Featured image: Massel bel Abbes, Tunisia (2006) Neville Gabie
Football, fútbol, soccer, “that game where you can’t use your hands”— no matter what you call it, “the beautiful game” is far and away the world’s most popular, beloved sport. Soccer is valued more as a way of life than a game in most countries, and it’s been a universal unifier for over 150 years.
It’s a particularly exciting time for football fanatics everywhere: the women’s 2022 UEFA European Championships are currently underway in England, and the men’s 2022 FIFA World Cup is fast approaching, with the women’s 2023 FIFA World Cup close behind next July. The Design Museum in London has done their part to add to this frenzy with the April launch of their latest exhibition, “Football: Designing the Beautiful Game.”
This collaboration with Manchester’s National Football Museum is billed as “the first major exhibition on the design of the world’s most popular sport.” It details the history of the many facets of design related to soccer, from stadia, to uniforms, to balls, and boots (AKA cleats). The show offers a dynamic, holistic dissection of the sport, and even addresses how grassroots initiatives are pushing back against the sport’s commercialization.
In doing so, it encompasses a collection of over 500 objects from throughout history that have been sourced from some of the sport’s most legendary players, including Pelé, Lionel Messi, Zinedine Zidane, Diego Maradona, Roberto Baggio, George Best, Michelle Akers, Xavier (Xavi) Hernández Creus, Pernille Harder, and Geoff Hurst.
The exhibit is organized into five sections for visitors to explore: Performance, Identity, Crowds, Spectacle, and Play. Patrons wind their way from section to section through an immersive set design that alludes to stadium architecture, with features like the players’ tunnel and spectators’ stands. It kicks off by presenting an examination of the effect that design and equipment has had on player performance, from the development of lightweight cleats and aerodynamic balls to shock-absorbent fields.
The “Identity” section unfurls soccer culture through fan-led memorabilia such as kits, posters, and programs. This leads into a full stadium reconstruction that composes the “Crowd” portion of the experience, where visitors can feel the sensation of being a match-day spectator. Stadium design considerations to maximize fan experience are analyzed in this section, including sound, sight lines, and movement.
“Spectacle” then addresses the ways in which media advances have expanded the world’s love of soccer, with the establishment of official tournaments, television viewership, and social media connecting fans to the sport on even deeper levels. The exhibition concludes with the “Play” section, which explores the myriad avenues by which people engage with soccer beyond the field, such as in gaming, fan ownership, and community activism.
The show will be open in London until August 29th, but if you can’t make it there before then, you can still check out some of it online. Virtual exhibition materials include a global football storytelling and photography project called Goal Click and an interview with the Vice President of Design at Adidas Football, Sam Handy, about the design of the beloved Predator cleat.