The World Cup can sometimes look more like fashion week than a football tournament – the preening superstars, the ubiquitous branding, the Prima donna antics – but it wasn’t always like this. In our final piece on the history of football apparel, we look at the kits – from heavy woolen nightmares to mobile billboards, with leopards, Aztecs and ’90s day-glo along the way.
Stepping off a boat into the South American sun, three weeks after setting off from Europe, moustachioed and Brylcreemed, the footballer of 1930 was more Major General than Midfield General. Most had to secure time off work to compete and had hardly trained aboard ship, merely doing lengths of the deck to keep themselves limber.
Their kit was suitably archaic to match. Most took to the field in heavy woolen long-sleeved shirts, suited to the European climate, held together with granddad collars and lace. Some players even wore flat caps. The Bolivian team, in an unsubtle attempt to curry favor with the hosts, wore letters on their shirts that spelled out “VIVA URUGUAY” when lined up correctly. (They lost every game).
Wool remained the order of the day for most of the early tournaments but in the post-war period, materials evolved and by the 1950 tournament in Brazil, most were wearing lighter fabrics. They had begun to incorporate numbers and badges into their uniforms; champions Uruguay actually wore the badge of Sao Paulo FC, their Brazilian hosts, as a tribute. Their vanquished opponents, Brazil, were so traumatized by their defeat in the decisive game that they retired their white/blue jerseys and adopted their now iconic canary yellow strip.
Further innovations accompanied the later tournaments as more professional brands latched on to the game and added needed insight into sportswear. Adi Dassler notably provided the kit for the victorious Germans in 1954 and Pele’s Brazil were heavily sponsored by PUMA, though that did not entirely go to plan. Facing hosts Sweden in the final of that year, Brazil were forced to wear their white away shirts, but, scarred by the disaster of 1950, they refused and instead scoured Stockholm for alternative jerseys. They found a blue set, sewed the numbers on themselves and went on to win.
With the tournament increasingly being played in extreme heat, the principle goal of kit suppliers in the ’70s and ’80s was keeping the players cool. A major leap forward came in 1970, through British brand Umbro. Tasked with designing shirts for the England side that would protect the Three pasty Lions from the Mexican heat, they developed Aertex, a lightweight fabric with miniature holes to reduce humidity.
They made a crucial error, however, in the coloring. Eschewing the red that brought the World Cup to England, Alf Ramsey’s men opted for a sky-blue away strip which they thought would reflect the sun and keep them cool. What they didn’t factor in was that faced with the all-white wearing Czechoslovakians, they couldn’t distinguish their own players from the Czechs. Their pain was felt by their fans, who, watching at home in black and white, couldn’t either. No such problems for the Zaire team in 1974, who gave the World Cup one of its finest or at least more bizarre, tops, featuring a leopard on the chest. Like Bolivia, eccentricity didn’t help them and they went home with a 0-14 goal difference.
The palette of kit-makers was greatly widened as goalkeepers became more specialized in their apparel. In the 1958 World Cup, Wales’ Jack Kelsey played with nothing more than chewing gum on his hands to assist his handling but come the 1970s, a whole market in gloves and specific jerseys sprang up. Manufacturers such as Reusch, Sondico and Uhlsport cornered the market, and began producing an array of gloves with enhanced finger protection, grip-assisting foam palms and wrist supports.
The ’80s and ’90s represented a sartorial golden age for the World Cup, as all the major sport brands produced a range of jerseys that are still the envy of collectors and vintage fans. Denmark’s Hummel-made 1986 understated effort, accompanied by their buccaneering style on the field, won many plaudits, as did proto-hipster Socrates in 1982.
Italia ’90 featured a semifinal between two of the great kits, as Umbro’s England came up against adidas’s Germany. USA ’94 followed a similar theme, with synthetic materials and advanced printing, as well as a conscious move towards replica shirt sales led to outlandish, multicolored designs; those of the USA and Nigeria particularly catching the eye.
Mexico, wearers of the finest kit at this year’s tournament, stole the show in France in 1998, adding to their iconic green shirts an Aztec warrior design. The ’90s day-glo craze did not pass football by and the Mexicans again were top of the game, with their eccentric goalkeeper/occasional striker Jorge Campos stepping out in a selection of self-designed neon kits.
The 2000s have seen a relative decline in the variety of kits worn at the World Cup. As the major brands increasingly sign up nations to their rosters, the kits have become more and more (ahem) uniform. Nike, PUMA, adidas have standard kit designs and rarely deviate from them. One would struggle to find much stylistic differences, for example, between the Nike-stable kits of the USA, Greece and Australia, or the adidas-aligned Japan, Spain and Russia, save for their color. England’s 2014 kit was widely criticized for being identical to an off-the-peg Nike shirt, with added Three Lions badge (and a $150 price tag).
While the kits might seem aesthetically similar, the technological aspect is all the players care about and that has moved on enormously and continues apace. Materials become lighter, aerodynamics are improved and heat is reduced, which so we are told, gives players all the better conditions in which to impress. Did anybody tell this to the England team? Perhaps that’s a question for another day…
Check out the rest of our World Cup Month features here.