Saikat Banerjee, a 35-year-old investment banker in Kolkata, was only 11 when Diego Maradona led Argentina to victory in the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. Yet he remembers that tournament clearly, because his deep passion for the Argentine football team was born then. Not just fuelled by Maradona’s genius, but because his father bought him a shiny, blue and white Argentine jersey.
“I have perfect recall of that day,” says Banerjee, “Argentina had won their first match 3-1 against South Korea the day before. When my father came home from work, he gave me a small plastic packet. Inside was a jersey that looked exactly like what Maradona wore in the match!”
Banerjee was ecstatic—and every evening through the month-long tournament, he wore that jersey. “I actually still have it,” he says, “and before every World Cup since then, I take it out for good luck.”
Perfect fit: (clockwise from left) Lionel Messi will have to earn his stripes in the Argentine shirt; Italy’s 2006 kit was designed by English fashion designer Neil Barrett; and Brazil’s yellow instantly evokes images of legendary players, such as Zico in the 1982 World Cup. Photo: Aris Messinis/AFP
From Argentina’s “Albiceleste” (white and sky blue) to Brazil’s “little canary” (because their shirt is yellow and green), the Italian “Azzurri” and England’s stark white kit from 1966, the football jersey defines a team as much as the players who wear it, and is treated with as much reverence as the national flag of the country from which it usually derives its colours.
Fashion designer Nikhil Mehra of Shantanu and Nikhil, who has designed jerseys for the Indian Cricket League (ICL), feels the Argentine kit is a classic design that transcends the temporal nature of fashion. “The colour palette is masculine, as well as universal,” he says, “Aquamarine blue and white is possibly the most beautiful combination for a man. The size and the length of the stripes, the saturation of the colour are all meticulously calculated. People will come and go, but this design will stay on.”
The journey to colour
In 1863, when the English Football Association was formed to design rules for the game, players would normally turn up for a game wearing cricket whites or any old clothes they had—with distinctively coloured caps, scarves or sashes added to distinguish between two teams. By 1879, as football’s popularity soared, the importance of supporters being able to pick out their team from a distance became increasingly pertinent. In stepped Bukta, UK’s first sports-kit manufacturer, which rolled out its line of basic cotton jerseys and shorts in simple solid colours that year.
In 1891, players of English club Aston Villa (now an English Premier League team) wore claret jerseys with contrasting light blue sleeves and a distinctive neck band—the first iconic football shirt. Villa’s jersey has remained more or less unchanged for over a century, an indication of its symbolic power.
“Generations of fans and players grow up identifying with the colours and designs of their country or club’s jerseys,” says football historian and commentator Novy Kapadia. “The reds of Manchester United or Liverpool, the blue of Chelsea or Brazil’s yellow—just the colour is enough to evoke passion and excitement.”
For fans across the world, wearing the jersey of their choice is the closest they can get to feeling like a part of the club or country they support. “At the Celtic Football Club museum in Scotland, I even read about fans who were buried with the club’s jersey because that’s what they wanted!” says Kapadia.
The little canary
Barry Bryce, 35, manager at an import firm in England, took his fascination for jerseys to its logical conclusion and became a collector in the early 1990s. He now has almost 900 original jerseys in his possession, which he has put up on his website www.footballjerseymuseum.co.uk
“Football shirt collectors are fans of the game in a wider sense than your average club supporter,” says Bryce. “They generally appreciate the history and heritage of the game across the world and are not as partisan as many other fans.”
Bryce lists Denmark’s “halved” 1986 World Cup kit and Mexico’s Aztec sculptures, printed on a rainforest green background, from the 1998 World Cup as his favourite possessions. “But the market for original match-worn shirts is so full of fakes and so expensive that it’s almost pointless trying to collect them,” he says. “I have seen some shirts from the Soviet Union or Brazil sell for £1,200 (around Rs81,720)!”
This deep association between the jersey and the game goes beyond fans and collectors—Brazil dropped its original white and blue kit after its defeat in the World Cup final in 1950, picking the yellow jersey with green trims from a contest that was open to the Brazilian public. The winning design was made by a 19-year-old newspaper illustrator Aldyr Garcia Schlee, who recalled the Brazilian team’s reaction in an autobiographical piece—“I didn’t know what to do in front of those perplexed, sacred monsters of my admiration. I doubt that they even had anything to say to me either, when they posed, aghast, for a picture with the yellow shirt and the blue shorts I had handed them. Nevertheless, I will never forget Zizinho’s roguish smirk and what he whispered to me, I’m not sure as a statement or a warning. Zizinho, holding my arm lightly and speaking quietly, smiled and said: ‘This is all shit!’”
The “little canary”, though, went on to become not just one of Brazil’s most important national symbols, but also an iconic design in sports, worn by fans in places across the globe, from Rio to Kolkata, Dubai to London, and representing everything from Pelé holding up the World Cup in 1970 to Ronaldo in 2002. For the 2010 World Cup, Nike, which bought the rights for the Brazilian kit for a record $100 million (around Rs470 crore) in 1996, went back to the classic look of Schlee’s famous design. “To reflect the heritage of the 1958 World Cup win, the new jersey features a modern performance collar built into the fabric that gives the jersey that vintage look,” says Sanjay Gangopadhyay, managing director, Nike India. “There are also five stars prominently displayed over the team crest to mark the five World Cup wins.”
“Fashion always looks back even when there is innovation,” says Shantanu. “Even the fitted shape you’ll see in the 2010 World Cup is a tribute to the 1970s. But now the fabrics are better and the fit is more ergonomic, like a swimmer’s bodysuit. It’s also the perfect fashion statement because footballers have the best bodies in the world.”
It’s not just a T-shirt
Since the 1970s, when jerseys were made of a cotton-polyester blend, manufacturers have increasingly stressed the development of the material, with leading sportswear companies launching marketing assaults based on their latest “wonder” fabric.
“In 2006, Puma introduced a football shirt that weighed less than 100g,” says Filip Trulsson, senior manager of Puma’s international teamsport business unit, based in Germany. “It also featured a cold fusion technology, removing all stitching on the product.”
Sometimes, though, the innovations backfire. “Our most groundbreaking jersey was the single-piece bodysuit we designed for Cameroon in 2004, but it sparked a controversy with Fifa, and they banned the use of single-piece kits,” says Trulsson.
Most football jerseys now are made of a polyester-blend fabric that draws sweat away from the player’s body to the fabric’s outer surface for fast drying. Nike went a step further for the 2010 World Cup, manufacturing the jerseys for all 10 national teams under contract with them from recycled plastic bottles. “Almost 13 million plastic bottles were recycled to make the polyester fabric,” says Gangopadhyay. “That’s enough to cover more than 29 football pitches.”
Kapadia feels the hype over “advanced fabric” is more of a marketing ploy. “International players regularly wear cotton vests underneath their jerseys, which sort of undermines all this talk of groundbreaking technology that we keep hearing,” he says.
For fans and viewers, though, it’s the aesthetics that rule the day, and a striking kit can put even the lesser-known teams firmly in the imagination.
“I am excited about Croatia’s kit,” says Nikhil. “The white and red chequered pattern is unique, funky and fashionable. When the players run, you see the checks moving, which creates a cool visual effect.”