from George Best’s boots to the secret of a winning kit

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The football referee’s whistle was first designed by the Acme company in Birmingham in 1884. And, apart from the fact that it is now louder to allow it to rise above the hubbub roaring from the modern game, in terms of scale, size and materials, it hasn’t changed at all since then. Not one iota: the ones Acme supplies to today’s public servants have stayed in the shape they always have. Which makes the umpire’s parrying mechanism the one thing associated with the game that hasn’t – in the 150 years of its organized history – changed beyond recognition.

As this comprehensive new exhibit suggests, from boots to gaming kit, stadiums to computer games, everything else has undergone a constant style revolution. Which is a bit unfortunate. It would be fun to see a modern Premier League team step out in the pinstripe jodhpurs worn by the Harrow Footers team in 1871, which can be seen in one of the many historic pictures on the gallery walls.

Borrowing over 150 objects from the National Football Museum in Manchester and mixing them with pieces from around the world, Football: Designing the Beautiful Game tells how design has not only influenced sport, but how sport has influenced design more broadly. Especially the turnstile. The exhibit features one of the original Wembley Stadium, set up in 1923 to count the crowds and make sure everyone pays. It is a system first launched in steel and wood which, although modernized, improved and with complex electronics, is still used to screen numbers everywhere from the London Underground to the Heathrow Airport.

What becomes clear as you go through the exhibit is that the design serves several functions in the game. There’s the practicality – making the ball easier to hit, or giving the crowd a decent view from the stands, or make the pitch actually playable. Or make sure the boots are less galloping. Two of George Best’s boots – the first pair he ever owned, which he gave her as a Christmas present around 1958 – resemble workmen’s clod pickers, although the design aspect that makes them Interesting is the writing on the sides, applied by Best in Bleacher, recording the names of the various teams and the number of goals he has scored against them in the boots.

(Curiously, given the rapid growth of women’s football, the exhibit tells us that no one thought of designing a shoe specifically for the contours of the female foot until 2020; most female players are still forced to use men’s size shoes.)

Then there is the aesthetics. In football, much of the style of the game is advanced by the attempt to forge an identity. The best way to do this – and ensure committed fans buy expensive new kits every season – is to evoke nostalgia: for football fans, things have always been better in the past. Game kit, club crests, even rogue business cards; it’s clear from the show that trying to communicate a sense of belonging so permeates the look of football.

Not just at the local level either. One of the museum’s galleries has a striking display of official posters from all the World Cups. Their job was to project the host – and its values ​​- into the world. The powerful and confident tone of Russia 2018 seems particularly weakened now. Some, however, remain almost works of art. That of Brazil in 1950, in which a giant leg and boot stand atop a ball, its sock decorated with the flags of all the competing nations, is a memorable graphic work, beautiful in concept and execution.

Others are less beautiful. Most visitors will have forgotten Brazil 2014 even before leaving the show. Quite what the Qatar 2022 poster will have on it – perhaps a graphic depiction of the migrant workers who died building the tournament stadiums, or a denunciation of LGBT rights – we have yet to see.


From April 8 to August 29; designmuseum.org


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