The people's game exhibits its heart at the National Football Museum

Maradona, Cantona and Rivelino feature in new National Football Museum but the real stars are the fans. Ian Herbert pays a visit

Perhaps you will stand for a while and gaze at the framed image which Eric Cantona hung at his Marseilles home, because it is impossible to pass through Manchester's new National Football Museum, which opens today, without doing so. Impossible, too, not to reflect on the ego of any man who agrees to pose for a recreation of Piero della Francesca's Resurrection of Christ featuring himself, Sir Alex Ferguson, David Beckham and Gary Neville. Cantona, needless to say, is Christ in the work undertaken by artist Michael Brown in a bar in Manchester's Castlefield and delivered to the museum only 10 days ago.

Many more who considered themselves God's gift are represented among the museum's 3,000 artefacts, with one of George Best's 1960s flowered paisley shirts resplendent in his own dedicated display, which is more than "King Eric" gets. If it's football shirts you're looking for then you won't need to look far, with the first of countless heated football arguments here yesterday revolving around whether the museum's best exhibit was the 1986 Diego Maradona "Hand of God" jersey – loaned by Steve Hodge, the player who asked for it – or the one worn in the 1970 World Cup final by Brazil's Roberto Rivelino. Two curators took sides. "Ah well, cheating wins out again," said one, when his Rivelino shirt lost.

But the museum, which at last provides a purpose which Manchester's blade-like Urbis building has lacked ever since it was built amid the rash of new millennium construction projects, impresses most in the way that it has not forgotten those ordinary people who follow and cherish the sport, even though football has often brushed them aside amid its relentless corporatisation. A Manchester City fan, David Brammar, was so enthralled by "King" Colin Bell that he leapt over the Kippax Stand barrier at Maine Road 33 years ago and placed a crown on his head. Bell kept the crown and it takes its place in the halls. "Our aim is to tell the sport's story from the perspective of ordinary people at all levels of the game," said the museum's director, Kevin Moore. "The supporters are not there to provide an illustration but to tell a story."

The lives of those fans the sport has claimed are painfully difficult to record but there is boldness in the museum's brave portrayal of the Hillsborough disaster. One of the green terrace barriers from the Leppings Lane End of that day in April 1989 takes a position and to see it and to lean against it provides a very intense sense of the place. Playing for those who stand at the barrier is a silent film encompassing footage of Hillsborough and the other football disasters which preceded it, accompanied by script from Lord Chief Justice Taylor's report into the 1989 disaster, in typewriter font. "It is a depressing and chastening fact that mine is the ninth official report. Why were the other recommendations not followed? Complacency is the enemy of safety..."

There is also an art-house film, Richard Oliver's Our Beautiful Game, which plays in a dedicated space called "immersive cinema" across the hall. Oliver was asked simply to go out and photograph football – any type of football, from schoolyards, to Sunday league pitches, to Wembley Stadium – during the month of September last year. "We went out expecting to find a nation broken and divided, instead we found football. Everywhere," said Oliver, and that pretty much captures what he has delivered.

The artefacts that line the routes include both footballs used in the first World Cup final, Argentina v Uruguay in 1930. Argentina's ball was used in the first half but the Uruguayans, sensing conspiracy when they trailed 2-1 at half-time, provided their own for the second half and won 4-2. If you don't mind the embarrassment of kneeling down on all fours and sniffing, you can also know what a 1920s, 1960s and 2010 dressing room smelt like, though the interaction gets smarter than that.

The museum, entry to which is free, will make money by selling credits to do stuff with a ball. In the penalty shoot-out room, you can attempt to beat a virtual goalkeeper and put the ball between the posts used at Wembley in the 1996 European Championship. You can also try some of the short passing drills Bob Paisley used at Liverpool. There are three BBC commentary clips from every club, as voted for by fans, with a curious statistical footnote being that the goal by Simeon Jackson which took Norwich City into the Premier League last year won most votes.

Manchester was agog yesterday with talk of whether City or United would be most willing to pay Robin van Persie more in a week than some working people here earn in perhaps 13 years. Excellent timing for a museum to return football to those who cherish it.

Pride of place: Museum's top memorabilia

1. Diego Maradona's "Hand of God" shirt, loaned by Steve Hodge who asked him for it after the 1986 World Cup quarter-final.

2. "Football's DNA" The original 1863 rulebook by Ebenezer Cobb Morley, first FA secretary.

3. The cartilage removed from the knee of Preston's Willie Cunningham in 1960.

4. The neckbrace worn by Manchester City's Bert Trautmann after he broke his neck and played on in the 1956 FA Cup final.

5. The shirt worn by Howard Webb when he refereed the 2010 World Cup final between the Netherlands and Spain.

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