Monday, 20 February 2017

Everything in its right place - some overdue thoughts on the Ferenc Puskas statue

Ferenc Puskas bust at Real Madrid
training ground, Valdebabas, Spain.
Here is another post which would have been better off shorter and presented in a more timely fashion. So it goes.

Some of the photos of the various statues on this page were sourced from 'From Ptich to Plinth: The Sporting Statues Project', a quite interesting website with a fair bit of academic content as well. 

In retrospect, it made a lot of sense to walk from Flinders Street Station to Gosch’s Paddock along the Yarra. Yes, I had gotten into the city too early for the scheduled start of the unveiling of the Ferenc Puskas statue, but it was a nice day for that walk anyway, along the shaded path, just before it got too hot.

Along the way, I came across a broad spectrum of Melburnians. There were those making their way up to the tennis centre for the Davis Cup doubles tie; tourists; joggers; cyclists at various points along the Lycra-wearing spectrum; families out for a stroll; rowers on the river.

Statue of Collingwood champion Bob Rose, outside
Collingwood's Holden Centre headquarters.
Coming up to the revamped and renamed Glasshouse, now occupied by the Collingwood Football Club and re-named the 'Holden Centre', I saw the statue of Collingwood champion Bob Rose, captured in mid-baulk, and thought about how far away he was from home, both geographically and chronologically. How much would he recognise of what Collingwood had become? Would he wonder why his statue was not at Victoria Park, the scene of his greatest triumphs?

I then walked past Olympic Park, or what remains of it after Collingwood’s annexation of the stadium. This is where Puskas’ crowning achievement during his involvement in Australian soccer took place, the onetime de facto – and democratic – home of Victorian soccer. It had hosted Socceroo matches, National Soccer League matches and Victorian finals ranging from top-tier and Dockerty Cup deciders to amateur cup finals. Of course you would not know that if you looked at it now, but some peoples' histories are more important than others.

Statue of John Landy helping up Ron Clarke,outside what was once
Olympic Park.
Then it was past the statue of John Landy helping up Ron Clarke, which at least provided a sign of athletics’ past at the venue. At this point I was joined by an older, grey-haired gentleman wearing a suit - a bit too for me much considering how hot it had already become - complete with an embroidered Melbourne Victory jacket. We pooled our efforts into trying to find where the Puskas statue was meant to be unveiled. I never caught the man's name, and he didn't learn mine, even though he had attempted to tell me about his connection to Puskas.

We then went past the Bubbledome where keen Bruce Springsteen fans had already camped out hours before the gates were due to open for The Boss' concert. My grey-haired companion then saw some people he knew exiting the car park, and I left him to it. I proceeded around the eastern side of the Bubbledome, to the back of a Melbourne Storm training ground to where a couple of small marquees had been erected. The caterers had arrived, but not many others as yet.

The statue prior to its unveiling. Photo: Paul Mavroudis
I mention the existence of all these people not just to set the scene (which is a literary weakness of mine anyway), but to note the complete and utter obscurity of the unveiling of this statue as an event in its own right. Not that statue unveilings are usually big events in Australia, let alone for a soccer player, but that all added to the unnatural feel of this event even before it had properly got under way.

The statue was sitting underneath some trees almost in a grove, covered by a black cloth, out of the way of most foot traffic likely to approach the Bubbledome. On that matter, I found myself in polite disagreement with Roy Hay, who felt that there would be plenty of foot traffic that would come across the statue where it was situated. But more on that later.

Because before the statue could be unveiled, there was the necessity of enduring the official proceedings, which I assumed would be relatively short, so we could get to the business of seeing the statue and taking our share of the complimentary food and drink on offer. How wrong I would be on that front.

A small crowd gradually built up, a mix of elements of the local Hungarian diaspora, assorted official flunkies of the government and sporting worlds; a small official South Melbourne Hellas contingent; Australia’s preeminent soccer historian in the form of Roy Hay; South Melbourne Hellas fan and local Greek sports journalist George Karantonis; and me. Oh, and those who were due to speak as part of the day's formalities.

Les Murray opened up proceedings, discussing Puskas the player and what he meant to Hungarians of that era, followed by a video montage blighted by the kind of rousing, over-the-top symphonic montage music we should have all become de-sensitised to by now. Then for reasons that I still cannot fathom, Mark Bosnich was asked to speak. Bosnich had never played for a side coached by Puskas, nor played (so far as I’m aware) against a team coached by Puskas, and yet there he was, asked to be the day’s equivalent of Bob Newhart being asked to speak at Krusty the Clown’s funeral.
Peter Tsolakis, Mehmet Durakovic, Kimon Taliadoros and Joe Palatsides.
Photo: Roy Hay.
The most poignant part of proceedings soon followed however, when four members of the South Melbourne Hellas side that Puskas coached to the 1991 NSL title were given the opportunity to reminisce. Peter ‘Gus’ Tsolakis was first, and he provided perhaps the most profound insights into Puskas’ soccer idealism. Tsolakis recalled playing on the wing and tracking back to defend during a training session, and subsequently getting told off by Puskas: ‘that’s the full-back’s job – your job is to score goals’.

A statement like that reflected Puskas’ idealistic but also antiquated views on how to play football, one in which there was little room for cynicism, let alone tactics. Tsolakis went on to recall another simple instruction from Puskas: ‘show me what you learned as a child’, thus giving licence to his players to be creative, and to enjoy themselves, and to remember that the crowd is there to be entertained, that the game is about goals, but also that it is a players’ game, not a coach’s one.

Ferenc Puskas statue, Obuda (Budapest), Hungary.
Scuplture by Gyula Pauer and Dávid Tóth,
The statue was 'conceived the idea from a photograph of Puskás
 enthralling a group of children with his ball control
 at the Toros de Las Ventas square in Madrid
Mehmet Durakovic recalled being re-united with Puskas when Durakovic was captain of Selangor, and Puskas was there to coach the Hungarian national team against them. Puskas slapped Mehmet in greeting, shocking the Asian onlookers, who had very different rules of etiquette around physical contact.

Current Football Federation Victoria president Kimon Taliadoros recalled practicing free kicks with his non-preferred left foot, and being castigated for it by the notoriously single-sided Puskas. When Taliadoros scored a long-range bomb with his left foot for South against Melbourne Croatia at Somers Street, he ran to Puskas to let him know all about it – only to be greeted by Puskas wielding a doubled-handed mountza, the Greek hand gesture of insult descended from the Byzantine practice of smearing ashes over the faces of criminals.

Ferenc Puskas bust, Zala County, Hungary.
(For reference, there is also of course the recollection by Paul Wade in his autobiography Captain Socceroo, of Wade initially interpreting the mountzes he would receive from the crowd as a variation of a high five.)

Then it was time for one-time South Melbourne sponsor, then Melbourne Victory shareholder, and now Tasmanian A-League bid backer Robert Belteky to speak. As the Australian delegate to the Puskás Foundation Board of Trustees, Belteky was apparently instrumental in getting this statue commissioned and brought to Melbourne. Unfortunately, while Belteky spoke for a while, most of what he said was inaudible to those not underneath the marquee. This was not due to any technical malfunction, but rather due to Belteky mumbling his way through most of his prepared remarks.

Ferenc Puskas bust, Kobanya-Kispest traffic junction, Budapest, Hungary
Then it was the turn of a representative of the Hungarian government to pontificate for a while (a quick google says it was Zsolt Németh, chairman of the Hungarian parliament's foreign affairs committee) saying nothing of importance, while those members of the audience not fortunate enough to have snagged a spot under the marquee tried to avoid becoming roasted by the heat of the day.

Then another speaker in the never-ending cavalcade, a public servant or state government flunky of some sort standing in for the Victorian Minister for Sport John Eren (turns out it was Liberal state upper house member Bruce Atkinson). The aforementioned flunky at least managed to pique my interest as we sweltered in the shade, after what was almost an hour and a half's worth of speeches and formalities, by somehow bringing in a connection to Melbourne Victory and the Bubbledome, and throwing in the line that roughly went, 'wasn't it wonderful that South Melbourne had contributed to soccer's growth in Australia by bringing over Puskas, but wasn't it even better that we had now subsumed that tribalism and moved forward with the A-League and teams like Melbourne Victory'.

Ferenc Puskas statue, Pancho Arena, Flecsut Hungary.
It bears a striking resemblance to the statue unveiled in Gosch's Paddock.
Sculpture by Béla Domonkos 
Missing from the reminiscences of Puskas’ time in Australia was the story of how he got here and how he came to coach South Melbourne Hellas, regardless of whatever conjecture there is around that story. One can understand and forgive leaving out the controversies, while still feeling if not aggrieved, then at the very least disheartened by the lack of acknowledgement of the Greek community’s experience during this celebration of Puskas’ time in Melbourne.

If, as was acknowledged on the day, Puskas’ time in Australia went unnoticed by Australian society, then why was so little attention paid to those who did pay attention – in this case, one thinks specifically of Melbourne soccer’s community and the local Greek soccer community in particular who would flock to training sessions to be near Puskas?

Ferenc Puskas statue, Szentes, Hungary.
Sculpture by László Csíky
Photo: Dr László Csíky
If nothing else, Puskas' time in Australia was a supreme exemplar of what soccer was like in this country at the time. It was a pursuit that was followed madly by its adherents, but which was nigh on invisible to the rest of Australia society. One of world football's greatest was here for three years, living here in almost total obscurity - except, importantly, for those who knew and understood. It many ways, Puskas' time mirrored that of those who watched him, especially those of the predominantly central and southern European migrants involved with soccer at the time - both subaltern, and existing in a parallel cultural world to that of mainstream Australia.

There is little doubt that Puskas’ tenure at South had at least something to do with Puskas’ tenure as manager of Panathinakos in the 1970s. Because Puskas could speak Greek, but very little English, Ange Postecoglou, who was captain of that Hellas side, would act as the de facto translator. There were no South Melbourne Hellas office holders or supporters of that era asked to speak, nor any Greek-Australian soccer journalists of that time.

Instead, apart from those former South Melbourne players, the emphasis of the day was more on Puskas the phenomenon, to the point where even his managerial career was being extolled, when the record shows that he was in fact a mediocre manager at best.

Ference Puskas statue in Gosch's Paddock, Melbourne.
Photo: George Donikian.
Then finally, the statue was unveiled, and I must say I was underwhelmed. Keep in mind though that I'm at best an armchair art-critic when it comes to the visual arts - but I think there is something to the idea that soccer is a difficult sport to capture effectively in marble or bronze. With the exception of a goalkeeper making a save - something much better suited to photography than sculpture - the game's most poetic moments are embedded in movement, not in moments of stasis.

In that sense, cricket and footy have significant advantages when it comes to presenting heroic moments of stasis: for cricket, a batsman captured at the end of of his follow through on a batting stroke, or a bowler at or just after the moment of release; for footy, the high mark or the booming kick.

With the exception of the aforementioned diving save, soccer's most significant moments are not about stasis, but movement. The dribble (could you sculpt a nutmeg?), the interplay of a string of passes with the requisite movement off the ball, and of course the swerving shot, which at its peak exists purely in the realms of applied physics, independent of any player.

Ferenc Puskas during his stint as South Melbourne Hellas coach,
resplendent in a trademark ugly jumper.
Having said that, such observations do not seek to elevate the aesthetics of one sport over another, as was attempted - and irretrievably badly at that - by academic Stephen Alomes at the 2012 Worlds of Football Conference held by Victoria University. Nevertheless, having set up the parameters of soccer's most pleasing aesthetic moments in this way, this statue (to me if seemingly not to anyone else at the unveiling) seems lumpen and lacking in grace.

There is of course, also the incongruity of having a statue of Ferenc Puskas the player in Australia as opposed to the manager, despite Puskas having never played the game in Australia.

Yet to be completed Ferenc Puskas statue.
Ultimate destination unknown.
Sculptor, László Csíky.
Now despite the strong desire of what has been dubbed Australian #sokkahtwitter - including your correspondent - that Melbourne's Puskas statue be of the overweight, bad jumper wearing Puskas, or the tracksuit wearing Puskas, or at least the suit wearing, grand final day Puskas, one had to be realistic. Yet, all the same the fact it was a statue of the playing Puskas as opposed to a managerial Puskas was disappointing - the statue of a playing Puskas is utterly alienating, existing outside of almost all local context.

If the most poignant of reminiscences on the day were about Puskas' kindliness, humility and gentlemanly conduct while he was a football manager in Australia, this statue fails to get anywhere near that feeling. It was noted at the unveiling, almost as an aside, that this will be one of four Puskas statues around the world. Did they mean based on this mould? Or did they mean overall? If it is the former, then it hardly makes our statue unique. If it is the latter, it is not much better, as busts and statues of Puskas have sprung forth in many places, especially in Hungary. All the more reason then that our statue should have been of the Puskas that we knew.

The statue's position at the back end of a rugby field also separates Puskas from where he did his greatest work here. To a very large extent, this is unavoidable - Middle Park Stadium no longer exists; Olympic Park also no longer exists, if we're being honest; and for whatever reason (see later notes on this), the Hungarians and the Puskas Foundation, who funded this enterprise (along with a regional tour of the FIFA Puskas Award and a gala dinner on the Friday night before the statue's unveiling), didn't feel like placing it outside Lakeside (which would pose its own historical-conceptual issues, ala the Bob Rose statue, but at least it would be closer to where South Melbourne Hellas currently lives).

Soccer players statue at Australian Institute of Sport.
Scupltor, John Robinson.
Photo: Philip Abercrombie. 
The path that the statue sits alongside is very much out of the way - the majority of the mass of people that will head to the Bubbledome for its various sporting and musical events, or heaven forbid, Olympic Park for a Collingwood VFL game, will not come across the statue, as most people who visit those venues tend to come from Richmond station, or via the tram, or if they're feeling particularly fit, from along the river from Flinders Street. The people most likely to come across the statue are cyclists, who probably won't stop, or a Melbourne Storm player collecting a stray ball during a training session.

Sporting statues in Australia seem to me to be a fairly recent phenomenon. Before that, when it came to erecting statues we probably did much as the British did - when we commissioned sculptures, it was of soldiers, politicians, explorers, and maybe the occasional scientist. In more recent years, as sport has started catching up not just on the merits of history in its own right, but especially the propaganda value that it can elicit in the hearts and minds of the general public, various sporting bodies have seen the cultural heft that can be achieved by neoclassical tributes to sporting icons. Thus footy statues have sprung up in all sorts of usual (MCG) and unusual (Braybrook Hotel on Ballarat Road) places, and even tennis has chimed in with the cheaper alternative of using busts of its champions at the tennis precinct. (the only one of which was immediately recognisable was John Newcombe, because of the moustache).

Johnny Warren statue outside the
Sydney Football Stadium.
Sculptor, Cathy Weiszmann.
Photo: Johnny Warren Comnunity.
Aside from this Puskas statue, there are three extant soccer statues or sculptures in Australia that I am aware of. One of these is at the Australian Institute of Sport, and is of a generic soccer scene, with anonymous players. There is also the statue of Johnny Warren outside the Sydney Football Stadium. And lastly, there is the statue of the late Dylan Tombides outside Perth Oval.

In their own way all of these statues - including the Puskas one - represent some crucial aspect of the Australian soccer experience, even if that was not the chief intent of each of the sculptors. In Tombides, we have the personification of the young Australian soccer player venturing overseas, to Europe and especially England, seeking their footballing destiny and fortune. In Warren, we have the supreme archetype of the Australian soccer evangelist - noted more for those efforts rather than the exploits of their playing career. In the statue of the anonymous players, we have the anonymity of the game and its participants. And in Puskas, we have the overseas guest, a giant of the sport living almost anonymously in a town which was and still is alternately oblivious to soccer's existence, and envious of soccer's global reach. But the net effect of all of them is to remind Australians of soccer's sense of displacement within Australian culture. Even Warren, whose club career was entirely spent in Australia, is more notable for his efforts to create a place for a global game in this most crowded and parochial of sporting nations.

Now one can, as is often the case with my writings, take all of this pontificating with a large dose of salt. I am almost by nature drawn to the farcical and absurd in situations such as this, unwilling to accept the prosaic and straightforward nature of such projects. As nonsensical as I find the statue's placement to be, it will apparently be joined in future by other statues in what has at least been informally dubbed an 'avenue of champions'. I am told that there had been an attempt or an offer made by FFV to the people behind the Puskas statue project to have it located outside Lakeside Stadium, but that the decision to locate it at that particular part of Gosch's Paddock had already been made.

Stature of Dylan Tombides
outside Perth Oval..
Sculptor, Robin Hitchcock.
Photo: Perth Glory
If this 'avenue of champions' does actually come about, one wonders who will pay for it, and what hope there is of soccer getting any more statues as part of such a project. (I will leave the question of which Australian, or especially Victorian, soccer player would merit a statue open for now). This statue of Puskas reputedly cost $75,000, and was paid for by Belteky; though to cast doubt on that, there are various media reports which suggest this was all done by the Hungarians, who plan to unveil three more statues of Puskas around the world; even this monument then is not unique, but instead intended to imply a message of ubiquity.

(I should note that of the four Puskas statues to be created, I don't think any of the photos of the Puskas statues I've included here, apart from the Gosch's Paddock one, are part of that project. I have searched for a Puskas statue in Madrid, but I do not think one exists, and thus I assume that one of these four planned statues will end up there.)

It has been intimated to me that the Victorian Government initially didn't even want the statue, but after much negotiation eventually came around to the idea. As part of one of the most extended quid pro quo agreements I can think of, this whole thing is being done at the behest of the city of Budapest's bid to host the 2024 Summer Olympics. Apparently, when Melbourne was bidding for the 1996 Olympic Games, Ferenc Puskas had acted as a sort of ambassador for the bid.

In its design, procurement, placement and veneration, the statue is more about Hungarians' ideas of Puskas than of what his Australian tenure meant to those who experienced it first hand. Later, I would attend the Moreland City vs Werribee City game at Campbell Reserve - apart from those at the game who had also been at the statue unveiling, such as George Donikian, no one would have been the wiser that a Ferenc Puskas statue had been unveiled on the same day. Why would it?


  1. I also did not like the Hungarian wine on offer, but since I am not a wine connoisseur, that's really neither here nor there.

    My less than enthusiastic feelings on the statue are also not influenced by the fact that I didn't get to have any of the cake that was on offer.

  2. The bad news about Australian Soccer just never ends, doesn't it, Paul?

    As for the 'mountza', I heard it was faeces, not ashes. But it was hearsay. I assume your source is more reliable.

    1. You may be right. When my mum was growing up they played a simple card game called μουτζούρα where the loser of each round would be marked on the face with old coffee grounds or maybe charcoal.

    2. Jesus you can dribble some absolute shit sometimes!

    3. I was referring to Savvas btw, don't know why it ended up under your reply Paul. Keep up the cracking work ��

    4. Um, thanks. Had me worried there for a moment.

      Any reply to a particular/select comment thread ends up at the bottom of that thread - there's no way to specifically direct it to the thread's originator. In those cases, best to name the person you wish to address in your reply.

    5. Really? Why the change of attitude, Anonymous? Your previous responses have always been genial and well mannered.

  3. Im starting a petition to get a statue of Tim Cahill erected at Sommers Street ... maybe a nice action pose where he is shadow boxing the corner flag.

    BTW does anyone think that the Graham Arnold cock gobbling banner would have been even more controversial if the cock had a Greek flag on it????

  4. The politics behind the statue are pretty grubby and the location is terrible.

  5. And after all that, Budapest withdraws its bid for the 2024 Olympics

  6. Interesting insights from James Galanis about Puskas' time at Parkmore and South Melbourne

  7. I knew I forgot to include an important statue in this piece.


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