When I was young, from about the age of nine to 13, I went through what my parents recall with a shudder as ‘the football shirt phase’. Where some children rebel by smoking, and others take to eyeliner, my vice was polyester. My first shirt was a quirky one — an early Noughties AS Bari white and red home shirt with an itchy collar. The thing smelled of washing powder no matter how much I wore it — which was daily for the best part of three months one very hot Italian summer.
I’d wear football shirts everywhere, from family meals to drinks parties, trips into town and to Mass. It got to a point where my father would explode with rage if I appeared at the door wearing a baggy AC Milan kit. He would threaten to leave me behind unless I changed — but of course he never did, knowing that an afternoon on the sofa was what I was angling for. As angry as it made him, he refused to negotiate with terrorists.
Looking back, though, I don’t think my sartorial choices were that bad. If anything, I was ahead of the curve. Football shirts, you see, are big business. Real Madrid’s kit deal with Adidas is worth almost £1.5 billion. There are many reasons why: after all, big teams sell shirts in big numbers. But increasingly, they are becoming recognised more and more for their aesthetics. Some are even becoming ‘labels’ in themselves.
The game’s fashion has evolved in strange ways since the casualwear of the terraces in the 1980s brought the world Stone Island and Sergio Tacchini. It’s no longer just about displaying your club’s colours — now there are statements to be made about taste. Juventus changed their crest last year to a more marketable ‘J’ logo, and this year’s away strip is pink with a subtle camo effect, making it resemble the undulating fibres of a melting marshmallow.
Barcelona, of the famous red and blue stripes, have abandoned tradition in favour of a checked kit. Inter Milan have combined designs from previous seasons to create a mad blue and black collage. Paris Saint–Germain, meanwhile, have struck up a series of collaborations with street fashion brands from Air Jordan to BAPE. They now have more capsule collections than major titles.
I have a visceral hatred of Manchester United. But if there’s one thing United do well, it’s shirts. Their chaotic, seizure–inducing blue and white away strip from the early 1990s is a thing so bizarrely beautiful that it is jealously sought after by football hipsters. The same can be said for the strip West Germany wore at Italia 1990. Find one of these, or a Boca Juniors shirt from the 1980s in decent nick, and you can expect to shell out a small fortune for it.
Clubs are cottoning on that older, simpler styles can be beautiful, too. They hark back to a time when men were men, and hair was permed. Liverpool and Manchester City, this season, have brought out shirt designs lifted straight from the 1980s.
I’m not sure when football crossed over from a sweaty yob’s game into an aesthete’s wonderland. But at the very least, I feel I can look back at my younger self with a degree of pride at my ability to spot a trend nice and early. It might not have looked good in 2002, but deep down that boy must have known that in 2019 that Bari shirt would look sharp.