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The 2018 FIFA World Cup hasn't kicked off yet, but one of the key duels at this summer’s tournament has already been fought, won, and lost: the battle of the kit manufacturers.
While we typically remember World Cups in terms of scintillating matches — Germany’s ruthless 7-1 dismantling of host Brazil in 2014 — or spectacular, era-defining goals — Diego Maradona’s “Hand of God” against England in 1986 — some editions of the tournament sear themselves onto the collective imagination through sheer style. Although soccer shirts are usually forgettable pieces of athletic wear, some are truly iconic designs that remain immortalized in the memory long after the runner-up in a tournament is relegated to the annals of sporting trivia.
The Tetris-like adidas shirt West Germany wore when lifting the 1990 World Cup in Italy is a standout example. The subtly maximalist Umbro number sported by England as it was defeated in the semi-final by the Germans that same year is another. And the brilliant orange worn by the Netherlands as total football somehow failed to win out in 1974 is iconic even today. (Interesting factoid: that 1974 shirt was produced by adidas, but Dutch captain and talisman Johan Cruyff’s jersey had just two stripes on the sleeves as a result of his personal endorsement with PUMA.)
Although not every tournament produces an iconic shirt, this year’s World Cup has one so brilliant it doesn’t even need a shroud of nostalgia to be adored: Nigeria’s home jersey. The shirt, manufactured by Nike, is a bonafide icon that takes the patterned aesthetics of early ’90s football shirts and updates them for the modern era. It's thoroughly contemporary, yet if you were to squint your eyes it could almost pass for a piece of Nigerian national dress, adding extra nuance to this fusion of old and new.
The more understated away shirt is exceedingly dapper, too, and although Nigeria has only a faint hope of escaping a group that contains Argentina, Croatia, and the pluckiest of underdogs, Iceland, the Super Eagles can take some comfort from the fact they’ll be the best-dressed team in Russia.
But the hype around Nike’s impressive Nigeria uniform distracts from the uncomfortable truth that, actually, the Oregon sportswear giant has gone downhill this year. For the first time in a long time, Nike has by and large been usurped in the football style stakes by its European arch-rival, adidas. Sure, Nike has Nigeria to brag about, but what’s going on with that Australia jersey? The shoulders look like they have stretch marks.
Most of Nike’s shirts this year have a bizarre, dipping oval neck, leaving the impression that someone's been trying to throttle the wearer with their own garment. The French one has a button attached despite having no collar. Why? The diagonal sleeve hems Nike has decided to roll out across its kits this year are a small but noticeable detail that simply looks bad. All of Nike’s classic kits in recent years, such as the one worn by Jose Mourinho’s Champions League-winning Inter Milan side of 2009-10, had their sleeves attached vertically, giving a much cleaner look.
For style-conscious football fans, Nike has always been regarded as the absolute gold standard in football apparel. For the past decade, not a single manufacturer has been able to compete. The key to Nike’s success has always been simplicity: Inter Milan’s 2015-16 shirt; the redcurrant number Arsenal wore as it bade farewell to Highbury Stadium in 2005-06; the England shirt unveiled in 2013. These were all unfussy, classy looks conjured up by designers that didn’t try to overthink things.
adidas, by contrast, always produced shirts that were overwrought, with a boxy, space-age look resembling a kind of body armor. A prime example of this is the 2009-10 Chelsea uniform, which looked like it was fitted with breast pads.
Designing a great football shirt is surprisingly easy, which is why it’s so perplexing when sportswear manufacturers get it wrong. Simplicity is always a sure-fire winner. Recreating past classics from the ’70s, ’80s, or early ’90s, as Umbro did for West Ham in 2015-16 and New Balance did for Liverpool last season, rarely disappoints. Adding some sort of collar — something Nike has failed to do this World Cup — is essential.
This year, adidas has generally stuck to these parameters and given us — Nigeria aside — the World Cup’s best-looking kits. Germany’s home and away uniforms flex the power of retro. Belgium’s away shirt shows how much smarter a kit looks with a simple collar, as opposed to Nike’s England jersey, which looks like its collar was cut out with scissors by a child. The diamond pattern emblazoned across the chest of the Belgium home shirt is a nod to the 1984 European Championship team, and even if it has a touch of golf sweater about it, at least it's distinctive. Mexico away reinforces the efficacy of minimalism. Likewise Egypt and Morocco home.
That’s not to say all of adidas’ efforts are good. Russia’s shirt looks like the kind of fake you’d find at a Novosibirsk market, although, with the faddishness of the whole ironically shabby post-Soviet look, maybe that’s the point. Instead of using the deeply satisfying golden yellow of the Swedish flag, adidas has decided to go with a shade reminiscent of a fading highlighter pen for the Sweden home shirt. (The deep blue away one is much better, though.)
And nor is it to say that Nike has got it wrong across the board. Its South Korea and Poland home uniforms are a reminder that simpler is always better, and the minimal away versions look great. The grayscale checks of Croatia’s away shirt make its awful (lack of) collar less noticeable. Yet, despite these exceptions, there is little that matches the pleasant retro touches found on adidas’ Spain and Colombia shirts, nor the Samurai-inspired Japanese jersey.
Still, I suspect that of all the uniforms we see in Russia this year, the only one that will endure is Nigeria’s. Perhaps this is what matters most. adidas invested bundles of cash into advertising its Predator cleats in the buildup to the last World Cup in Brazil, but it was PUMA that captured the collective imagination with its mismatched neon-colored evoSPEED. In that sense, despite a lackluster tournament, it’s actually Nike that beats adidas in the battle of the kit manufacturers with a last-minute 40-yard howitzer from an unexpected source. adidas would have never imagined that Nigeria would be Nike’s World Cup winner, but football is an unpredictable game.
Sorry, adidas, you were the better team over 90 minutes, but it appears you’re second best once again.
Next up; here's every World Cup 2018 jersey ranked from worst to best.