed to quiet the fans’ unrest and, following some murmured explanation that it had been a police issue (which the Lancashire Police swiftly denied) the statue was sheepishly returned.
So, aside from politely expressed reservations about the Oyston public relations model, this sorry episode did at least serve to illustrate how any of these monuments are only permanent until, suddenly, they aren’t.
Sometimes though, amidst the masturbatory posturing, the political wrangling and the wildly distended testicles, a football statue can serve to represent something more meaningful than the game itself.
Joachim Reisner’s 1986 bronze sculpture commemorating the Bradford City fire is measured, dignified and deeply poignant. Representing the devastated stadium, the heroism of the rescuers and the ‘eternal bond between the living and the dead’ it is an expression of grief in a sport often paralysed in such moments by its own frivolity.
Similarly moving memorials are sadly plentiful throughout the world – partly because of the many tragedies the game has endured, partly because of football’s enigmatic capacity to absorb emotion.
Drenched in the shock of Gary Speed’s suicide, Leeds fans found their way to the Billy Bremer statue at Elland Road. Draped in Leeds scarves, Welsh flags and an agonising sense of disbelief, Bremner then represented to fans precisely what he always had done – a club taking care of their own.
Far from Yorkshire, the city of Kiev also shares this same unhappy shadow between sport and death. At the Start Stadium there stands a bold, romantic bronze – a defiant, celestial player bursting forward with the ball at his feet.
The statue is in remembrance of what has been known as ‘The Death Match’ – a game played in Nazi-occupied Kiev in 1942 between FC Start, a local bakery side, and a German military team. The Start team – containing a delegation of professionals from Dynamo Kiev – won the game 5-3 and several of the players were later arrested and then executed.
It’s a harrowing story, but one that was been cynically twisted by Nazi, Soviet and even Hollywood propaganda (the story is the loose inspiration behind the Michael Caine film ‘Escape to Victory’).
In reality, the players were not executed or even arrested immediately after the game for embarrassing the might of the Reich. In danger of spoiling some healthy misinformation, the Start team had already thumped the Nazi side 5-1 in an earlier fixture.
Also, although there were undeniably arrests made from within the team, the reasons given were (ostensibly) because the players were accused of being Soviet spies. Four Start players were eventually executed by the Nazis, while others from the team were punished by Stalin for collaboration with the Germans.
It’s a murky, twisted episode where football is dwarfed by a far deadlier political and ideological game. However football truly figured, if at all, the statue in Kiev nevertheless carries a distinct and enduring chill.
But what does this trot across the eclectic map of football statues really tell us? What do these grand, grotesque altars of indulgence say about the sport and its devotees?
If nothing else, it is reassuring to see that it’s a medium, perhaps neither fully of art or sport, but one where democracy is alive and well. One where greatness will be memorialised, in all its guises.
For example, at Tranmere Rovers, Johnny King – the club’s most successful manager – is immortalised with a statue funded by the club’s fans. The Bristol City Supporters Trust themselves raised the money and voted on the design for a tribute to John Atyeo, a prolific goal scorer who perhaps means little beyond the walls of Ashton Gate but means an incalculable amount within them. Everyone, it seems, has their own Ronaldo. Often, thankfully, with pants that fit.
What’s more, there’s something reassuring about the fact that countries all over the world – nations with the kind of football credentials the ‘Best League In The World ™’ brigade would most likely sneer at – are still getting giddy about their heroes.
At a roundabout in Oruro in Bolivia, the magnificently nicknamed Humberto ‘Gunboat’ Murillo is celebrated for his thunderous shooting in the cause of a successful San Jose of Orulu side from the 1950s (so successful, they were known as ‘The Hungarians’, the global benchmark for greatness at the time). Meanwhile, in Shenyang a monolithic team sculpture gloriously commemorates China’s first ever World Cup qualification.
And even if you find wealthy football clubs or associations patting themselves on the back a little wearisome, there is a sub-strand of football statues that celebrate the more unexpected stories.
At a shopping centre in the Bangu district of Rio de Janeiro there is a statue commemorating Thomas Donohoe, the Glaswegian factory worker some say first introduced football to Brazil. (If your hipster-sense just quivered violently, it’s because the commonly credited pioneer is Charles Miller, a Sao Paulo born son of a Scottish engineer. Some historians suggest Donohoe’s game pre-dates the more famous Miller kick-about.)
Picking figures to idolise, outside of the obvious choices, is an utterly mixed bag. In the Canadian town of Saskatoon a local amateur footballer called Hugh Cairns stands above the town’s war memorial (Cairns, a player for the local championship-winning church team, was awarded both the Victoria Cross and the Legion d’honneur during the First World War).
But if you like your subjects a little less deserving, if you’re perhaps intimated by valour or the pioneer spirit, then you my friends can take your trifling pick from the following.
Will it be a visit to the Sea Life Centre in Oberhausen to gaze perplexedly at the statue of everyone’s favourite extra-sensory cephalopod, Paul the Octopus?
Or would you rather travel back in time to the days when a 7-foot, Technicolor likeness of Michael Jackson loomed down over fans arriving at Craven Cottage – winning the ferociously competitive race to become football’s most baffling non-sequitur. Never one especially prone to arriving at unlikely conclusions, Mohamed Al-Fayed even directly attributed The Cottagers’ relegation from the Premier League to the removal of the statue.
So just when you think you’ve made your mind up about statues in football, someone throws an elaborate bronze octopus in to muddy the waters. And contradictions like this are everywhere. For every piece of thoughtful, compassionate art like Reisner’s Bradford memorial, there will be an obnoxious monument to football’s insidious cash-cowery – exactly like the Ronaldo statue at Nike’s Portland campus.
It seems impossible to understand statues in football, let alone determine the necessity of their existence. Are they a depressing idol to football’s insular, corrosive tribalism? Are they a glorious expression of the shoulders on which our modern affections (not to mention riches) have been hoisted? Are they merely an excuse to titter at a man’s disproportionate nuts?
It’s clear that to appreciate, even enjoy, these statues you have to gnaw through some substantial concerns. The misappropriation of reflected glory by cynical authorities and organisations is a fairly meaty one. Yet more fuel to the wearisome cult of personality in football is another that may take some protracted chewing.
And yet, blinded perhaps by Alan Shearer’s preserved hairline, Dixie Dean’s taught thighs or simply Brian Clough’s rumpled, unaffected greatness, I can’t help but find these statues mostly endearing. I sort of choose to see them as a final expression of thanks, something enduringly appreciative in an increasingly ephemeral sport.
Probably what has won me over most of all is that, by a statue’s very nature, it possesses a resilience and evenness that modern football lost long ago. A statue won’t screech odious things at a football stadium, it won’t wail pitifully down the line to a radio phone-in or demand the immediate death of someone whose face they had tattooed onto their neck just a few weeks before. It won’t scrawl menacingly on a bed sheet or the back page of a newspaper. It won’t sulk or shirk or snooze its way through a perfectly reasonable question. It won’t overburden a personal assistant or be a terrible DJ or punch a horse or say something inane or give Danny Mills a position of responsibility or Instagram a picture of its room full of snapback caps.
Statues, within the world of football at least, are much easier than people. Even, perhaps especially, Michael Jackson.
ANDREW BOULTON – @Boultini