His family were by his side, the first team squad had assembled, and stars from across the world – among them Cantona, Van Nistelrooy and Yorke – had flown in just for the occasion. You might have thought that it was Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement party, such was the pomp and ceremony surrounding the event, and the star-studded nature of its guest-list.
But Ferguson was instead receiving a tribute that, despite his countless honours in the game, evidently ranked among the greatest. “It’s fantastic - a really proud moment,” he told the assembled crowd after seeing a statue of himself unveiled by his wife, Cathy, outside Old Trafford. “Normally people die before they have a statue, so I’m outliving death!”
Ferguson’s comment raised a chuckle, but while the erecting of a posthumous tribute remains the norm, football provides plenty of exceptions to this particular rule. Indeed, it’s just four years since United also honoured Denis Law and Bobby Charlton – both still going strong - with a statue in which they appear in celebratory pose with the third member of the Red Devils’ ‘Holy Trinity’, George Best. “This is one of the greatest things that has ever happened to me,” Charlton said at the time.
A rival and respected adversary from that era, Eusebio, has been honoured in a similar way at Benfica’s Estadio da Luz, and – like his United adversaries in the 1968 European Cup final – has seen his statue become something of a tourist attraction. Similarly, a trip to Dynamo Moscow’s stadium would not be complete without a photograph beside a bronze sculpture of the great Lev Yashin, in which the legendary Soviet keeper is captured mid-dive. A majestic representation of Bobby Moore also looms large on the walk to the new Wembley, while Feyenoord legend Coen Moulijn - described by Robin van Persie as “the Lionel Messi of his day” - is an ever-present figure outside the Rotterdam club’s De Kuip arena.
Alfredo Di Stefano is a similarly revered figure at Real Madrid, of course, although his statue – a depiction of 'La Saeta Rubia' celebrating a superb free-kick in the 1958 European Cup semi-final – stands not at the Bernabeu, but in the club’s training centre, as an inspiration to aspiring Merengue stars. Not every club has immortalised their heroes in traditional form though. Hamburg’s tribute to Uwe Seeler, for example, is not a statue of him in action, or standing imperiously, but rather a giant four-ton, 5.30 metre-high bronze sculpture of his right foot, scars and all.
In 2004, Azerbaijan bucked another trend by honouring not a player, but a linesman. Tofik Bakhramov became famous around the world – and infamous in Germany – when he declared that Geoff Hurst’s hotly contested effort in the 1966 FIFA World Cup final had crossed the line, setting England on the road to glory. And though often erroneously described since as ‘the Russian linesman’, Bakhramov – whose statue stands in the capital, Baku - was considered by Azerbaijan’s authorities to have greatly boosted their nation’s global profile, so much so that they also named the national stadium after him too.
Giants of the dugout
More often, it is managers and coaches who are immortalised in stone or bronze. Sir Bobby Robson, in fact, has been honoured with statues at both Ipswich Town’s Portman Road Stadium, and Newcastle United’s St James’s Park, while Brian Clough – just as he would have wanted, you suspect – has gone one better with sculptures at Derby County’s Pride Park, in Nottingham city centre and in his home town of Middlesbrough. It is fitting, meanwhile, that Anfield should be guarded by Bill Shankly, while further north at Celtic Park his great friend Jock Stein – European Cup in hand – is flanked by statues of the Bhoys’ founder, Brother Walfrid, and its most beloved player, Jimmy Johnstone.
“I’m delighted every time I walk up to Celtic Park and see that,” said Sean Fallon, Stein’s assistant, and a man who worked closely with Johnstone and hailed from the same Irish county as Walfrid. “They couldn’t have picked any better men to sum up what’s made the club great, on and off the park.”
Racing Club, the Argentinian outfit that once enjoyed a notorious World Club Championship duel with Stein’s Celtic, have honoured one of their own coaching legends, with Reinaldo Merlo – who led them to their first title in 35 years – immortalised in a famous pose in which he is attempting to ward off bad luck. China, meanwhile, built a monument to one of their own, celebrated former captain and coach Lee Wai Tong, but have also recently unveiled an eye-catching v-shaped tribute to Bora Milutinovic in Shenyang, marking the tenth anniversary of the Serbian leading them to the 2002 FIFA World Cup™.
Hair and headbutts
Though such monuments can often seem the preserves of the old and, as Ferguson suggests, the deceased, there have been plenty of men honoured while stile pulling on their boots. Boca Juniors, for example, erected statues to both Martin Palermo and Juan Roman Riquelme alongside the one and only Diego Maradona in the club’s museum, while Arsenal have honoured Thierry Henry and Tony Adams outside the Emirates Stadium. Colombian artist Amilkar Ariza, meanwhile, sculpted a 22-foot-high representation of Carlos Valderrama – even adding colour for that unique hairstyle – in 'El Pibe’s' hometown of Santas Marta in 2006.
Yet no matter how great and revered the subject, not every statue is treated with awed adoration. Officials in Veracruz, Mexico were staggered last October when they saw that their depiction of Hugo Sanchez, in trademark scissor-kick mode, had been left swiping at thin air after the ball – which had been welded to his foot – was stolen. A statue of the great Pele suffered an even worse fate in Salvador, in the Brazilian state of Bahia, when its arms were sawn off along with a replica of the FIFA World Cup™ in 2007. And while Zinedine Zidane might have been gratified to hear that a sculpture of him was being erected in Paris, he may have been less pleased to learn that it depicted the most notorious moment of his glorious career: that headbutt on Marco Materazzi.
While the statue of Zizou and his Italian nemesis was doubtless aimed at raising a smile, other carry more poignancy. Rangers, for instance, commemorated the 1971 Ibrox disaster – in which 66 people lost their lives – with a statue of John Greig, their captain on that tragic day. And a particularly moving example is to be found at Sevilla’s training ground, where the tragic Antonio Puerta – who died five years ago at the age of 22 – is immortalised in bronze.
The men listed above may differ greatly, as do the monuments that honour them. But whether it be Fergie or Puerta, the motivation behind these statues remains the same: to honour, and to remember.
Have Your Say
These are just a selection of the many football statues out there. Which one do you think is best?