From inadvertent swastikas to one-off disasters: the beautiful kits we’re forbidden to love

From inadvertent swastikas to one-off disasters: the beautiful kits we’re forbidden to love

Transcending terraces and five-a-side pitches to find their place upon highstreets and catwalks, football shirts have fast become a fashion staple. Yet wherever and however their aesthetics may be remixed and reimagined, the core elements of kits remain unblemished. Their colours, their distinguishing design non-negotiables; these are our signifiers of shared support, our symbols of shared identity.

As Shirt Tales’ James Campbell Taylor writes, “Not just a symbol of one’s sporting allegiance, a football shirt can also convey one’s town or country of origin, political leanings, social standing and even footballing culture.”

Eager as we may be to represent our elected tribes and nail our chosen colours to the mast, however, we are unabashedly particular about what we wear and unwilling to compromise on our sartorial subjectivities. That is to say, we fans won’t wear anything just because it is the correct colour or has the right badge stitched on its chest.

It is one of the many unique allures of football kits that they are able to transcend the sport’s inherent tribalism and tempt fans into buying kits belonging to all manner of clubs and countries, and with most clubs releasing as many as three or four brand new official shirts each year, we’ve more than enough to choose from in order to line our wardrobes. There are some kits, however, that fans simply won’t wear: kits that, in spite of their considerable beauty, can do nothing but remind them of misfortune and failure.

Arsenal, 2010/11 (Home)

Come the 2010/11 campaign, it was fast approaching six years since Arsenal had last won a trophy; the barren period having begun at the end of the 2004/05 season, on the day they lifted the FA Cup after squeezing past Manchester United in a penalty shootout. Since then, they’d reached the final of both the 2006 Champions League and the 2007 Carling Cup yet had been defeated 2-1 on each occasion.

Boasting a strong, youthful, squad – with ample attacking creativity residing in the boots of Jack Wilshere, Samir Nasri, Cesc Fàbregas, Tomáš Rosický, Andrey Arshavin, Robin van Persie, et al – hopes were high that this would be the year they would end the drought and this humble dream took significant steps towards becoming a reality when the Gunners reached a second Carling Cup final in the space of four years, having dispatched of Tottenham, Newcastle, Wigan and Ipswich en route to another appearance at Wembley.

Arsenal’s opponents on the day, Birmingham, were handed an enormous boost by an equally enormous centre-forward when Nikola Žigić headed his team into the lead on 28 minutes. But the favourites fought back and levelled just 11 minutes later, through Robin van Persie. The game remained tied at one-apiece long into the afternoon and, as extra-time loomed, Arsenal felt confident that their quality would pay dividends in the end. But there was to be a sting in the tale for the Gunners.

In the 89th minute of the game, Birmingham goalkeeper Ben Foster tossed a long searching ball deep into the Arsenal half where, on the edge of the area, Žigić flicked it onwards. Unable to find his target in Obafemi Martins, the Serb’s header bounced aimlessly towards Wojciech Szczęsny in the Arsenal goal.

As the kneeling goalkeeper attempted to make his simple save, defender Laurent Koscielny intervened, seemingly intent on putting his foot through the loose ball and sending it to safety, only to pull out at the last second, leaving the ball to cannon off of the unsuspecting Szczęsny’s knee and roll neatly into the path of Martins. The Nigerian forward duly converted, sidefooting the ball into the open goal, compounding Arsenal’s misery and securing an unlikely trophy triumph for the Blues.

Arsenal, meanwhile, were left licking their wounds, cursing a not entirely uncharacteristic defensive cock-up and ruing a third final defeat in a row. The shirts on their backs, that day, were justifiably doomed; doomed to conjure feelings of regret and sorrow at the merest sighting.

Brazil, 1950 (Home) 

In 1950, Brazil hosted their first World Cup and, in owing to the fact that they are Brazil, were considered favourites to lift go all the way. For this particular edition of the tournament, there was to be no grand finale. Instead, the competition would be split into two rounds.

Round one would see four groups of teams play each other once each, whereafter the teams occupying the top spot of each group would then progress to the second round where they would make up one final group. Those four teams would play each other once and whoever topped that final group after three games would be crowned champions. Simple.

Brazil made relatively light work of their opening group stage games, a 4-0 win against Mexico and a 2-0 victory over Yugoslavia bookending a slightly frustrating 2-2 draw with Switzerland. Despite the missed opportunity to record a 100 percent win rate in the opening round, they marched onwards to the second group phase, where they were met by fellow group winners Sweden, Spain and Uruguay, who they were to play in that order.

Dismantled like an ill-fitting IKEA table, Sweden were thumped 7-1 in a truly one-sided encounter with the Seleção. Four days later, the hosts came to within a single goal of matching the scoreline against Spain, beating them 6-1. Uruguay had also beaten Sweden, by three goals to two, but only after having drawn 2-2 with Spain, meaning Brazil only needed to avoid defeat against their South American rivals in order to lift their very first World Cup trophy. 

Two minutes into the second half of the de facto final and Brazil led, fired in front by right-winger Friaça. The 22 gold medals that had already been made and engraved with the Brazilian players’ names seemed little more than proper planning. But Uruguay weren’t there to make up the numbers.

Prior to the game, Uruguay captain Obdulio Varela had rounded up as many copies as he could carry of Brazilian newspaper O Mundo – which proudly promoted a picture of the Brazilian squad accompanied by the caption “These are the world champions”, and laid them on the floor, instructing his teammates to urinate on them. In their second and greatest act of defiance, Uruguay conspired to stage a thrilling comeback against Brazil.

First Juan Alberto Schiaffino then Alcides Ghiggia scored to turn the tide and condemn Brazil to a heartbreaking defeat. The unforeseen loss was viewed as a national disaster, astonishing so many of the near 200,000 people in attendance at the Maracanã and, for all those in Brazilian colours, turning the day into a day of mourning. It was a loss Brazil would never live down.

As for the white kit that Brazil wore that day, it was banished. The since five-time World Cup champions refused to wear another white kit, and even held a national competition in order to determine which colour set would replace the white, green and blue; so eager were they to part from it and the negative connotations it held. That was until Nike revived the vintage white aesthetic for a special edition kit in 2019, which the team wore in celebration of the Copa América’s 100th anniversary.

“We all owe Uruguay a debt of thanks,” says kit connoisseur Phil Delves, “There are few shades in football more evocative than the canary yellow of Brazil, and it seems strange to imagine how the mythical status of the Seleção could have been built on the back of white shirts instead.

“Undoubtedly, the talents of Pelé, Sócrates, Zico, Ronaldo et al. would’ve cemented their legacy wearing any colour or pattern of kit, but there’s something poetic to the yellow of Brazil. There’s a vibrancy and joy to the look which so often produces a reaction that makes you want to get up and dance with joy. I can’t imagine dancing to a white shirt.”

Fiorentina, 1992/93 (Away)

Having assumed the privilege of producing Fiorentina’s kits from Abbigliamento Sportivo, in 1991, Italian sports brand Lotto immediately set about putting the club’s stunning purple palette to good use. In their second season, in pursuit of an aesthetically pleasing away kit, they adroitly paired simplicity with complexity; a simple white body and purple shoulders, laden with a complex, geometric pattern.

The kit was received well, a favourite with fans and players alike – until it was discovered that the mazy lines overlapped to create swastika-like crosses. For any club, being associated with swastikas would represent a huge faux pas, but for one like Fiorentina, looking to distance themselves from aspects of their past – owing their foundation in part to Luigi Ridolfi, a member of Benito Mussolini’s National Fascist Party, and having their stadium initially named after Giovanni Berta, a fascist militant – it was especially uncomfortable.

Fiorentina wore the kit on away trips to just four Serie A rivals before it was pulled from production, swiftly replaced by a markedly more plain white kit; one free from (unintentional) political motifs. That wasn’t before the kit was entered into cult fandom, however, receiving a level of appreciation that has only grown in the near two decades since its introduction.

Whether through adoration of its unique design alone, or in ironic regard of its controversiality, Fiorentina’s 1992/93 away shirt is today one of the most sought-after kits among collectors, though it remains rather less popular among Fiorentina fans themselves, not least because it serves as a reminder that their club – despite the presence of Stefan Effenberg, Brian Laudrup and Gabriel Batistuta – finished third bottom and were relegated to Serie B at the season’s end, calling time on the club’s 54-year stay in the top flight.

“The Batistuta-Fiorentina years were a remarkable time for football shirts,” says Delves. “There has arguably never been a more aesthetically pleasing period for shirts. With a poster boy to match, amongst the gorgeous story that includes tales of 7up and Nintendo, the most ridiculous chapter is the 1992 away shirt. How can something so beautiful be so tainted at the same time? Why is this particular kit now one of the most sought-after designs, despite the fact it was worn just a few times during a relegation campaign?

“It’s fascinating that a stunning shirt such as this can be brought down in one fell swoop by an unfortunate error of the highest order, and yet still remain high on many people’s all-time lists. We will still be referring to this shirt in 50 years time, because it is one of the great kit stories that continues to surprise even the most casual observer.”

Hearts, 1986 (Away)

For over 30 years, no team bar Celtic or Rangers have earned the right to call themselves champions of Scotland. The two famous Glasgow clubs have formed a lasting duopoly of their country’s crown that no rival looks close to dismantling any time soon.

In the year that duopoly’s latest stretch began, however, one club came particularly close to halting it before it had begun. As Denis Hurley writes for Museum of Jerseys, Alex Ferguson guided Aberdeen to glory in 1980, signalling a change to the status quo. The Dons would add more titles in 1984 and 1985, with Dundee United emerging to win in 1983. Celtic’s wins of 1981 and 1982 were the only two for the Old Firm in that six-year period – something which had never happened before. In 1986, Celtic did reclaim top spot. However, that 1985/86 season is the one that got away for Heart of Midlothian.”

In spite of a rocky, loss-laden start to the campaign, imperious form throughout the season’s nitty-gritty saw Hearts climb the Scottish league table all the way to its summit, where the Gorgie side sat going into the final day. All that stood between Hearts and a first national triumph for 26 years was Dundee, the league’s sixth-placed team. Hearts required nothing more than a point to be sure of their title, though even a loss might’ve done should Celtic be restricted from giving St. Mirren a hiding as Hearts’ goal difference was five greater than the Hoops’.

Worrying for Hearts, Celtic did what was required of them, handing St. Mirren a 5-0 pasting, but Hearts’ fate was of course still in their own hands so long as they could avoid defeat against Dundee. As you might’ve guessed, they didn’t. Locked in a stalemate until the 83rd minute, Dundee manager Archie Knox threw on Albert Kidd, a striker who to that point in the season was yet to register for the Dee. Incredibly, Kidd conspired to score twice in six minutes to shatter Hearts’ hopes and leave the path clear for Celtic to collect yet another league title.

As Hurley recalls, on that day “due to the dark tones of both sides’ home kits, Hearts were in their continental-looking away strip of silver shirts, maroon shorts and white socks.” The agonising loss saw fit to tarnish that silver strip with the most painful of memories, yet more was to come.

A week later, at Hampden Park, Hearts wore the same kit as they took on Aberdeen in the Scottish Cup final. Deploying his mind-games from the off, Ferguson famously instructed his players to commiserate flagrantly with Hearts’ in order to compound their misery and force them to take their eye off the task at hand. It worked and Aberdeen were commiserating with their rivals again come the game’s end, as the Dons ran out 3-0 winners.

Since then, few kit manufacturers have been brave – or stupid – enough to suggest Hearts wear a silver kit again. As shimmering and resplendent a colour as it can be, it simply isn’t worth the nightmares.

 Italy, 2004 (Third)

In 2004, sportswear giants Puma decided that, after some 96 years of the Azzurri’s existence, they were long overdue a third-choice kit. So, intended to complement the traditional blue home shirt and white away, Puma set to work designing a suave, tight-fitting midnight blue jersey to be worn on all subsequent occasions that may dictate neither the traditional blue nor white would suffice.

The inaugural third-choice kit made its opening bow on the same day another revered Italian was making his: Marcello Lippi, prowling the touchline for the very first time as manager of Gli Azzurri. It wasn’t to be a happy unveiling for the Lippi or the kit, though.

In Reykjavik for a friendly against Iceland, Italy were beaten 2-0 courtesy of two goals in the space of two minutes; arrowed past Gianluigi Buffon by Eiður Guðjohnsen then Gylfi Einarsson. The game was essentially meaningless and Lippi had been deprived of a raft of high-profile players – not least of which included Christian Vieri, Antonio Cassano, Francesco Totti and Fabio Cannavaro, all rendered unavailable through injury – yet the loss still stung.

Upon deciding that the kit must obviously have been unlucky, Italy and Puma ditched the dark blue shirt, retiring it after a grand total of one appearance. They also ditched the idea of having a third-choice strip altogether, until Puma revived it with their green Renaissance-inspired kit to be worn throughout 2020.

“Puma were perhaps the second most important kit manufacturers in the 2000s,” Delves recalls. “After Kappa did their best Daenerys impression in 2000 by breaking the wheel with their Kappa Kombat series of shirts – most famously for Italy – Puma took on the mantle of innovation throughout the years that followed. 

“It’s a lot of fun to look back over their audacious kits during those years’ like their sleeveless number for Cameroon, and the ‘onesie’ kit that followed, but Italy also enjoyed a range of beautiful creations that stand out as some of the best of the period. The 2004 third shirt completely evaded me though, I have no recollection of the design and was shocked to find out about it just a few weeks ago.

“It is objectively a lovely kit, understated and attractive in the way that international kits – and particularly Italian kits – often are. But, as we have seen time and time again in the shirt world, a curse is harder to shake off than prime Fabio Cannavaro nipping at your heels, and once a particular kit is buried, it can take a whole excavation team of people to bring it back to public consciousness.”

Bayer Leverkusen, 2002 (Home) 

The turn of the millennium brought with it many changes, though one thing that remained consistent as ever was Bayern Munich’s dominance in Germany. Nevertheless, throughout the 2001/02 season, Bayer Leverkusen kept them honest, pushing them all the way while maintaining their efforts on three fronts, putting up noble fights in the Bundesliga, DFB-Pokal and Champions League. That their efforts are remembered as noble fights and not triumphant ones should tell you much of what you need to know about this kit’s sorry fate.

The Leverkusen squad marshalled by Klaus Toppmöller was superb. Hans-Jörg Butt in goal, Lúcio at the heart of their defence, a midfield resting upon the shoulders of a young yet intimidatingly capable Michael Ballack, and with the ingenuity and gumption of Oliver Neuville and Dimitar Berbatov up front; they possessed the power to go toe-to-toe with any team in Europe. And they did. Only, they’d come up short on every occasion it mattered most.

After months of hard and rather fruitful endeavour, Leverkusen conspired to fall apart on the final straight of the season. Die Werkself surrendered the title to Borussia Dortmund by virtue of a single point, despite being five points clear with just three games remaining. A week after seeing the Meisterschale slip from their grasp, they competed in the DFB-Pokal final, hoping for a measure of compensation, only to be soundly beaten 4-2 by Schalke.

Then, four days later, the same team were defeated 2-1 by a Zinedine Zidane-inspired Real Madrid at Hampden Park, as Los Blancos secured their ninth European crown, while Leverkusen, who just a fortnight before had dreamed of an astonishing treble of trophies, were left tragically empty-handed.

The home kit adorning them all season was a classic of the genre, ticking every box required of a vintage Bayer Leverkusen kit. Do fans still wear it today, though? Surely only the masochists.

Manchester United, 1996 (Away)

One of the most infamous of all Premier League kits, Manchester United’s 1995/96 away shirt retains the rare dishonour of having been swapped mid-game and indirectly blamed by the team’s manager for a shoddy performance by those wearing it.

“Get that kit off, you’re getting changed!” were allegedly the first words out of an intensely irate Alex Ferguson’s mouth, as his team trudged into the away changing rooms at The Dell with their heads bowed. Manchester United were deservedly 3-0 down. Southampton centre-back Ken Monkou, not exactly a seasoned goalscorer, had opened his side’s account with a smart rebound, before Neil Shipperley sneaked a second in at the near post and Matthew Le Tissier pounced upon a goalkeeping error to place home a third before the break.

To that day, the not-so-Red Devils had worn their 1995/96 grey strip on four occasions and had come away from each tie disappointed. They’d drawn with Nottingham Forest and lost to Aston Villa, Arsenal and Liverpool, all while wearing their grey number, so, by half-time against Southampton, one can only imagine the United boss was sick to the back teeth of looking at it.

When his charges returned to the field for the second half, each of his players were donned in blue and white; United’s third-choice kit, having received permission from the referee to shed their grey attire before resuming for the second half. The change in kits worked – to an extent. United won the second half 1-0, though of course that wasn’t enough to overturn the three goals conceded in the opening half. Unsurprisingly, the kit was dumped by Umbro just two days after the loss, never to be seen by the Old Trafford faithful again. 

Scotland, 2007 (Away)

Not dissimilar to the story of Puma’s short-lived third-choice kit of Italy’s, in 2007 Italian sports brand Diadora turned to a somewhat unorthodox colour combination to give Scotland a unique third kit of their own. Cherry red, many called it. Cherry red and gold.

The shirt was designed to feature prominently during the home straight of Scotland’s hopefully successful Euro 2008 qualifying campaign and it seemed as though the distinctive kit would become synonymous with triumph, as the Scots won the first of their three qualifying games; picking up three points against each of the Faroe Islands, Lithuania and France.

The Tartan Army began to panic as their country’s form began to fluctuate, with losses to Ukraine and Italy preceding a further victory against Georgia, but Scotland righted themselves in time to put together quite the run. Four consecutive wins put them in the driving seat with their sights firmly set on Austria and Switzerland, a stunning 1-0 win in Paris the pick of the bunch.

Yet, in mid-October 2007, Alex McLeish’s men travelled to Tbilisi with the aim of flying home to Scotland the following day with another three vital points in their hand luggage. But Scotland were soundly beaten. Despite facing an “experimental, juvenile Georgia side”, as Nick Harris wrote for the Independent, who themselves had little more to play for than pride, Scotland were beaten 2-0.

The loss, in their penultimate qualifying fixture, cast their stunning cherry red and gold kit in the most unflattering of lights and ensured Scotland had to find a way to beat Italy at Hampden Park or face failure. In the end, goals at either end of the game, from Luca Toni and Christian Panucci, meant it was the latter for Scotland as qualification for Euro 2008 came and went.

By Will Sharp @shillwarp

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