A photo emerged last summer of beaming England footballer Bukayo Saka leaping into a swimming pool astride an inflatable unicorn. Such was the pure joy captured by the image that it quickly attained cult status and, as these things do, spawned a thousand memes.
Well, anyone who quipped on social media to “Hang it in the Louvre” has now got their wish – almost – thanks to the Design Museum. The Saka picture is part of a new exhibition called Football: Designing the Beautiful Game, which mines a rich seam connecting sport and the creative world.
Photography is a relatively small part of the show, which opened on Friday and spans footballs, boots, kits, the graphic art of posters, fanzines and brands, and the architecture and engineering of stadia.
So we get the evolution of the ball from the leather-clad animal bladder booted about by public schoolboys in the late 19th century to the space-age, multicoloured spheres of today.
We chart the journey from calf-high worker’s boots to Stanley Matthews’ revolutionary, Continental-style footwear and modern, fully synthetic pairs that have adorned Lionel Messi and the implausibly small feet of Spain playmaker Xavi Hernandez.
And we get a glimpse of the blueprints of Archibald Leitch, the prolific Scottish architect who designed Arsenal’s Art Deco former home Highbury, Glasgow Rangers’ Ibrox and almost every other British football ground of note.
Perhaps the best bits are the wall of football shirts – a visual banquet of classic early designs as well some of the zanier, guilty pleasures that have become collectors’ items (and, in a canny business move, can be bought in the gift shop) – and the array of World Cup posters, which serve as a kind of modern history of graphic art.
The calling cards of 1980s hooligan groups, which often satirised establishment imagery, such as West Ham United’s notorious Inter City Firm, which copied the British Rail logo, the fanzines of the luxury-sportswear obsessed Casuals scene, and archive photography exploring icons of the women’s game, the global footprint of the Premier League and homophobia in Brazilian football, meanwhile, are genuinely illuminating cultural artefacts.
Football has shed its working class trappings to become huge business over the past 30 years yet this is the first show of its kind, which indicates that it remains ghettoised in some circles.
“I was really surprised that there hadn’t been an exhibition like this before,” said its curator, Eleanor Watson. “There are amazing football museums around the world and there have been a lot of exhibitions about art and football, and some smaller scale pop-up style shows about individual aspects of design – usually kits – but nothing that looked at it in the round.”
Watson spent two years assembling the collection and had to convince some in arts circles that football design merited the serious treatment that this show proves it deserves.
“A previous colleague said ‘this is a really bad idea because everyone thinks of design as an unwanted presence in football, a sign of its total commercialisation’,” Watson said.
“I thought that was inaccurate and wanted to show that design isn’t a post-1991, Premier League phenomenon, and that designers and architects have played a really important part in shaping football from the early days of professionalisation to the present.”
Watson and the Design Museum deserve huge credit for elevating the football universe with a show that fascinates, captivates and – above all – celebrates the game. I spent much of it with a smile as broad as Bukayo Saka’s.