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6 March 2019updated 25 Jul 2021 7:55am

From Beckham to Ronaldo, it’s a fact: statues of footballers always look like Dennis Waterman

The insistence that statues of players actually look like their subjects shows the perennial conflict between visionary artists and the baying mob.

By Giles Smith

No sooner had LA Galaxy unveiled their statue in honour of David Beckham than the race was on to say who it looked like. Garnering most of the early votes on social media were Josh Brolin in Deadpool 2, the irascible TV chef Gordon Ramsay (a big pal of Becks, coincidentally), and either of the Goss brothers from Bros, or possibly even both at the same time.

And, of course, Dennis Waterman in The Sweeney. Because it is a truth long acknowledged that all statues of footballers look to some degree like Dennis Waterman in The Sweeney. They simply do.

But we should be used to this game by now. It was the same when Madeira Airport revealed its bronze of Cristiano Ronaldo in 2017. That bust was barely out from under its blanket when people were raising parallels with Wee Jimmy Krankie, Billy the Fish and Niall Quinn. Plus Dennis Waterman, obviously.

For what it’s worth, Ronaldo himself said he liked it and, at the official unveiling, posed amiably alongside the sculpture for photographs, a generous reaction for which it was hard not to love him. But the acclaim of the subject wasn’t enough. “The Grinning Cristiano” became one of a vanishingly small number of statues of footballers to be subbed after 72 minutes – or, to be more accurate, after about 15 months, when it was spirited away under cover of darkness. Madeira Airport awoke the next morning to a new Ronaldo – one with a more sober expression and (it was widely agreed) far fewer resemblances to Wee Jimmy Krankie, Billy the Fish and Niall Quinn. Though, of course, it still looked a bit like Dennis Waterman. There is no escaping that.

And it was the same story last year with that tribute to Mo Salah in Egypt. That time the required traces of Dennis Waterman were deemed to be conspicuously overshadowed by far stronger traces of Leo Sayer, the Seventies hit-maker, and the character of Marv the burglar from the film Home Alone. Indeed, this statue was rudely deemed to be the work of an artist who had never seen Salah, but had had the player described to him over an unreliable phone- line, by a very young fan – who had also never seen him, except once, on a sticker.

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One thinks, too, of the case of Brandi Chastain, the US women’s soccer star, whose honorary Hall of Fame plaque looked so little like Brandi Chastain when the covers came off it, and so much like Dennis Waterman, that some people at the unveiling suspected a genuine confusion.

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It’s interesting to note how different the fuss was surrounding Fulham’s statue of Michael Jackson, which was always controversial and grows no less controversial in retrospect. As you may recall, Mohamed al-Fayed, during his ownership of Fulham, positioned a lavishly plinthed statue of the then-more-or-less-reigning king of pop behind the stands on the river side of Craven Cottage, where fans of the club tended to feel it formed an uneasy counterbalance to the statue of Johnny Haynes, on the street at the opposite corner of the ground. Haynes, after all, represented Fulham 594 times and scored 146 goals for them between 1952 and 1970, whereas Jackson once attended a home game against Wigan Athletic in 1999, when he walked round the pitch under an umbrella and waved to the crowd. (Scoff all you like about the actual historic worth of Beckham’s late-career work at LA Galaxy and whether it merits a permanent monument, but he did more than make one appearance as a half-time guest.)

Still, Fulham won 2-0 that afternoon, so perhaps a bond was forged and thereafter the west London club’s result was always the first one Jackson looked for back at Neverland. Certainly, when new owners came in at Fulham in 2013, the statue was duly saved for the nation by the National Football Museum in Manchester. Amid the drama, though, the piece’s likeness was never questioned. True, its plasticky texture was the object of some sneering. (It was made of plaster and resin, in fact.) And it was occasionally remarked that the model’s bent-kneed pose, presumably intended to convey the gathered energy of the singer mid-performance, looked more like the wary crouch of an elderly person lowering himself gingerly into an unfamiliar armchair. But nobody said it looked like Dennis Waterman. And, indeed, it didn’t. The rules on statuary are different, clearly, for musicians, even ones with a cast-iron football connection.

Strange, though, the emphasis, at these big football-related unveilings, on the purely representational nature of art. Of course, it’s the kind of response that artists have had to get used to ever since the first punter walked up to Monet and said, “Call that a water lily?” Yet why, with statues of footballers, do we behave as though this were still the 19th century and a hundred years of art history had never happened? What about the possibilities of impressionism and abstraction – the capturing of essence, spirit, feeling and mood beyond the superficial and outmoded issue of “proximity to life”? Couldn’t the hopeless Salah, the inept Chastain, this new, strangely small-mouthed Beckham, be working at those other levels? (While also putting us in mind of Dennis Waterman.)

It’s why Madeira Airport’s decision to replace the “Grinning Ronaldo” with a so-called “more lifelike” piece must be derided as a feeble move, in which respect for art backed down meekly in the face of the baying mob. It’s why it won’t do to dismiss the new Beckham statue in Los Angeles simply on the grounds that it resembles Gordon Ramsay (and Dennis Waterman). This kind of misunderstanding has been going on for ages, forcing us to conclude that, if there is a failure here, it is the viewer’s, of their duty to look deeper. It’s not the sculptures of footballers, in other words. It’s us. (And if you can’t see Dennis Waterman, it’s you.)

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This article appears in the 06 Mar 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The next crash