VISIT a city like Paris and one of the most unusual and interesting activities is to visit one of the city’s many cemeteries. In such an historic and influential city as the French capital, it is no surprise that you come across some pretty famous and notable names, ranging from Nijinsky, the famous ballet dancer to Jim Morrison of the Doors. There’s something quite mind-blowing about standing above a grave of a legendary figure and you’re just a few feet away from their remains – people who have made their mark on history.
Likewise, famous footballers are also buried in accessible places. Many years ago, I was writing a book about the Sheffield United and Chelsea goalkeeper, Willie Foulke. We date back more than 30 years, Willie and me, our acquaintance starting in the British Newspaper Library in Colindale and later cemented in the overgrown cemeteries of Sheffield. Over two raid-sodden weekends in the steel city, overlooking it in fact, my friend – a dedicated Yorkshireman – and I tramped every major graveyard to find Willie Foulke’s final resting place. When we finally located him, we cavorted with joy around his grave, as if recreating a scene from Macbeth. Quite what the grieving old lady, placing a bunch of flowers on a relative’s plot nearby, thought of this is anyone’s guess.
It might sound like a peculiar hobby, but I have visited the graves of famous names from the past on a number of occasions. Only last year, I trudged around Copenhagen looking for Nils Middleboe’s grave, a player who appeared for Chelsea in the early 20th century and played in the Olympics for Denmark.
But the real coup was finding the grave of Matthias Sindelar, arguably Austria’s greatest player of all time. He’s buried in Vienna’s Zentralfriedhof cemetry on the outskirts of town, along with a veritable A to Z of great musical composers – well, it is Vienna, what do you expect?
I had done a lot of research on this fellow and when we found him, there was something a little “Da Vinci code” about it all. There were fresh flowers on his grave and a nice monument to the man who was reputedly killed by the Nazis. I was glad we made the trip out on the bus to see a genuine football hero of the inter-war years.
So, too, was Josef Bican, a player I wrote about last year and was so curious about this goalscoring machine that I paid his grave a visit in Vyšehrad cemetery in Prague. His memorial is literally a carved bust, very imposing and solid. As I arrived at the spot, somebody had just laid some roses at the foot of his grave.
In the same region, Ferenc Puskas’s tomb can be found in St.Stephen’s Basilica in Budapest and is, quite naturally, a monument to a national icon. The “Galloping Major” doesn’t gallop any more, but his memory lives on. Again, there was a very strange feeling about being so close, yet so far, from genius. I stood making notes and a smiling Czech strolled up and said, “too late to interview him now…but a great footballer.”
But on a less grandiose note, a former England international who gave his name to a cup that amateur teams still compete for today, is buried in an unassuming churchyard in Cambridgeshire. Arthur Dunn was a schoolmaster who was full of Corinthian ideals and proposed a competition for old boy associations from public schools. Sadly, he died in 1902 at the age of 41, a year later, the first final took place, between Old Carthusians and Old Salopians – the Arthur Dunn Cup was shared after two draws. He may not be in the same league as the likes of Sindelar, Puskas and Bican, but Mr Dunn has a place in football history and apparently, he was a decent inside forward himself.
It might seem a bit macabre walking around cemeteries and looking at graves, but it is also a way to pay homage to great names from football’s rich heritage. It also adds a different slant to any Euro-hopping football trip.
It is noticeable that some countries around Europe do pay more attention to preserving their sporting ancestry and also marking their passing with a genuine monument. Football clubs around Britain now have statues to their legendary players and some of them are actually quite good – I make a point of metaphorically tipping my hat at my boyhood hero, Peter Osgood, whenever I visit Stamford Bridge. The king is dead, but he’s still overlooking the place where so many of his great days took place!
This article appeared in the July 2018 edition of Football Weekends. Reproduced by permission.
Bican and Sindelar are featured in the latest GOTP book, Mittel. To buy a copy, click here