This article was originally published back at the beginning of March (2019) in issue 65 of the excellent Shelbourne FC fanzine Red Inc., produced by the fine fellows at Reds Independent. We had originally catagorised this as a Football Special Report, but since it was followed by a new “Early Modern” in the next issue of RI in May, the executive board-room decision was made to class it as a stand-alone mini-series.
After our first two RI entries naturally focused on Shelbourne (Pyro On The Pitch #10 and Retro Shirt Reviews #7), we decided to take things in a different direction this time and provide some general enlightenment on the roots of football kits as we know them.
Upon hearing the word “modern”, most people would not think of the 1500s. Yet this is said to have been the period when the Middle Ages ended and the “Early Modern Period” began. It is really no wonder why when considering seismic events around the time that would shape the next several hundred years, including the the break-up of the church, the recent “discovery” of the new world and the foundation of what would evolve into many of today’s established nation-states.
Of course it is also true that the idea of “modern” is now so old that when the term was coined, the 16th century was in fact recent enough history. So much has happened since then that we have basically passed by the “modern era” (think of your stereotypical 1950s American nuclear family) and are now living in the post-modern world. But given the timeline of the planet, and indeed universe, all these terms are arbitrary and one could as easily define the age of Christ or the discovery of fire as the beginning of modern human times.
Organised football does not have quite as long a history, although there is something intriguingly esoteric about nature of the sport (man’s attempt to control the inherent chaos of a sphere/”planet”, within the lines of order/”civilisation”, that he has created) that seemingly give it huge appeal to all class of human. But as sport, and football in particular, is always a mirror for the greater world, the post-modern macrocosm of society is reflected in the post-modern microcosm of the game.
Considering the grim realities that lay behind the wealth of “western culture” these days, and therefore likewise behind the massive industry of professional soccer, most of us are not fans of this fact and lament the grotesque, corrupted demon-spirit that metaphorically controls the sport at the highest levels. True local football grounds like Tolka Park (for the moment) at least still give real supporters the chance to continue to experience a purer form, unlike conditions at corporatised top flight stadiums around Europe and the Sky Sports-watching culture.
But similar to your average citizen’s concept of “modern” history, some fans may also not realise that many practices currently seen in and around football, and football gear, date back far longer – in experimentation at the least – than is generally thought. In this vein we will now look back at some real “ahead-of-it’s time” thinking, specifically when it came to kits for now, and the “early modern” aspects of the footballer fashion world.
The numbers game:
When viewing videos of old-old-old school football, several things immediately stand out to contemporary eyes such as weird goal posts, keepers without gloves on, horrifyingly uncomfortable boots, and literal shirts being worn as shirts (hence the name). But one of the most obvious differences is a lack of numbers on the back of said shirts, a practice that would not become common until the 1930s.
While numbers had already been used in the Americas since at least 1923 – possibly inspired by American football in the North – the dawn of numbered shirts in Europe was August 25th, 1928, as both Arsenal and Chelsea used the feature in their league games against Sheffield Wednesday and Swansea Town respectively. A short-lived method for two teams wearing numbers was tried in the FA Cup on April 29th, 1933: Everton wore 1-11 and their opponents Manchester City wore 12-22.
Although proposals for the formal introduction of numbers for all teams were refused repeatedly by the FA (partly due to the cost of applying the digits to fabric), the English national team debuted numbers in their game against Norway on May 14th, 1937, in Oslo. The Norwegians themselves would soon follow suit when hosting the Irish Free State in a World Cup qualifier on the following October 10th – both sides would use numbered jerseys for the first time in their histories.
Deemed a practical success, the FA soon gave in and approved the use of shirt numbers 1-11 for each team (no more were needed as substitutions were another sixteen years away) for the 39/40 season, which was promptly cancelled after a handful of games due to the outbreak of World War 2. But the conflict couldn’t stop progress as Scotland debuted numbers in an October 10th (clearly a big date in numbers history), 1944, war-time friendly against England – despite opposition from the conservative head of the Scottish FA who had been quoted as saying “numbers are all right for horses and greyhounds, but not for humans” – before France adopted the trend in a match against Italy on April 4th, 1948.
It may not be surprising that numbers on shirts date back to this time, as anything pre- World War 2 seems like ancient history so the usage is quite old. What’s more intriguing is that their cousins, front numbers, have a history long before their generally accepted international debut at Euro 92 (or the 92 US Cup as far as Ireland, Italy, Portugal, and USA are concerned).
Frontal numbers even out-date numbers on the back, as on their July 1923 tour of Argentina, Scottish club side Third Lanark are documented wearing large numbers attached to their chests, along with their opponents “Argentine Zona Norte”. This method obviously didn’t catch on, although other examples of outside the box formatting famously include another Scottish side with Celtic’s refusal to cover their green and white hoops for many years, instead placing squad numbers on the front and rear of their shorts – a practice forcefully discontinued only in 1994.
A brand new way:
For the next step in front numbers, we must move to continental Europe in the late 1960’s and go into some other important new features that came first. With the spatial-real estate of the shirt-back now taken up (or so it was thought), most of the front was still virgin land full of potential save for the odd club badge (often only appearing on cup finals shirts in England), and while Celtic staunchly refused to sully their traditional shirt design even with numbers, it turned out that most other clubs were willing to go much further than that in the form of corporate branding.
Austria and Denmark were the first countries to legalise advertising on club shirts in their domestic competitions, with the baton soon very much passed to France. In England kits designs were still extremely minimal, but the ever stylish French were ahead of the game with 1966 Coup de France winners Strasbourg mindblowingly already wearing the logo of Le Coq Sportif on their smart double-hooped shirts, and shorts, in the final.
The national team wasn’t far behind and seemingly became the first to feature a manufacturer brand on their kits in 1969, with the logo of French legend Raymond Kopa’s Kopa company appearing on the shorts. The same year, shirt sponsorship was introduced for French club teams, with specific brands supplying and sponsoring all teams in cup competitions (another strange idea that would last until the 90s), soon including above the number on the back.
Not stopping with manufacturer and sponsor logos, small front numbers were also adopted by French club sides around 1970; an idea already used by American soccer teams in accordance with some of their other sports uniforms. This combination of new elements combined to create the birth of the modern kit, with Olympique Lyonnais’s cool 1971 effort an example of a real ahead-of-it’s time classic that foreshadowed a future national team template rather than club (white with same-colour v-neck, LCS logo on the left, club crest on the right over a dual red/blue vertical stripe, and small squad number in the center).
Front numbers would be mandatory in the French cup for the next ten years and hence used by clubs across the board. Like kit-maker branding, the idea would soon spread to the French national team who had switched from Kopa to an LCS logo on their shorts in 1970, adding Adidas franchised shirts in 1972.
The first French Adidas shirt was revolutionary in it’s own right, debuted against Greece in September 72. While no trefoil was yet present, the famous three white stripes appeared on football shirt sleeves – and indeed down the sides as well – for the first time on an international jersey, with one of the inner lines coloured red to beautifully create a tricolore.
On October 10th, 1972, the USSR visited Paris for a World Cup qualifier still wearing a kit that would not have been out of place when they first joined FIFA in the early 50s. The French, in contrast, appeared in an incredible white/white/red strip that was twenty-five years ahead of it’s time, with blue/red/blue sleeve stripes, tidy wrap around collar, and most importantly small front numbers on the chest. The French goalkeeper kit was significant too as it in fact did feature an Adidas trefoil, perhaps making it the first international kit to feature both a trefoil and front number.
Interestingly, numbers themselves at this time in France were produced by specific manufacturers, and the font used by the national team was visibly trademarked by “Somms”, who also supplied numbering for many club sides at the time such as PSG. The French would only use front numbers for another couple of games for now, including against Ireland in Dalymount Park on November 15th, 1972, but the vision of the future had been set.
Paint it boot:
In England in 1973, Liverpool were among the first to bring in this continental kit style of shirt that featured more than just the club badge, as a small Umbro diamond began to appear parallel to their crest. In 1976, a non-league club called Kettering Town became the first in Britain to use blatant advertising, as the words “Kettering Tyres” were applied to their shirts for a reported four-figure fee, although it was into the 1980s before clubs were allowed wear sponsors on TV.
But before either of these frontiers were crossed, there was one other way for certain companies’ logos to be displayed on a player for the viewing public to see, in the form of football boots. Adidas had been the dominant force in the boot game, with their three stripes appearing on football footwear since the 1950s, although by 1970 Puma were on the scene as used by Pelé.
While the white flashes on Adidas and Puma boots will have no doubt already annoyed traditionalists, what was to come in 1970 would be an even bigger step into the future. Until that point boots had mostly been classic black, with a less appealing brown leather used for older models.
Like many of his peers, Everton’s Alan Ball had been wearing black Adidas boots until hearing that German firm Hummel and their new British based franchise were looking to enter into the market. What’s more, they were willing to pay £2000 for a player to boldly step on to the field in their latest innovation: a white football boot.
The forward-thinking Ball jumped at the chance and agreed to a deal, but upon receiving the boots discovered that they were of poor quality and not fit for purpose. Wanting his two grand, Ball had some apprentices paint his old Adidas pair white and wore them on August 8th, 1970, in the Charity Shield against Chelsea. Sales of Hummel subsequently skyrocketed.
Ball’s painted boots eventually ran in the rain, exposing them as not actually being Hummel and the deal was postponed briefly. But pandora’s box, or pandora’s boot, had been opened, and when Ball moved to Arsenal in 1971 his team mate Charlie George clearly liked the idea and donned his own pair of red Hummel in 1972, with several other league players continuing the style during the rest of the 70s. Of course at the time of writing, it is more rare to find a footballer in a traditional pair of black boots than not, but at least we know it is not a new phenomenon.
So we have now established that many of the elements that make up a modern player’s look – glaringly apart from personal appearance of course – were in place by 1970, with kit branding, sponsorship, front numbers and fancy non-traditional boots all being used in one way or another. But something is missing, and for this we must once again go to the rear.
Front numbers had already been appearing on jerseys in the North American Soccer League (as well on sleeves – revived by Deportivo in 92/93) and another element adapted from American football was soon to come in the form of player names on the back. While small player names on shorts had featured in a Lyon 1973 Coupe de France strip, the first European side, club or country, to use names on shirts seems to be AZ Alkmaar, but their 1977 Adidas shirt uniquely featured each name across the front where you would expect a sponsor to be.
Meanwhile, the secretary of the Scottish FA Ernie Walker would happen to pay a visit to the United States and attended a NASL game in the late 70s. Apparently open to innovative new ideas in a way that the association chairmen of the 40s, who had so vehemently opposed numbered humans, was not, Walker delighted at the idea of player names on shirts and returned to Scotland with new plans for the national team kit.
The emblazoned shirt names above the squad number were revealed to the public when the players took off their tracksuit tops ahead of a friendly with Peru in Hampden Park on September 12th, 1979, making Scotland the first national team in history to employ the motif, appearing for a further 12 matches before the idea was nixed. But Walker was a true visionary, as in his programme notes for a fixture against Austria that had followed the Peru game he correctly predicted : “they (shirt names) will be commonplace in the future” and that “in 20 years, as likely as not, club sides will probably have followed suit”.
One of those 13 games that Scotland played with player names was against England in a Home Nations Championship game in May, 1981. Perhaps England’s next two opponents in Switzerland and Hungary were watching and inspired, as in May and June of that year both would take to the field in World Cup qualifiers at home to the English in shirts featuring player names on the back. Their Adidas made apparel, as opposed to Scotland’s Umbro, meant that the idea had already transcended brands.
The Swiss and Hungarians would both quickly ditch the idea themselves, but this 79-81 period can clearly be defined as a sort of proto-era for player’s names. At the same time, while not going quite as far as to feature names, Turkey achieved visual parity by placing a “Türkiye” across the top of the back of their shirts.
Lastly, we come to an area of ahead of it’s time thinking for which we are still not actually in said time yet. While shirt sponsorship at club level has become a fully accepted facet of the game, and hugely necessary for the financial reward it brings, corporate logos in senior internationals have taken a little longer to catch on (unless it’s rugby you’re talking about).
Yet there was a time in the 1980s when national team shirt sponsorship looked set to be the next new football-fabric craze. This would have seemed unlikely going in to the decade due to FIFA’s strict anti-branding rules, that meant Dutch shirts at World Cup 1978 had their “adidas” wordmark covered in black tape (at least on one set a of kits made in Germany by Adidas Erima, as a second set made in France by Adidas Ventex only featured a trefoil with no Adidas wordmark). Similar UEFA codes saw trefoils and wordmarks both covered on Dutch and Belgian shirts at Euro 80 also, with a preemptive complete removal of Admiral and Erima logos respectively from English and West German kits worn at the tournament.
By the following World Cup, the increasing commercial market for shirts and the power of FIFA partners like Adidas meant that non-excessive kit branding would now be allowed (with Chile’s Reebok style of 1998 being an example of excess that had to be scaled back to remove elements of the huge Reebok logo incorporated into the design of the upper section). As boundaries continued to be pushed, some countries realised that the money made from shirt sponsorship need not only benefit clubs financially, but countries too.
Of course in line with the rules this would have been impossible in competitive fixtures, but friendlies were apparently fair game. Thusly, on April 27th, 1983, the ingenious Swedes of Sweden emerged for a match in the Netherlands wearing shirts with the logo of local bank “Sparbanken” on both front and back of their shirts – in the “player name position” in the case of the latter.
Dutch TV was not happy with this unexpected advertisement that they would be broadcasting for the next 90 minutes, and the Swedes were requested to change. Already in their away strip and without another kit, the Sparbanken wordmarks were instead hastily covered up with tape, mirroring what the Dutch themselves had previously had to do with their Adidas logos.
The idea of international shirt sponsorship was clearly one that the rest of Scandinavia approved of, as Denmark, Norway, Iceland and Finland all produced and wore jerseys in the decade that featured sponsors. The likes of Brazil (already having featured a sly sponsor within their crest earlier in the decade) and Malta at the very least had also done the same by 1989, with a sponsored Portugal shirt used in a match as late as 1997, but the practice had become mostly obsolete by then.
Of course with regards to this, we cannot forget the Republic of Ireland who’s deal with Opel in 1986 gave them the dubious honour of being the only nation to give supporters no choice but to purchase replica shirts that featured a sponsor, with the unspoiled player version forever out of reach. Ireland jerseys with Opel logos were occasionally used in games, but only unofficial testimonials and the like for which caps were not awarded (although used in David O’Leary’s 1993 testimonial against Hungary in which, due to a UEFA mix-up, the Hungarian players were in fact given senior caps).
Due to the fact that the industry of “big football” is now of an out of control money making machine used as a tool by sociopaths, oligarchs and despots for reasons far beyond sport, we feel it is only a matter of time before rules are relaxed again, and the once sacred space of national teams shirts becomes nothing more than another avenue for worldwide brands to display their gaudy logos and slogans. At the very least, sports-capitalists everywhere must look admiringly at the Irish model of screwing over the paying public by turning them into walking corporate adverts, as they already do at club level.
In this piece, we have focused solely on kits and boots, and have not even explored every aspect. But in other areas of the game there are often deep roots that must be considered too, before complaining about modern football.
Of course there is a limit to this, and, as touched on earlier, the money and greed at the top of the tree has no connection to what you or I want. As non-traditional traditionalists, we here at Pyro On The Pitch.com will casually sit back and contentedly wait for the bubble to burst, as it may do with society as a whole, and during the meantime continue to bask in the glorious afterglow of the an age of football culture that is gone forever.