When looking back over the sheer entertainment and drama that the game of soccer as we know it has provided for more than 150 years, the role that design and innovation has played in the sport cannot be downplayed.

If it weren’t for constant modernisation of all aspects of the game, we’d still be watching teams dressed in hessian knickerbockers lashing heavy, rain-sodden pigskin balls around football pitches more akin to ploughed fields than the flawless hybrid turf of the 21st century. Thankfully, the sport has come a long way from such humble beginnings and that incredible progress is charted in a new exhibition at The Design Museum in London.

“Designing the Beautiful Game,” which runs until the end of August, explores the integral role that design has had in transforming the game from an earnest Victorian pastime into the slick global industry of today — from kits and boots to the architecture of modern super-stadiums.

The installation has been curated in partnership with the Manchester-based National Football Museum, which has provided a treasure trove of items of historical significance with back stories linking them to luminaries such as Lionel Messi, George Best, Pele and Diego Maradona.

These prized artefacts sit alongside a glut of contemporary design projects that involve many of the sportswear brands responsible for revolutionising footballing apparel over the years such as Nike, Adidas, Puma, Hummel and Umbro.

The show is split into five sections covering the different aspects in which design and technology have influenced association football around the world: Performance, Identity, Crowds, Spectacle and Play.

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Performance

Kicking off with the core fundamentals, the Performance section examines the way in which the relentless global pursuit of peak athleticism has pushed football forwards when it comes to tactics, training and the various clothing and equipment used to play the game. The shift from sturdy natural materials to near-weightless synthetics has only helped to enhance performance, though it puts into context the extraordinary talent of all those legendary players who scored goals by the hatful and wowed crowds in the past.

Indeed, one of the most exceptional items of memorabilia on display in the Performance zone is a pair of vintage leather boots worn by none other than Manchester United legend George Best. While heavy and clumpy in comparison to today’s gossamer-thin footwear worn at the elite level, Best was able to float across the grass and jink past defenders in full flow as he starred for United and Northern Ireland in the 1960s. What’s more, the boots are also hand-marked with the names of the teams that Best scored against while wearing them during his teenage years — which bizarrely appears to include fictional side Melchester Rovers, made famous by the “Roy of the Rovers” comic strip.


Identity

The Identity section of the exhibition focuses on the graphic design used by prominent clubs and organisations throughout their history, from crests and badges to fanzines and banners.

There is also an array of classic shirts on show that demonstrate the lineage between their original usage — a straightforward signifier of which team you played for — to the trend-setting modern designs with replicas worn in their millions by fans around the world. Indeed, the contrast between the plain, simple Brazil shirt worn by Pele at the 1958 World Cup and the lurid, lightweight designs of present day kits is particularly stark.

We are also treated to a portfolio of hand-drawn designs for a new Brazil international kit by artist Aldyr Garcia Schlee in 1953. The Selecao wanted to abandon the white kit worn in their shock World Cup final defeat to neighbours Uruguay in Rio de Janeiro’s Maracana stadium three years earlier in favour of a more patriotic palette utilising the yellow, green and blue of the nation’s flag. As well as offering a window into the design process involved in changing a national team’s entire visual identify, the charming sketches also reveal how close Brazil came to playing in stripes, hoops and even a diagonal sash! But it was one of Schlee’s other designs that was chosen, and Brazil went on to win the 1958 World Cup wearing their now-iconic Camisa Canarinho.

Italian giants Juventus exchanged their famous club crest for a modern, streamlined logo in 2017 which club president Andrea Agnelli heralded as a “symbol of the Juventus way of living.” So it is interesting to look at the timeline of badges used by Juventus over the years as it charts the journey from ornate heraldry to pared-down, clean, minimal graphics.

The iconography produced by fans is also given prominence, particularly the famous “Scouse Bayeux Tapestry” — a moving memorial banner created by Liverpool supporter Peter Carney in the wake of the Hillsborough Disaster in 1989, as well as the second design he produced in collaboration with Christine Waygood on the 20th anniversary in 2009.


Crowds

Here is a history of the incredible technical feats that have gone into building some of the world’s best football stadiums, as well as the unseen work that goes into providing the modern-day match-going fans with the best possible experience. From infrastructure to acoustics, this section focuses on the feats of architecture that have given rise to a number of the game’s greatest sporting arenas

This includes fascinating scale maquettes of both Chelsea‘s home at Stamford Bridge and the Estadio Municipal de Braga, home to Portuguese side SC Braga, which was built into the face of a disused quarry using an ingenious cantilever system that continues to keep the adjacent grandstands aloft.

There is also a stunning photographic tribute to Borussia Dortmund‘s famous “Yellow Wall.” The daunting 328×131-foot Sudtribune stand at Signal Iduna Park holds almost 25,000 fans in a single tier who make it one of the most atmospheric and revered terraces in world football.


Spectacle

Football has long been the world’s most popular spectator sport, and while the rules of the game being played on the pitch hasn’t changed much in the past 100 years or so, the way in which we consume the game is presented to us is almost unrecognisable.

The arc begins with the formal establishment of tournaments and competitions in the early 20th century as illustrated by a beautiful gallery of official World Cup posters and the lavish artwork of the period that was used as promotional material for each.

Also on show are several stellar examples of the elaborate and coveted trophies that have been contested at the very highest levels of the game including the original 1911 FA Cup (which has been housed at the National Football Museum since 2005) and the current Women’s FA Cup.

With the nature of football fandom in constant flux, a light is also shone on the effects that technological advances in television, gaming and social media have all simultaneously had on the way we interact with the game in the online age.


Play

The fifth and final part of the exhibition celebrates the many ways in which people from all walks of life engage with football outside of the sport itself, from collecting memorabilia and online gaming right through to fan ownership of clubs and community projects.

While “Sensible Soccer,” “Football Manager” and the “FIFA” series have seen football video games become a huge, multibillion-dollar industry in their own right since the 1990s, games based on football are hardly a new phenomenon as venerable disciples of tabletop classics such as “Blow Football” and “Subbuteo” will duly attest.

The latter is duly celebrated in a nostalgia-drenched art installation by Julian Germain, who took a raft of classic “Subbuteo” figurines and repainted them to resemble mainstream blockbuster superheroes such as Captain America and Spider-Man.