It started on the first floor, in the middle of the room on a pedestal under glass. “Footballeur” is a little-known ceramic sculpture by Pablo Picasso, and it greets you at the National Football Museum in the center of the city. Among the artworks, quotes from some of soccer’s greats line the walls—complete with the odd spellings common to a pre-Autocorrect era. It occurred to me, in this microcosm of art and history, that sometimes soccer is not just a sport, but also a lens through which one can view the world and the past.
The museum strikes a balance of stuff and substance, much like what humanity has managed to produce since the rules were written down in 1863 by Ebenezer Cobb Morley. (The NFM has a copy; as it happens, we saw the original Laws of the Game as part of the British Library’s current display in London.) Through the interactive exhibits (which cost a bit more than admission, which is free) for the kids, ephemera for the true nerds and collectors, exhibits of social movements’ effects on the game for the history buffs, and hundreds of tidbits of triumphs and tragedies on and off the pitch, one begins to see the evolution of a beautiful game mirroring the evolution of a little planet growing more and more connected.
But, at the end of it, I had certainly learned a lot about soccer. Some highlights and conclusions:
— A short video told the story of a women’s league formed in Britain’s WWI munitions factories. It had a lot of similarities to the now-defunct Women’s Baseball League in the US: They were kicking instead of base running and they didn’t wear skirts, but they had a similar amount of grit and tenacity. A woolen outfit from around 1895 for women footballers was also on display. It looked itchy.
— Speaking of grit, after watching a short video about Arthur Fitzgerald Kinnaird, 11th Lord Kinnaird, AKA Lord of the FA Cup (with caps in nine of the first ten finals), I have determined he is deserving of an action figure.
— Soccer certainly has never lacked for schlock. One of the sponsors is the toy manufacturer Subbuteo, and there is a massive a toy case encompassing everything from early metal figurines, to the plastic tabletop game, to FIFA 13. Upstairs unfolds what can only be described as a groovy collection of George Best memorabilia. From his Mini Cooper to his super 70s workout record, the evidence suggests that Best was not only the first soccer superstar, but that he endorsed everything.
— The museum doesn’t skimp on tactics, however. There was a childishly-satisfying phone you could pickup to get tactical advice from famous managers while discovering how ball and boot constructions have changed play over time. (They’re not as heavy.) There was a moving exhibit about the football tragedies that have occurred on British soil, from Ibrox to Hillsborough, juxtaposed with notes and designs from some of the most prominent stadium designers, next to an original Wembley turnstile. I imagine the pictures of men standing drinking up against the crush barriers (before stadium seating was mandated in the top-flight) would bring back many memories to those who attended.
After perusing remnants of these rich histories, I feel a little guilty about the favorite fact I learned. Near a Pele jersey and a fashion-forward vintage sweater from West Germany, there was a silly little interactive stand, with holes covered in black fabric for children to stick their hands in to find the World Cup. Encased beside it were a leash and dog collar; above, a drawing of a dog and a sign that read: “Help Pickles find the World Cup!” So there you have it: My favorite new fact is that the Jules Rimet trophy was stolen prior to the 1966 World Cup in England, and was subsequently found in a hedge by a dog named Pickles out for a walk. He was honored for his heroism.
Maybe society has been through so much in the 150 years that league soccer has existed that, taken all at once, it can be a bit overwhelming. I doubt if I read even a half of what was on display. But there must be something buried deep in the human psyche that explains why we just want to sit around and watch animals do things on the Internet, or men run around on a field and kick a ball. It’s simpler and far more relaxing than trying to make sense of George Best’s workout records.
Images provided by Shanna Van Volt