February 15 2014
There are moments in the lives of all great football clubs when the chairmen and directors decide they should have more art about the place. Portraits and busts of their most famous sons are duly commissioned, such as the statue of Sir Alex Ferguson unveiled at Manchester United’s Old Trafford ground in winter 2012. The 9ft bronze by the Scottish artist Philip Jackson – who is the official sculptor to the Queen – joined his earlier statues of Matt Busby, one of Ferguson’s most hallowed predecessors, and the so-called “United Trinity”, a one-and-a- half-times-life-size bronze of three of United’s greatest players: George Best, Bobby Charlton and Denis Law.
All these works are designed to inspire the faithful and overawe visiting teams, but two of the most well-known footballing sculptures of recent years have had a rather different impact. In April 2011, the then owner of Fulham FC, Mohammed Al Fayed, unveiled a bizarre plastic sculpture of Michael Jackson at the club’s Craven Cottage ground. Fans were mystified as to why Wacko Jacko, for all his musical and performance skills, was being honoured in this way. Mr Al Fayed responded that he was a friend of Jackson’s (apparently, he was once his guest at a Fulham game in 1999) and told his critics they could “go to hell”. Fulham supporters had to put up with the statue and the ridicule of their opponents for the next two seasons. When Al Fayed sold up last summer and the US businessman Shahid Khan took over, the 7ft 6in edifice was removed. It’s fair to say that its passing was not widely mourned in SW6.
Unfortunately for the gifted Algerian-born artist Adel Abdessemed, his stunning work, Coup de Tête, first displayed outside the Pompidou Centre in Paris in 2012, has caused similar unrest. The gigantic 16ft sculpture is of the legendary French player Zinédine Zidane head-butting the Italian Marco Materazzi in the closing minutes of the 2006 World Cup Final in Berlin. Zidane said later that the provocative Italian had been insulting his mother and sister all evening. However, his loss of control resulted in him being sent off in what was the last match of his illustrious career – a contest that France ended up losing on penalties.
I was lucky enough to see the sculpture in Paris. It carries tremendous emotional power, evoking a bitter moment of defeat rather than the usual images of sporting triumph. It was purchased by the Qatari Museum Authority and erected on the Corniche in Doha last October. But Islamic conservatives objected to it on the grounds that it was glorifying a false idol and it was subsequently removed indoors to Qatar’s Arab Museum of Modern Art. Visitors to the Gulf State, which is controversially scheduled to hold the World Cup in 2022, are urged to try to see it if they can.
Meanwhile, back at Old Trafford, the new manager, David Moyes, may be glancing nervously at those busts of Ferguson and Busby, which provide daily reminders of their stellar achievements. By comparison, the current United squad is well adrift in the Premiership race and has been knocked out of the FA Cup. Moyes is not responsible for all the problems, but he has been backed in to 11-2 on Betfair not to be in charge for the last Premier League game of the season in May.