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In Diego we trust: Swiss museum´s offside take on footy culture

SoccerNews in European Championships 5 Jun 2008

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Clad in the blue and white stripes of Argentina, the dark-haired Messiah appears serene as red devils, guardian angels and big game hunters all eye each other up on the pitch.

At his side, the Pope stands next to a glamorous blonde while a hooded thug brandishes his baseball bat and a stern judge waves the rule book.

It sounds like a surrealist nightmare for any policeman preparing for the Euro 2008 championships, but in fact the characters are part of a new exhibition designed to show how the “beautiful game” touches and reflects all aspects of society.

Curators at Geneva's Museum of Ethnography had the idea of commissioning the figures as part of their “Offside” exhibition which shows how folklore, superstition, history and politics are all intimately linked in the world of the football fan.

“If football is a religion, then Maradona is its God,” one caption reads, a reference to the legendary Argentina star who himself invoked the hand of the Almighty for his controversial first goal against England in the 1986 World Cup.

As befits a game that is followed avidly from the plush mansions of Chelsea to the slums of Nairobi, the figures are truly international.

They are carved out of rubber tree wood by craftsmen in the Ivory Coast in a traditional African style, but the designs are based on sketches by Swiss artists.

The idea was to make “hybrid statues that show both a football character and one from society, sometimes imaginary and sometimes real,” the exhibition organisers said.

Thus a Pope-like figure is shown with mouth open and arms aloft as if he were giving a sermon – but with the legend 'FIFA' emblazoned across his mitre.

“The head of the large federations glorifies football just like the head of the Catholic Church speaks the word of the Lord,” the caption reads – an allusion perhaps to the late Pope John Paul II's past as a goalkeeper in his native Poland?

The religious iconography does not stop there. A “guardian angel” is shown in goalkeeper's garb, making a play on words with the French 'gardien' which also means goalie.

Other footballing 'types' represented include the hooligan, the glamorous 'WAG' (wife and girlfriend) as epitomised by Victoria Beckham, or the wheeler-dealer agent who is portrayed in classic colonialist safari gear searching for his next trophy.

The exhibition, which runs until April 26, 2009, also features a wide array of football memorabilia that shows how it has become a multi-million dollar business with diehard officianados of all ages in all corners of the planet.

Among the artefacts are a Manchester United piggy-bank, “Soccer Barbie” dolls (a rare non-WAG female reference), and even a baby's dummy bearing the colours and logo of French side Olympique Marseille.

The ugly side of football is not swept under the carpet either. One display case shows items confiscated from Swiss grounds in the last season, including pistols, flares and even a Game Boy console that was hurled at a goalkeeper.

On a lighter note, and as proof that superstitions are not just the preserve of African witch-doctors, there is also a voodoo doll belonging to an Italian fan from the 2006 World Cup – showing pins stuck into a French player – which certainly produced a result as French icon Zinedine Zidane self destructed and was sent-off in extra-time.

“Football is not only a reflection of society, it also 'makes' society by acting as a means of social contact on all sorts of levels, whether it's playing the game, going to matches or just arguing about it in the pub,” said exhibition organiser Raffaele Poli.

Or as the legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly put it when asked whether football was a matter of life and death – “It's much more important than that.”

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