Generations of game-changers

December 4, 2022

An exhibition held at the Design Museum, London, has brought forward the design story behind the global phenomenon of football

Generations of  game-changers


ook who we are, we are the dreamers/ we’ll make it happen ‘cause we believe it/ look who we are, we are the dreamers/ we’ll make it happen ‘cause we can see it.”

The enthusiastic crowd at Al Bayt Stadium was awe-struck by Jungkook’s rendition of Dreamers at the FIFA World Cup opening ceremony in Qatar – which kicked off on Sunday, November 20. Qatar welcomed everyone with open doors and open arms. Much enthusiasm kicked in when Morgan Freeman narrated the opening segment with Ghanim Muhammad Al-Miftah, titled The Calling. “We all gather here in one big tribe,” he said. Unfortunately, the Pakistani football team isn’t playing in this world cup, though many famous teams are playing with balls made in Sialkot, which is a fact to be proud of. Football is the world’s most popular sport. Nearly half of the Earth’s population, or around 3.5 billion people, are expected to have watched the 2018 FIFA World Cup, even though only 265 million people regularly play the game.

A fantastic exhibition – Football: Designing the Beautiful Game – was held at the Design Museum, London, from April 8 to August 29. It brought forward the design story behind a global phenomenon, looking at the individuals and activities that have shaped football into what it is today. It highlighted the architects, designers and supporters who have influenced football as a sport and a spectacle from its earliest days to the current times. An interesting anecdote: the inaugural FIFA World Cup final between Uruguay and Argentina in 1930 began with a dispute over who would give the ball, according to a historical account. Both teams wanted to play because they were accustomed to using their equipment and lacked mutual trust. They eventually reached a compromise: The Uruguayans’ ball would be used for the second half and the Argentinians’ for the first. The two balls utilised in that illustrious final were placed in a glass box, as their rugged surfaces and thick stitching are a far cry from the slick, light designs used in today’s game. Still, they perfectly capture the stereotype of a vintage football.

Just two of the almost 500 items – including gear, apparel, badges, pictures, banners, posters and stadium fragments – show how design has influenced the most well-known sport in the world. The current football design, known as an Adidas Telstar, was created in 1914 but manufactured in 1970. It consisted of 32 panels of white hexagons and black pentagons. Danish goalkeeper Eigil Nielsen came up with the concept for a ball with this shape. The ball was created to be immediately recognisable on television and was named after a US communications satellite. Interestingly, most Telstar footballs are now manufactured in Pakistan and China.

Boots were prominently included in the list of items, including pairs worn by three of the sport’s most admired players, George Best, Lionel Messi and Stanley Matthews, and other models made exclusively for women players. In additional glass cases, early Adidas and Puma boots represented not only the conflict between the two German sportswear companies – founded, respectively, by brothers Adolf and Rudolf Dassler and involved in a contentious family feud – but also another crucial design turning point in the history of the sport: the invention of rub-studs and screw-in cleats – used with the revolutionary Puma’s Super-Atom. Grippingly, football boots are made to fit a particular playing surface. As new materials and technologies have been created, the field has evolved into a highly sophisticated structure.

Generations of  game-changers

The exhibition highlighted the architects, designers and supporters who have influenced football as a sport and a spectacle from its earliest days to the current times.

A limited number of professionals make and maintain the appearance of naturally occurring, flawlessly green grass in stadiums. Turf today comes in three primary varieties: natural, artificial, and hybrid. Football players that play professionally frequently use hybrid fields, which have sped up play while lowering the risk of injury. Women’s football has always been disregarded or prohibited due to gender inequalities in society. The lack of gender-specific football equipment has hampered fair competition in the sport. Women’s football is currently the sole focus of trustworthy brands. IDA Sports of Australia has spent years creating a boot specifically for ladies with a smaller heel, larger forefoot and higher arch - players’ suggestions helped in testing and improving this early prototype.

It took me almost 45 minutes to see the entire section in which the matrix in between, boots, turf, body performance and footballs was explained through infographics, including the history of significant formations and tactics of teams, a top plan of an 11-a-side pitch with dimensions and the playing positions to name a few. There was an exciting and worrisome view of an X-ray of a footballer’s knee, along with illustrations explaining common injuries which occur while playing football. Multiple screens with exciting audio/ video content from the training centres where these dedicated players are robustly trained to play this challenging sport. Protective equipment, including shin pads and goalkeeping gloves, also caught my attention. Video technology has altered football refereeing, despite some early disagreements. All significant men’s domestic and international league matches now have VAR, which was introduced in 2016. To evaluate potentially game-changing decisions made by the on-field referee, a crew of three referees working outside the field uses video-replay equipment.

In football or any game in general, identity is crucial. Graphic design made a more discreet contribution to the game throughout the years, mainly to players’ and spectators’ identities. An organised game like football requires that each squad be recognised. The simplest scenario would be for one team to wear blue and the other red. But what started as a workable solution has grown into a universe of football graphics that is extraordinarily rich and diversified. In inventive ways, clubs and supporters have used visual markers to express themselves and their communities. This started with the colours and crest on the team uniform. Within the football business, official goods are a significant economic driver and are constantly evolving. The development of team badges and logos is a prime example of its effect. In addition, many adverts, descriptions, drawings, trade catalogues, patents, magazines, videos and photographs from memorable football matches were perched and divvied up. Graphic/ branding guidelines from the FIFA also get implemented from kit numbers, colours, typefaces and much more. It was introduced in 1979 – the practice has since become an essential part of kit design. Until banned by the FIFA, it was customary for footballers to wear personalised shirts underneath their team kits. These were often revealed to share messages such as a tribute to family, friends, supporters or broader social and political statements.

Generations of  game-changers

Since the early 1900s, fans have found simple yet effective ways to show their support, from wearing ribbons in team colours to making rosettes, scarves, flags and banners. Dedicated fans collate and analyse club news in unofficial magazines, while others create stickers, badges or calling cards to assert their identity. Many would not consider themselves designers or even have an interest in design. Yet they demonstrate tremendous skill and creativity in creating these materials, showing the fan to be an essential and engaged producer rather than a passive consumer. One can’t ignore the UI/ UX of one of the most sought-after FIFA World Cup video games, developed since 1986.

An independent, ongoing photography project, Girlfans, aims to capture the female fan experience and give more visibility to female football supporters. Created by Jacqui McAssey in 2013, the project includes five distinct portrait series, each capturing the fans of a different UK club. Portraits are distributed in a traditional football fanzine format.

Architecture is inevitable in any game played at a scaled stadium – football is no different. Two of the most significant objects in the collection had come from stadiums: a slice of the iconic facade of the Allianz Arena in Munich, Germany, whose exterior is a giant membrane shell, and an early turnstile, an object that represents the coming of age of football – the monetisation that turned fans from supporters into customers. The unique architectural projects are set to shape the world, including Lusaali Iconic Stadium in Qatar, which will host the final game of the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Others included Wembley Stadium in London, Estadio Azteca in Mexico, Signal Iduna Park in Dortmund, Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata, FNB Stadium in Johannesburg, Camp Nou in Barcelona, Borg El Arab in Egypt and many other next-generation architectural marvels.

The exhibition’s final section highlighted the efforts of football charities like Goal Click, which distributes disposable cameras to sporting communities worldwide, including the Gilgit-Baltistan Girls Football League, the first girls’ league in northern Pakistan, and asks the players to record their experiences. It serves as a means of shedding light on those who use football as self-expression – impressive. A few sections also showed the info-graphs of the betting popularity in the last few decades, the involvement and sponsorships of corporates and blue chips, and various selections of interesting goalposts from Africa to Asia.

The writer is an art/ design critic. He heads the Department of Visual Communication Design at Mariam Dawood School of Visual Arts and Design, Beaconhouse National University, Lahore

Generations of game-changers