From Pastime to Industry: How Nineties Design Made the Sport

Ed Ruscha, "Music From The Balconies"

Ed Ruscha, "Music From The Balconies"

“There’s no formula; (the concepts) just have to be emotionally loaded. It may be something I hear on the radio, or a lyric from a song… It’s a simple thing.” Ed Ruscha (primarily noted as an artist) distills his methodology in this straightforward description, and Michael Beirut (a graphic designer) co-opts it in his collection of essays on design, chiefly to frame artistic process in terms of Beirut’s own profession. For creative endeavors related to the sport of association football, Ruscha’s words ring favorably.

In a previous article, the formal identity development of the European Championships was outlined. Another currently in production will do the same for the FIFA World Cup, in advance of the tournament’s kickoff in South Africa. But here, as a link between the two, let’s look at some of the aesthetic choices undertaken away from corporate branding by persons or institutions whose primary focus isn’t necessarily football.

As inspiration, I’ve absorbed the excellent book Football Graphics (Thames & Hudson, 1998) by Jeremy Leslie and Patrick Burgoyne – though older and wanting of a follow-up, it’s still full of wonderful images and writing on the then-current aesthetic state of the sport. Amid spreads of the original 1995 MLS logos and screen grabs of Sky Sports’ mid-decade “innovative match experience” is a great deal of exploration into the nascent rivalry of that era, one still raging today: Nike v adidas.

Yuri Gagarin, Alexei Leonov, Patrick Kluivert

Yuri Gagarin, Alexei Leonov, Patrick Kluivert

Some really fabulous images are included (some reproduced here) of the sportswear companies’ respective campaigns to define themselves as the brand closest to the hearts of athletes and fans, and closest to their respective ambitions. And they went to great lengths to set themselves apart in their advertising. Nike at one point featured the Dutch team as individual videogame heroes, including Patrick Kluivert as Sputnik-Man (apparently). Adidas countered with a campaign that saw cloned Matthias Sammers and Paul Inces battle it out in some sort of secret laboratory. As budgets increased and ads became more elaborate, Nike produced the still-famous Good Versus Evil spot that saw Nike’s nine biggest stars (plus Jorge Campos and Tab Ramos) battle Satan’s XI on the pampas of hades and convinced every crap striker in Christendom to pop his or her collar before shooting.

In fact, if anything, ads as these solidified the star system in football. As basketball or baseball in the United States has relied on individual star power to drive revenues and ratings, early nineties football was still a relatively level ground in terms of big names. But via their existing worldwide marketing, Nike and adidas could propel the Cantonas and Klinsmanns to a status beyond their clubs or countries. The real origins of how Brand Beckham became global lie in this primordial conflict.

Hull City, 1992.

Hull City, 1992.

But for manufacturers of gear, a fans’ ultimate judgment is reserved for one thing: the shirt. Shirt design can and has made or broken perception of many an equipment sponsor, generating huge revenues and goodwill, or protests and outright scorn. New printing techniques allowed more adventurous concepts in this era, but even then pushing the envelope was usually reserved for goalkeeper or away shirts. Fabulous and intricate sublimated computer graphics popped up everywhere, even in a traditional line like Umbro’s. And much in line with Ruscha, they often seemed to be based on little but the whims of the designer. If you worked for a clothing manufacturer, it seemed you could get away with anything.

The 90s was where passion and technology caught up with one another in soccer. The limitlessness of fervor was unburdened by traditional limitations on style. The presentation of the game became as important as the game itself. As John Gill says in Football Graphics, “Football is not just about the game but about so much else. The passion for football is informed by life itself.”

Gill was the curator of “Offside,” a late 90s exhibition of football in contemporary art that featured prominent global artists like the now Turner Prize winning Mark Wallinger. Gill suggests the power of the game to speak to much more is set in simply pitting two ‘warring factions’ against each other: “[We can use our] passion for the game to open up other ideas like nationalism, commercialism, fanaticism. …it becomes a metaphor for so much else [and] it has a huge breath of interest for artists.”

Adam Beebee, "Ultras"

Adam Beebee, "Ultras"

This defined football as fertile ground for making connections between history and iconography, uniting form and context. And it’s likely no coincidence that the decade also featured the advent of Relational Aesthetics: as Nicholas Bourriaud wrote in the eponymous book of 1998, “Artistic activity is a game, whose forms, patterns and functions develop and evolve according to periods and social contexts; it is not an immutable essence. It is the critic’s task to study this activity in the present. …In order to invent more effective tools and more valid viewpoints, it behoves us to understand the changes nowadays occurring in the social arena, and grasp what has already changed and what is still changing.”

In some odd way, Borriaud goes a long way toward explaining things like David Seaman’s 96-era goalkeeper shirt or the original San Jose Clash logo. Essentially, this meant the nineties opened the doors on cultural symbiosis; allowing design, art, business, celebrity, and sport to exist not only simultaneously but become dependent on each other. The trope of football-as-life had actually come to life.

San Jose Clash, 1995-99. "Ooh aah Bourriaud?"

San Jose Clash, 1995-99. "Ooh aah Bourriaud?"

My next article will shift back to more formal identity analysis with a look at the brand development of the World Cup, but a future writeup will begin to explore the connection between artists and football in greater (and more current) detail.

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