When Bilbao-based student Juan Elorduy caught the ship home from Southampton in 1909, he picked up 50 football shirts to take back with him for his local team. Athletic Club were in need of a new kit and took on the red and white stripes of Southampton, before sending the leftover jerseys to their youth team, Athletic de Madrid, in the Spanish capital. Now, 110 years later, Athletic Club and Atlético Madrid compete at the highest level in their cherished Rojiblanco colours.
Every football kit has a story behind it. It sounds cheesy but it’s true. Some are more complicated and shrouded in mystery than others. Take Barcelona, for example, whose Blaugrana stripes have been traced back to several different sources over time.
There are those that believe Lionel Messi and co. play in blue and red because of their Swiss roots, where the club’s founder, Joan Gamper, was born. Basel are the obvious connection to draw but Gamper’s former Excelsior team also played in blue and red, so there’s no definite conclusion. Arthur Witty, one of the members of Barça’s earliest squads, supposedly persuaded the club to wear the same blue and red of his school team, Merchant Taylor’s School, back home in Crosby, Merseyside.
Now that Barcelona are one of the world’s biggest names, their blue and red stripes have been handed down over the years. Eibar have an amicable relationship with the Camp Nou side and have openly celebrated their Blaugrana links. The Basque outfit were short of kits in 1944 and were lent a set of Barcelona ones by the regional federation.
Levante, too, play in the same shades and adopted the Blaugrana after merging with Gimnastico, who had a similar badge to Barcelona, in 1939. Huesca were the fourth team wearing Blaugrana in LaLiga last season, with their founders huge fans of a certain Catalan club.
The exchange of British workers to Spain and Spanish students to the UK in the early 20th century saw football take off on the Iberian Peninsula. Many students returning home from Britain would set up teams in their home towns and cities, taking inspiration for kits from those they’d seen across the Bay of Biscay.
It was first thought that Real Betis’s green and white colours came from the Andalusian flag, but there’s a far more interesting backstory to their Verdiblancos traditions. Seville native, Manuel Ramos Asensio. was sent to Scotland as a child to learn English, joining St. Joseph’s College in Dumfries. Asensio would regularly visit Parkhead to watch Celtic and, once he’d returned to Spain, those green and white hoops stuck with him. Betis have worn green and white stripes rather than hoops for the majority of their existence, but they did don hoops to commemorate their links with Celtic in a 2017 match with Málaga.
The impact of British football is evident elsewhere in Europe, too. You’ll probably know the link between Juventus and Notts County where, in 1903, the Italian club asked one of their English players, John Savage, if he would be able to send for some new kits from back home. He contacted a friend in Nottingham who happened to be a County fan and the rest is history.
This relationship between the UK and Europe works both ways. Blackpool switched to their famous tangerine in 1923 after a recommendation by referee Albert Hargreaves, who had been impressed by the Netherlands’ kit while officiating one of their games against Belgium.
Leeds’ jerseys have previously taken inspiration from both Huddersfield and Real Madrid. Their first shirts were blue and white-striped,in homage to the Terriers, before changing to all white in tribute to Los Blancos’ European successes in the 1960s.
Heading south from Yorkshire, Aston Villa took their claret and blue colours from north of the border and Hearts and Rangers in particular. West Ham and Burnley have since copied the same colour scheme. The recognisable red and white of the north London derby comes from Nottingham Forest and Preston – I’ll let you do the maths.
Italian clubs have much more fascinating and philosophical reasons behind their colours. Inter picked black and blue to represent the night and the sky respectively. Milan’s black stood for their opponents’ fear while their red was drawn from their own players’ passion.
Napoli reportedly wear their silky tinge of blue to reflect the azure of the Gulf of Naples, while Palermo’s pink and black was concocted from the team’s inconsistent results, with pink representing the sweet and black the bad.
Legend has it that Fiorentina stumbled across their rich shade of purple after washing their previous red and white kits in a river. In the capital, Roma believe they represent the city of Rome and that’s why they embraced maroon and gold. Lazio’s beginnings as a general sports club are evident in their blue and white shirts – a nod to Olympic founders Greece.
Flags are often the answer if you’re ever wondering about kits of foreign teams, especially in Spain. It’s why Galicia’s Celta Vigo and Deportivo wear blue and white, it’s why Asturias’ Real Oviedo don royal blue, and it’s why Barcelona tend to go for a yellow and red away strip. The vast majority of Spanish clubs are hugely proud of their cities and regions, such is the country’s political situation.
Real Sociedad’s blue and white stripes don’t come from Huddersfield or Sheffield Wednesday but from the flag of San Sebastian. Across the border in Portugal, Porto also wear the same colours, with many of the club’s founders preferring to represent the blue and white Portuguese flag of the time than the green and white colours of their city.
A cautious desire not to clash with any other teams’ colours has also had a lasting effect on the shirts we see in the modern game. Ajax were forced to ditch their red and white stripes after their first promotion to the Dutch top flight in 1911 because they matched the shirts worn by Sparta Rotterdam. Ajax opted for a single red strip down the middle and everyone was happy.
The tale, however true it is, behind PSV’s red and white is much simpler. When brainstorming the colours of his new team, PSV chairman Jan Willem Hofkes quite liked the contrast between his red raspberry drink and his white notepad during the meeting.
That’s not the most intriguing explanation I’ve come across. If we head across the Atlantic to Argentina, Boca Juniors have quite the urban myth going around. You can decide whether you’re buying this or not but, in 1906, Boca played against Nottingham de Almagro. Both teams had the same kit so it was decided that whoever won the match would be able to keep their colours while the losers would have to change. Boca lost and headed to the port of Boca to choose their new strip. They decided that they’d pinch the colours of the flag flapping from the first ship that came into the port. So, thanks to some Swedish sailors, Boca’s blue and yellow are known worldwide today.
Some of football’s most eye-catching colour schemes are found in Turkey with Galatasaray’s red and yellow and Fenerbahçe’s navy and yellow hugely dominant if you walk around the streets of Istanbul. Gala founder Ali Sami Yen and two of his teammates went in search of a new kit around the Turkish capital in 1908 and, after looking through several shops, they finally found the perfect colour combination.
“One of them was quite dark red, resembling the cherry colour, and the other a rich yellow with a touch of orange,” Sami Yen wrote in his diaries. “When the sales clerk made the two fabrics fly together with a twist of his hand they became so bright that it reminded us of the beauty of a goldfinch. We thought we were looking at the colours flickering in burning fire. We were picturing the yellow-red flames shining on our team and dreaming that it would take us to victories.”
As for Fener, winger Hikmet Topuzer designed the striking kit consisting of yellow and navy stripes with white shorts and socks.
Speaking of standout kits, there aren’t many clubs that have adopted green as their own right at the top of the European game. Panathinaikos is one that immediately springs to mind, with their preference for green based on nature and health. Saint-Étienne are one of France’s most historical sides but their green kit doesn’t come from any environmental concepts, instead from a grocery store. The club was founded by employees of the Groupe Casino chain in 1919, who took the company’s green into their kits.
Saint-Étienne’s rivals Lyon lacked originality but not patriotism in their colour choices, picking the red, white and blue of the French tricolour. They did have a change of heart in 1976 when they switched to all red just as Liverpool were winning back-to-back European Cups. Their predominant white strips didn’t return until 1990 after failing to win a single trophy in red. Further north, Paris Saint-Germain are also fans of red, white and blue, but thanks to their city and Saint-Germain rather than their nation’s flag.
International kits are a bit more straightforward. You wear the colours of your country’s flag, right? England are white, Spain are red, France are blue, Argentina are white and blue, Brazil are yellow and blue – it all makes sense. Some nations’ kits are so steeped in history that they now seem the odd ones out.
Italy’s royal blue comes from the House of Savoy coat of arms which used to sit in the middle of the national flag, while Germany’s white and black is derived from the Prussian flag. The Netherlands’ national colour of orange has translated to their national team’s shirts and the same goes for Australia’s green and gold and New Zealand’s black.
The Spanish FA and Adidas came under fire for seemingly using purple (it’s apparently blue but looks very much like purple) in La Roja’s kit for the 2018 World Cup due to its links with the Spanish Second Republic and the civil war that followed. It was modelled on the kit Spain used for the 1994 World Cup, which doesn’t include purple, but blue. The purple, more commonly known as morado in Spain, was put on the country’s flag when the monarchy was overthrown in 1931 and it still represents opposition to the royal family for many.
As Vincent Tan and other owners have learned, changing a club or even a country’s colours is something you just don’t do. These colours, whether red and white stripes, green and white hoops or blue and yellow quarters, represent much of a team’s identity and honour their roots. It’s not uncommon for football fans to choose a team to support because of the colour they play in. Kits and colours really do form part of the fabric of every team across this sport and the links they’ve created between clubs are there to be treasured.
By Billy Munday @billymunday08