The ubiquity of the world’s most popular sport occasionally makes it feel impossible to find fresh narratives about football’s most celebrated players, matches and venues. As a football reporter asked to review the Design Museum’s newest exhibition, Football: Designing the Beautiful Game, I was sceptical about how much I could learn from a show about a subject which is both profession and passion.
But the exhibition, the first of its kind to examine football from a purely design perspective, is a winning combination of style and substance, with many of the 50-plus objects on display coming with fascinating and rarely-heard backstories. It aims to shine a spotlight on the role that designers, architects and fans have played in the history of football, from performance on the pitch to the atmosphere in the stands.
From the two balls used in the inaugural World Cup Final between Argentina and Uruguay in 1930 because neither country trusted the other’s, to the ‘Scouse Bayeux Tapestry’, Peter Carney’s memorial banner to the Hillsborough victims, to images of the Coligay fan display (a Brazilian supporters’ group made up of predominantly gay men in the 1970s), the exhibition is rich in history and curiosities.
Among the intriguing items on show are the professionally-made calling cards of hooligan firms – think American Psycho meets Green Street – and the bespoke recovery shorts worn by England’s players at last summer’s European Championship, which can be fitted with long-life ice packs. Visitors will even learn the full context behind the image of England’s Bukayo Saka jumping into a swimming pool astride an inflatable unicorn during the tournament (the squad was encouraged to have pool parties as part of their rehab because they became bored and frustrated at being asked to walk up and down in the cold water after matches).
The show is split into five sections: Performance, Identity, Crowds, Spectacle and Play, and begins with the most basic elements needed for the game: balls and boots.
Visitors will discover how the design of both, from heavy leather to almost weightless synthetic materials, was influenced by the globalisation of the game and has dramatically enhanced players’ performance. On show are boots worn by Pele, Geoff Hurst and a teenage George Best – who carefully daubed his first pair with the names of each opponent he scored against – while a custom-made pair owned by German legend Matthias Sammer are especially interesting. Sammer was sponsored by adidas and refused to play in any other boots, but his club Borussia Dortmund had a deal with rival brand Nike. As a compromise, Dortmund’s kit man stitched the Nike logo onto Sammer’s adidas boots.
Even the humble stud is celebrated and offers one of the clearest examples of design triumphing over skill. As one exhibit explains, Adi Dassler (the founder of adidas) recommended the West German team switch to longer studs during their rain-soaked 1954 World Cup Final against favourites Hungary. The Germans’ new studs were far better suited to the conditions, and they recovered from 2-0 down to win 3-2, a result forever known as “the Miracle of Bern”.
An eye-catching selection of kits, including rare match-worn shirts belonging to Lionel Messi and Diego Maradona and offerings from local grassroots clubs, are in keeping with the trend for retro replicas, while visitors will be guided through some of the world’s most iconic stadia, from the work of 20th century Scot Archibald Leitch to new designs by leading industry figures Herzog & de Meuron, Zaha Hadid Architects and Populous, who went to great lengths to consider the acoustics in building Tottenham Hotspur’s new £1.2billion home, ensuring the stadium design has had a direct impact on atmosphere.
A scale model of de Meuron’s Estadio Municipal de Braga, built into the face of a disused quarry, is particularly striking, and has earned praise for its inclusivity, allowing supporters without tickets to clamber up the surrounding rocks to watch the action for free.
The 90-minute feature film, Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, directed by contemporary artists Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno, offers visitors the chance to experience every second of the French legend’s penultimate game of his career, while visitors can also relive being in a match-day crowd through an immersive stadium experience.
The show concludes by recognising the playing of the game outside of the pitch; celebrate the Subbuteo world champion, be inspired to reintroduce ‘Blow Football’ and revel in the impact of videogames like Football Manager and the FIFA series.
Packed with colour and with an immersive set replicating elements of stadia, the show looks, feels and sounds authentic. Archived radio clips transporting visitors through history, and the BBC’s Peter Jones signing off from his last report at Hillsborough on April 15, 1989 – “And the sun shines now…” – will stay with you.
The exhibition was created in collaboration with the National Football Museum in Manchester, which has loaned various objects, and is is well-timed, coming ahead of this year’s World Cup in Qatar and in the year of the 150th anniversary of the Football Association. For supporters gearing up for the tournament, or anyone with an interest in design, style or history, the show is a treasure trove of information, so even the most erudite football fan should come away with new perspectives and anecdotes about the game.
Design Museum, to August 29, designmuseum.org