A (Personal) History of the Football Shirt

by everydayheartbreak

With the World Cup just weeks away we are looking forward to welcoming football fans from across the globe into our pubs, we are expecting a whole kaleidoscope of national football shirts when the matches begin. Here our own style guru takes us through his own history of the football shirt.

My own history of football shirt wearing is a rather limited one. In fact it is so limited I have only ever owned one.

My rather iconoclastic parents would not allow my brother and I to have replica kits, they were both extortionately overpriced and made of ‘cheap’ fabric (in their view), one of the draw backs of having a father who was once a textile technologist!

At school I was without exception always picked last for team sports (sample quote “you can have Ben & Tom – they are basically one rubbish person together”), so for football I was usually put in goal, a position no one else wanted. This suited me fine as goalkeeping was my favourite position and rather fortunately Leeds United had at the time one of the finest goalkeepers in the country playing for them in the shape of Nigel Martyn so it was certainly a lot cooler than perhaps it might have been. I’d have certainly liked the green Leeds goal keeper Jersey around 1997-8. Martyn was a bit of a hero of mine, he lived just around the corner so I’d see him quite regularly, but my parents in their infinite wisdom decided it looked horrible – which in retrospect it does and I never got one.

One of the boons of owning your teams jersey was getting the name of your favourite player printed on the back, for a time at my school if an alien had landed at my school in the mid-nineties they would be forgiven for thinking that everyone was called ‘Yeboah 21’ (Tony Yeboah spent a couple of seasons at Leeds in the mid-1990s and scored some outrageously good goals, just Youtube his strikes against Liverpool and Wimbledon, his name is still spoken today in the city in reverential tones).

When you put that shirt on you could be your hero, that combination of letters and number meant something – when you stepped out on the football field, in mid-January, as you turned, side stepped and punted the ball in the bottom corner with your Leeds shirt on you were Tony Yeboah.

Sometimes however, eager fans got a little carried away. I remember a few of my class mates buying brand new Leeds shirts and getting BROLIN printed on the back. For those not versed in the ups and downs (mainly downs) of Leeds United football club in the 1990s Tomas Brolin was one of Sweden’s finest young players but he would have an extremely brief and unhappy time at Leeds. Costing £4.5 million when he arrived from Italian club Parma in 1995, he played in only 20 games, many of them coming off the bench and scored but four (very expensive) goals. For a good few years after his departure his name remained in the city, the B, R, O, L, I, N, characters peeling away from a fair few peoples replica shirts.

The Leeds United kits of my youth were never going to win any sartorial awards, much like the team would never win much in the way of silver wear – even though for a few years under David O Leary Leeds were the team who were going to go places. It was only when I got a little older and developed an interest in Italian football, through James Richardson and Channel 4’s brilliant and much missed Gazzetta Football Italia – that I realised that football kit could be stylish.

For me everything about Italian football was impossibly glamorous, the players looked like they’d just stumbled out of a Caravaggio; good looking, dangerous & wild, the San Siro (AC & Inter Milan’s home) just sounded so much more appealing and intoxicating than Goodison Park (sorry Everton) and the intrigue, drama and histrionics – on, and quite a lot of the time off the pitch meant that Serie A (the Italian top division) with its enormous cast of heroes and villains resembled more an opera, or a Russian novel, than it did a football league.

The kit always looked just that little bit sharper than it did back in England. A taper here, a nip there; the shorts always just the right length – looking back at photos from the time you notice that Alessandro Del Piero just looked so much better in those iconic black and white stripes of Juventus than Paul Scholes did in a baggy Manchester United shirt that was a size or two too big.

I marvelled at the manufacturers Kappa, Fila, Diadora and the exotic sponsors; Fiorentina had Nintendo – Leeds United had Packard Bell for Christ sake! There were pinks, purples, every colour under the Tuscan sun – the kit just looked so much cooler than it did here.

I changed my allegiances a fair few times, depending on a team’s form or whether I liked the players, (not usually whether I liked the kit or not) from Juventus (Del Piero, Zidane), to Roma (Totti) and then AC Milan (Gattuso, Pirlo) – the former and the latter, with their vertical stripes (white & black in Juve’s case and the red and black of AC) possibly had two of the most recognisable kits in world football.

I remember vividly lusting after those shirts which you could buy mail order in the back of football magazines or from some of the larger sports retailers, though they were always a bit more expensive than the Premier League kit – but I wanted to stand out, I may not have been any good at football but I was keen to earn the respect of the kids who were good at it by showing that I knew about football – and not just the teams in Britain but in Europe too – but it wasn’t to be. I never did get my AC Milan shirt with ‘Maldini’ printed on the back.

It wasn’t until I went to university that I finally bought a football shirt, another act of petty rebellion that went along with buying cheap white bread – my father after textiles went into milling organic flour about 20 years too early, so that I am now not the heir to some milling empire. By the time I got to university I’d had too much wholemeal, organic sourdough throughout my formative years to last until I moved to Hackney some years later.

So for no good reason I bought the Greek national team home jersey from a sports shop in Norwich to wear when I played five a side and went to the gym. In its favour it was very clean, white with some light blue detailing, Nike maybe – but just as my parents had warned the material was awful and as I had no emotional attachment to it, I had no interest in Greek football, in fact I couldn’t name a Greek player owning it was a disappointment. Footballers were no longer my heroes, now I wanted to dress like a member of The Strokes.

Today my interest in Football has waned from my teenage years (they just don’t make them like Tony Yeboah anymore) but I do always enjoy a world cup – if only to pick out my favourite kit. If I could pick my favourite from World Cups passed that I’ve watched it would be France’s 1998 winning jersey, and if I could have ‘Zidane’ on the back I’d be very happy!

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