How the football shirt became a cultural icon

How the football shirt became a cultural icon
In an extract from his new book Pretty Poly: The History of the Football Shirt, Alex Ireland describes the central role of the football shirt across the game’s 150-year history
Taken out of context, a football shirt is an unremarkable garment. Made of cheap polyester in low-pay conditions, its fast-fashion base is embellished with the brand mark of any one of several faceless sportswear firms. These are partnered with crests that have been increasingly stripped of their historical meaning to create seamless online “brand identities”. 
But when put into the context of its on-pitch appearances it is transformed into a precious, nostalgia-soaked relic. England’s grey 1996 kit (officially listed as “indigo blue”) recalls a golden summer when Cool Britannia met football’s march into the mainstream, while the geometric patterns of the Netherlands’ 1988 kit bring to mind Van Basten’s inch-perfect volley and the belated realisation of this small nation’s extraordinary pool of talent. 

A symbol of honour

The 1988 Netherlands team in their distinctive patterned, orange kits
The shirt has become a sacred relic of the game and a key part of footballing vocabulary.  The harshest assessment levelled at underperforming players is that they are “not fit to wear the shirt”, an insult which surfaces in mid-match chants. Underpinning this idea, two of Hertha Berlin’s players were forced to take off their jerseys and lay them in front of their supporters as a sign of their inadequacy after a 4-1 loss to city rivals Union in 2021. Those players who do not appear to be able to handle the pressure at a high-profile club are similarly described as “struggling with the weight of the shirt”. 
Such is the item’s significance that being seen to disrespect the garment itself is one of the most heinous crimes a footballer can commit. When Arsenal’s Swiss international captain Granit Xhaka threw his club jersey to the ground after being substituted in October 2019, the consequences were severe. He was stripped of the captaincy, and three years later he described his relationship with the club’s fans as still being fractured despite huge improvements in his and the club’s form. 
The shirt is often a central piece of goal celebrations, players kissing the badge to show their devotion to the club or pointing to their own name and number as an act of self-promotion. It can also act as a token of mutual respect in the post-match exchange of shirts by players who only minutes earlier were engaged in a physical and technical battle.

From the cradle to the grave

Beyond the football pitch, the cultural importance of football shirts is demonstrated by their use to mark the most important life events. In 2018, Bergamo side Atalanta began sending a football shirt to every new-born baby in the local area in an attempt to connect with the local community and attract new followers. Situated only around 20 miles from Milan in a city of 120,000 habitants, the club have struggled to retain their local fanbase while living in the shadow of the two Milanese mega clubs.
"In 2018, Atalanta began sending a football shirt to every new-born baby in the local Bergamo area "
Periodic newspaper articles show fanatical supporters wearing their team’s strip on their wedding day. The garment’s use even extends beyond life, with other fans choosing to go to their final resting place clad in this memento of their lifelong obsession.

Fuelling rivalries

Steven Gerrard celebrates scoring against Everton in 2012
Given the antipathy between fans, football shirts have also been weaponised to antagonise supporters of a rival club. Photos of Liverpool icon Steven Gerrard and Tottenham’s all-time top scorer Harry Kane wearing Everton and Arsenal’s strips as children are regularly posted in an attempt to render their years of accomplished service somehow inauthentic. 
Shirts buried in the foundations of stadiums occupied by Liverpool, Portsmouth, Coventry and Manchester City by rival fans employed in their construction act as a permanent claim on enemy territory.

Commercial importance

In addition to its sporting significance, the football shirt has become part of a huge global business. The Premier League “big six”—Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham—receive an estimated £350m per season from their kit suppliers, plus £250m from front-of shirt sponsors and an additional £70m from sleeve sponsors.
"The Premier League 'big six' alone receive around £350m per season from their kit suppliers"
The £132m received by Manchester United alone (£75m adidas kit deal, £47m Teamviewer front-of-shirt sponsor, £10m DXC sleeve sponsor) is greater than the £129m received by the other 14 Premier League clubs outside the big six combined. Individual replica shirts retail at over £110, despite production costs of around five per cent of that figure.

Nostalgia… at a price

Diego Maradona celebrates scoring against England in the 1986 World Cup
The popularity of vintage shirt collecting means that sought-after classics such as the Netherlands 1988 home and Barcelona 1991/92 away shirts cost nearly £1,000 on the rare occasion that they appear for online auction. This is nothing compared to the prices of famous match-worn shirts, with Diego Maradona’s jersey from the “Hand of God” match against England in 1986 fetching £7.1m at auction in 2022. 
"Football shirts represent a key part of football’s financial growth over the past half century"
Football shirts represent a key part of football’s financial growth over the past half century, and in turn the inequalities both between and within leagues which threaten the modern game. When considering the huge environmental impact of shirt production and the widespread mistreatment of factory workers, the industry could be seen as an example of the worst excesses of 21st-century capitalism.
This is a far cry from the birth of the game when so low was the garment’s financial, cultural and sporting value that not even its colour was considered important.
Pretty Poly book cover
Pretty Poly by Alex Ireland is out now on Pitch Publishing
Banner image credit: Manchester City locker room by Christian David
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