Brilliant design at the heart of football’s growth as a global game

There is a brilliant opportunity for some Irish institution – cultural, educational or other – to bring to this island an exhibition that would offer a window on modern life that has never been available here before.

The Design Museum in London – an internationally-renowned, award-winning museum dedicated to architecture and design – has just closed an exhibition on soccer that ran since the spring to popular acclaim.

The exhibition was entitled “Football: Designing the Beautiful Game” and it examined the fascinating story of how soccer has been shaped and reshaped by the world of design. This included an exploration of the master-planning of some of the world’s most celebrated soccer stadiums. But it also involved looking at the innovative materials used in modern football boots, the graphic design of the emblems on team jerseys, and also at the way in which design changes soccer at every level.

What the exhibition reveals in glorious detail is just how undeniably the objects of soccer – from its stadiums to its equipment to its technology – are everywhere to be found in modern life.

This is a world which stretches from studs to sticker albums, from goalkeeper gloves to Nike footballs, from World Cup posters to data analysis, and from retractable pitches to the steeply angled stands of the new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.

It all lives in this exhibition.

Since it opened in 1989, the Design Museum has explained the design of objects as disparate as AK-47s and high heels in more than 100 exhibitions that have attracted more than 5 million visitors.

But it also has a mission to send design exhibitions around the world; this has ensured that the exhibitions have toured to more than 100 venues.

And this is where an opportunity opens for an Irish institution. The fact that soccer is the most popular game in the world offers an obvious opportunity to connect with an audience and to interest a broad swath of people in the work of engineers, inventors, architects, designers, graphic artists and many other creative people in a way that is practical and relatable.

And the things that are central to this exhibition are the product of idealism, of pragmatism and also of a desire to seek a competitive edge. They show just how enormous an industry revolves around soccer. In a way, this is to state the blindingly obvious, but more than 3.5 billion people around the world watched at least some of the last FIFA World Cup.

As James Bird and Eleanor Watson – who put the exhibition together – note: “From lightweight boots that offer greater freedom of movement, and more aerodynamic balls, to shock-absorbent pitches and restorative exercise routines, the football industry is continually devising new tools to enable teams to play longer, faster and more consistently. The development of these tools present a concise history of football’s professionalisation, illustrating the ever-increasing resources that are dedicated to producing elite athletes.”

This represents an immense market of which elite professional soccer leagues are just the type. And it is truly global, in its reach and in its power. The Malian-French photographer Émile-Samory Fofana put it perfectly: “When the jersey of an Argentinian midfielder, playing in the British Premier League, in a club sponsored by a United Arab Emirates airline, designed by an American kit supplier and produced in China , is worn by an 11-year-old boy in Mali, it becomes a matter of geopolitics.”

But it is also just endlessly interesting. For example, you can look at how ‘Ciao’, the mascot for Italia ’90, was selected from 50,000 entries and look, also, at the creation, evolution and reinvention of Subbuteo over more than 80 years. The tabletop game was actually invented in the 1940s by Peter Adolph, a pilot with the RAF, and its ephemera offer a wonderful insight into modern popular culture.

On a practical note, there is also the invention in the mid-1890s of the Rush Preventative Turnstile by WT Ellison & Co in Salford. This is a brilliant example of the days when Manchester was – as the cliché has it – the workshop of the world. The turnstile could process around 4,000 entrants per hour – although this fell to some 3,000 paying customers if change needed to be given to supporters.

This idea of ​​”the crowd” is part of what drives design. Crowds make it necessary to build stadiums for matches. These stadiums – what Martino Simcik Arese called “The Cathedrals of the People” – are like nowhere else. As Arese writes: “There is a heightened sense of belonging that you can’t find elsewhere. Humans haven’t built anything that gives the same sense of regular and communal togetherness outside of religion or being part of something considered a higher order. These are places where you can hug and embrace a complete stranger, to celebrate something that is understood as a shining beacon in the monotony of life outside the stadium.”

But the brilliance of this exhibition is the way in which it always brings things back to basics. For example, early shinpads were worn outside a player’s socks, were made from leather, and were stuffed with animal hair for padding. Only after 1900 did they become worn under socks, and in recent decades became lighter and smaller as the nature of the game changed.

This compromise between comfort and safety, speed and agility was there throughout the history of the football boot, too. It could be seen in the promotion in 1896 by the Belgrave Rubber Co. of a new boot that had ankle protectors.

And it is the story of the evolution of the football boot, as much as any other aspect of the sport, that is fundamental to understanding the growth of soccer to its place of pre-eminence in modern popular culture. The first boots were made of leather, cotton and steel by individual craftsmen or by small businesses. Now, though, football boots are almost entirely synthetic constructions, using hybrids of oil-based plastics, and are sold in enormous numbers by transnational sports goods manufacturers.

By the way, a related exhibition – “Sneakers Unboxed: Studio to Street” – has also closed and is available for travel. This exhibition looks at the design processes that have seen runners remade as an incredible subculture, with “sneakerheads” all over the world. From basic streetwear to high-end fashion, the runner is now ubiquitous. What is stunning is the fact that there is also a lucrative resale market valued at more than $2 billion. The power of sport lies in large measure in its mass-market commercialization – and these exhibitions get right to its heart.

Paul Rouse is professor of history at University College Dublin

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