Commemorating tragic heroes: statuary of soccer players who died mid-career

Stride, Christopher, Thomas, Ffion and Chamorro, Ana Maria (2019) Commemorating tragic heroes: statuary of soccer players who died mid-career. Soccer and Society, 20 (3). pp. 431-453. ISSN 1466-0970

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Statues of soccer players are a phenomenon as global as the sport itself, with 450 in situ at stadiums or civic sites around the world. A small subset of these statues have been motivated by the collective grief felt at an athletes’ life and career being cut short in its prime, a scenario as yet unexplored in the growing literature on sports sculpture and monuments. Using the authors’ unique database of the global soccer statuary to provide contextual comparisons, this paper focuses on two such statues, of Partizan Belgrade striker Dragan Mance and Sevilla FC defender Antonio Puerta. Together they illustrate how what are primarily sites of mourning and commemoration of a life lost can also reflect specific intersections between soccer, fanaticism and religion across different national and supporter cultures, engagements and tensions.
Memorialization in sport is uniquely organized into ritual acts of commemoration, creating representations that, according to Armstrong, ‘enact and [give] social substance to the discourse of collective memory’.11. Armstrong, ‘Memorializing in Sport’; Sherman, The Construction of Memory in Interwar France, 186.
The embodiment of such representations as material objects provides what Mol terms as ‘a frame of reference where they can appear in a more orderly, more consistent, and more timeless way’.22. Mol, Identity and the Sacred, 206.
Within the realm of association football (soccer), prominent examples of such ‘objectification’ are the figurative statues depicting soccer players, erected in a variety of locations that reflect the sport’s global popularity.33. Figurative statues portray a lifelike representation of a human subject. They are at least close to life-size and depict the body; as opposed to statuettes or figurines, which are small enough to be easily lifted, or busts, which depict just head and shoulders. Within this article the terms soccer statues or statuary are used to define existing or planned statues of specific soccer players, managers, chairmen, owners or founders, erected in tribute to their contribution within the sport, and accessible to the general public.
As of April 2017, 286 statues or statue groups collectively depicting over 350 distinct players, and a further 177 anonymous figures, stand at stadiums or civic sites around the world.44. Between January 2013 and March 2014, the authors constructed a database of existing statues of soccer players, managers, and chairmen as part of a wider project into commemoration in sport, which they have continued to maintain and update. Data and images were obtained through a literature, archival and online search, and via interviews with sculptors and project organisers. Variables collected included the precise location, date of unveiling, design type (broadly classified as ‘action’, ‘posed’ or ‘triumph’), the full plaque or plinth inscription, and the identity of the statue project promoters and funders, as well as further demographic and performance information on the subjects depicted. As of 1 April 2017 the authors had identified 286 in situ statues or statue groups of specific soccer players, depicting 356 distinct players. In addition 45 statues depicting managers, 18 statues depicting chairmen/founders/executives and 177 statues depicting anonymous players or fans have been identified. Note that some statues feature more than one subject, and some subjects have been honoured on multiple occasions. The database is complete and accurate to the best of our knowledge. Since April 2014 the primary elements of the database (the statue location, sculptor, unveiling date, inscription and photos of the statue showing the design) have been publically available through the project website at
Monuments such as statues speak as much of the values, attitudes and beliefs of those who produce them, the types of archival materials that survive, and contemporary memory politics, as they do of the subjects they depict.55. Savage, ‘The Politics of Memory’; Prown, ‘Mind in Matter’, 135; Dwyer, ‘Symbolic Accretion and Commemoration’.
Andreas Huyssen attributes this to the ‘… fissure that opens up between experiencing an event and remembering it in representation … Rather than lamenting or ignoring it, this split should be understood as a powerful stimulant for cultural and artistic creativity’.66. Huyssen, Twilight Memories.
Accordingly, these bronze ballplayers can tell us how soccer clubs and their fans seek to construct and project cultural memories from a combination of their social mores, motivations and their perception of the hero depicted. Further, through their global presence, they offer a lens through which to examine the similarities, differences and temporal changes in soccer cultures across national boundaries. This article seeks to engage with the possibilities offered by a subgroup of soccer statues – those that honour professional footballers who died suddenly during their playing careers – to examine, compare and contrast how sporting tragedies are interpreted, commemorated and reimagined, and in doing so, simultaneously address gaps within the small but expanding scholarly literature on figurative sporting sculpture.77. Pre-eminent examples of research on sports statues include Smith, ‘Frozen Fists’ and Osmond, Phillips and O’Neill, ‘Putting up Your Dukes’. For a soccer-specific review, see Stride, Wilson, and Thomas, ‘From Pitch to Plinth’.
The authors have identified 20 such full body figurative memorials, in situ as of 1 April 2017.
We begin with an overview of the wider soccer statuary and its motivations. We posit that statues of recently deceased active players stand apart in their motivation and meaning. Our study then focuses on a detailed examination and comparison of two such memorials, which honour players of similar backgrounds, who had reached similar career stages and levels of achievement upon their deaths, but who came from distinct soccer cultures. We demonstrate how the location and design of these statues, and the commemorative events and practices associated with them, speak of how different societies organize, interpret and respond to the world.88. Morris, Sinners, Lovers, and Heroes, 40.
These monuments, erected for the purposes of commemoration, interact with place and presentation in the formation of collective memory and in taking on other meanings

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