Last time, for the inaugural edition of Politics On The Pitch, we took a frankly fascinating look at how the break up of communist Europe influenced World Cup ’94 qualifiers. Now we go in a more historical direction as we examine the national teams of Europe who have represented their country wearing a primary kit colour that is NOT featured on their national flag – and hopefully explain why.
Sport is something that people will try and distance from politics, but of course nearly everything is political on some level. This extends to what the athletes are wearing, specifically the colours and badge, as one person’s national flag can be another person’s “butcher’s apron”.
As all world states are political entities, the national football teams that represent them are inherently political. In romantic theory, these teams embody the spirit of their state, sometimes including it’s political system or ideology, and this is reflected most prominently through the kits. For example, when the USSR was created what else but red would their football team have worn?
But of course some of the world’s most prominent national sides play in colours that are nowhere to be seen on their country’s flag and can survive several regime changes. So used to these seemingly random colourways are we that the general football fan probably rarely thinks twice about them, but the reasons are often of a deep, historically political nature. More interesting still is why certain colours, despite maybe appearing on a states flag, are unavailable or unacceptable to use.
The modern German national side can trace it’s lineage back to 1908 and a first international vs Switzerland. The black, red and gold of the future national flag (conceived in 1848 but officially introduced with the Weimar Republic) was still 11 years away. Instead, the 1908 side was representing the German Empire who’s flag was made up of black, white and red horizontal bars.
But by far the largest and most dominating kingdom within the Empire was Prussia and it was their traditional white and black colours, the “Schwarz und Weiss”, that were the inspiration for the national team kit. The shirt originally featured black more prominently with a Prussian imperial eagle and sometimes with white shorts (Germany at the 1912 Olympics), but soon the famous white shirt and black shorts combination was settled on (originally with black socks, later white) and retained by the team of the new republic after the collapse of the German Empire in 1918.
It would remain to the present day (with all-white occasionally also seeing action), having transcended the the Nazi and West German states that were to come, and eventually be inherited by modern, reunified Germany in 1990.
The "Weimar" German national side in Prussia's black and white, vs Hungary, 1920.
Germany continued to use white shorts in the early years, vs Uruguay, Olympic Games 1928
"Third Reich" Germany, away to England, 1935.
First official match of West Germany, vs Switzerland, friendly, 1950.
West Germany in all-white strip to avoid clash with the home sides dark shorts, away to Argentina, friendly, 1982.
First match of reunified Germany, vs Switzerland, friendly, 1990.
As well as their home shirt, Germany is famous for an away shirt that also is not reflected in their flag and while the colour is not exactly political in itself, the reason for it’s need is. Black and then red were originally used as away shirt colours, which continued into the Nazi era. But after World War 2, the red associated with the previous regime was not no longer acceptable and similarly black was the colour of the SS.
Neutral green was decided upon instead, often incorrectly attributed as a tribute to Ireland as the first non-German speaking side to play West Germany after World War 2. The colour had in fact been adopted by the Deutscher Fußball-Bund in 1926 and, in the same vein as the Prussian colours on the home shirt, it has been theorised that green was chosen to reflect the flag of the state of Saxony giving another possible political link. But perhaps green had been favoured by the DFB simply as a nod to the grass on which their sport was played.
As for the Ireland myth, it appears that West Germany had already worn green in their three proceeding games of 1951, including vs Turkey which also blows the German speaking part of the story (the other two games were against Switzerland and Austria). But in the absence of colour footage we cannot be sure. Whatever the case, West Germany’s alternate green (used with several shorts and sock combinations, as well as finding it’s way into the home kit on one notable occasion to avoid a World Cup sock clash, see below) would be a welcome, vibrant staple of many international fixtures to come, occasionally giving Ireland fans a brief glimpse of what it might have looked like if their team was at international tournaments.
West Germany most likely in green away shirts before a month beofre playing Ireland, vs Austria, friendly 1951.
West Germany in green shirts and black shorts, vs Turkey, World Cup 1954.
West Germany classic away kit, away to England, Euro '74 qualifier, 1972.
West Germany in away shirt and shorts but home colour socks, away to Bulgaria, Euro '76 qualifier, 1975
West Germany in home shirt and shorts but away colour socks due to World Cup clash rules, vs Mexico, World Cup 1978
West Germany in a rarely seen green/green/white kit combination, vs Turkey, Euro '84 qualifier, 1983.
West Germany in all green, vs Argentina, friendly, 1984.
You can’t talk about West Germany without East, and like their western neighbours, East Germany also adopted the Weimer flag upon their creation in 1950 with the addition of the state’s coat of arms. But the foundation of the East German national football team in 1952 (and their federation who would go on to be known as the Deutscher Fußball Verband der DDR, great name) also saw the need for a new shirt colour. As with West Germany’s away shirt, black was not an option due to the Nazi link and while red with it’s connection to socialism maybe could have still worked despite it’s fascist connotations in Germany, it was also already the home shirt colour of the Soviet Union.
Obviously the white and black retained by West Germany was out of the question, and a side representing a new worker’s republic wouldn’t have made much sense taking to the field in the colours of the old Kingdom of Prussia anyway. Very few options remained, with even an obscure choice like green also snapped up by the West.
It would seem by this process of elimination, the only reasonable colour left available to choose was blue – which would also worn be East German athletes in other sports. But the use of blue was in fact not so random and actually had a direct link to the state. We can thank read Lucas for enlightening us by sending the following fascinating explanation:
East Germany wore blue because was the colour of the uniforms worn by the youth of the then-ruling party, the SED (Unified Socialist Party).
White trim was used, with white shorts and blue socks, and a reversal of this colour scheme was used for the away kit and later as first preference. Combinations such as white/blue/blue, white/white/blue and all-white were also used when required. The blue and white palette would be employed from their very first (unofficial) international in 1952 against Poland until their last ever match, vs Belgium in 1990.
East Germany in early blue and white strip, away to Czechoslovakia, World Cup '58 qualifier, 1957.
East Germany in all-white, vs Yugoslavia, friendly, 1962.
East Germany in white and blue, vs Italy, World Cup '70 qualifier, 1969.
East Germany vs West Germany, World Cup 1974.
East Germany vs Greece, friendly, 1983.
East Germany vs Belgium, Euro '84 qualifier, 1983.
East Germany's last match shirt, away to Belgium, 1990.
Back in Aesthetically Please Moments From Video Game Football History #6, we briefly examined how wrong it would look for Italy to wear the green, white and red of their national flag. When an Italian side first took to the field, vs France in 1910, white shirts and black shorts were worn. But within a year, vs Hungary in 1911, the Azzuri we know today was birthed as they graduated to blue and white, along with the red shield/white cross of Savoy as the crest.
Like with Germany, the relevance of blue predates the Italian state as it was the royal colour of the House of Savoy as early the 14 century. Savoy united Italy into a kingdom in 1868 with blue becoming the national colour and it was adopted by many sporting, political and military bodies including the football team. I have also seen it said that until the 90’s the national football team was technically part of the military, with representing the country counting as national service, and this was why blue was “allowed” to be worn on the kit/uniform. This is unverified, but noteworthy to include as at least a fun theory.
During the years of fascist rule, the coat of arms of Savoy was accompanied by the “fasces” associated with Mussolini’s regime. The symbolism went a step further at the 1938 World Cup, where at the quarter final vs host nation France there was one notable exception to Italy wearing blue or white. In the midst of political tension between the two countries and anti-faicst protests in France, Italy wore a fascist inspired all-black strip instead of their usual white away, apparently at the behest of Mussolini himself.
After the fall of both fascism and the monarchy – and the start of the modern Italian republic in 1946 – the coat of arms was removed from both the flag and the national team shirt. But blue remained as the national colour with any royal connotation now long forgotten to the sporting world. White shorts have most often been used with the blue shirt, with an occasional all blue strip, but black shorts have continued to be worn at times adding another colour not seen on the flag.
Italy wearing white and black for their first international match, vs France, 1910.
Italy in blue and white, with the "fasces" on the crest accompanying the coat of arms of Savoy signifying the fascist era, circa 1935.
Italy's "blackshirt" strip, vs France, World Cup 1938.
Italian goalkeeper shirt with "fasces and Savoy" crest more visible, World Cup Final 1938.
Italy in blue and black, vs North Korea, World Cup 1966.
Italy in all blue, vs Hungary, World Cup 1978.
Italy in familiar blue and white, away to Romania, Euro '84 qualifier, 1983.
Like Germany and Italy, the Netherlands started international football in white and black, but with the colours of the Dutch flag sashed across the torso of the shirt (the popularity of white and black can also be attributed to the ease of production at the time compared to other colours). This was worn for their first international, vs Belgium in 1905, and the look was later revived as the inspiration for their 2006 away shirt. Black shirts were also used in the early years, as seen at the 1908 Olympics.
But post World War 1, at least by the 1924 Olympics, the famous orange was adopted. The origins of orange can be found in the southeastern French commune (municipal region) of Orange. It had been a principality in medieval times and the Prince of Orange title was eventually inherited by the German-Dutch House of Nassau in 1544.
Prince William of Orange led a successful revolt against Hapsburg rule in the Netherlands in 1581 and his grandson, the infamous/famous (depending on where you’re from) William III became ruler of the Netherlands, Britain and Ireland by 1689. The symbolic use of the colour orange relating to these events would have connotations long into the future, including the Orange Order, orange featuring on the Irish flag, why carrots are orange, and of course ultimately the wearing of orange by the Dutch team as the national colour of the Netherlands.
White shorts and blue socks were originally used but the black element seen in the early years was brought back by the 70’s to create the look most associated with the Netherlands, and used intermittently since then.
Netherlands in orange shirts, white shorts and blue socks, away to Belgium, friendly, 1925.
Netherlands in black shorts and orange socks, away to Luxembourg, Euro '72 qualifier, 1971.
Netherlands in white shorts and orange socks, away to Ireland, World Cup '82 qualifier, 1981.
For more recent writings on all things Dutch, specifically their amazing World Cup ’78-era kits, click here for our Netherlands special Champagne Kit Campaigns #2.
So, where to start with this one. First off, the team of “Ireland” became the 4th ever national side to appear in football history (after the three British nations) when they took to the field for the first time in 1882, welcoming England to Belfast in a 13-0 loss. Their Belfast based federation, the Irish Football Association (IFA), had been founded two years before. Of course this is when Ireland itself as a whole was still part of the United Kingdom, so the political entity that the team represented was not in the interest of an independent, sovereign Ireland. Hence, we shall refer to this team as “Ireland-UK”.
In these early years, Ireland-UK wore blue shirts – “St.Patrick’s blue”- and white shorts. The use of blue stems from the Anglo-Irish “Order of St. Patrick” (again, an organisation not in the interest of Irish freedom) who adopted it in 1780. It became an unofficial national colour during this time of British rule, along with the more traditionally Irish and well known green. Of course Ireland did not have a national flag of it’s own back then and was instead represented on the Union Jack from 1800 with the red diagonal cross of St. Patrick, another British invention. But the blue on the Jack coincidentally meant that Ireland-UK were playing in a colour that technically did appear on their state’s flag.
With the conclusion of the Irish War of Independence in 1921, the country was partitioned into the mostly-autonomous Irish Free State and the smaller Northern Ireland, which remained in the UK. But this did not apply to the IFA, who continued to claim jurisdiction over the whole island and field teams as Ireland-UK while still wearing blue. This was coupled with the need for a new national team to represent independent Ireland, and it’s governing body – the Football Association of the Irish Free State (FAIFS) – was created in Dublin and accepted into FIFA in 1923. Of course this side wore green shirts.
In 1931, Ireland-UK switched from blue to green jerseys also, apparently to avoid clashes against the navy-blue of Scotland. The socks remained blue for some years before also becoming green and blue would later be commemorated and return as a third colour on some future kits. Meanwhile, the Irish Free State became “Ireland” in 1936, the FAIFS became the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) and, like with Ireland-UK, players from “north” and “south” were selected. The IFA had withdrawn from FIFA along with the other UK “Home Nations” in 1928 after long running disputes, meaning that by the mid-30’s there were two Ireland’s, both wearing green, one in FIFA and the other outside of FIFA.
As the official flag of Northern Ireland remained the Union Jack, Ireland-UK were now playing in a colour not seen on their flag (and this later remained true even considering the well known, but unofficial, flag of Northern Ireland, the red and white “Ulster Banner” introduced in 1953, see above). The crest, originally a Celtic-cross and harp motiff, was changed to a shamrock badge, similar to what Ireland were using adding another parallel.
During World Cup 1950 qualifiers, after the UK teams had rejoined FIFA, amazingly the two Irelands participated in different groups with certain players representing both. After this farcical situation, FIFA enforced in 1953 that from now on Ireland-UK be designated as “Northern Ireland” (although they remained Ireland-UK within internal British competition until the 70’s) and Ireland as “Republic of Ireland”. Players could now only be picked for one side based on the political boarders, and the IFA also changed it’s badge back to the original concept.
But as the century went on, and the political situation in Northern Ireland between British loyalists and Irish nationalists deteriorated, the use of green to represent the Northern Irish team became slightly odd. As divisions of identity widened, old symbols which acceptably represented “Ireland within the UK” in previous eras (what today would be called “cultural appropriation”) became unusable as the of the likes of the Celtic-cross, harp and shamrock were now more associated with the fight for Irish independence and unity, as well of course as the colour green. The blue, white and red of the Union Jack , or the orange of the Orange Order referenced earlier, became the “national colours” of Northern Ireland with some hardcore loyalists even known to “ban” green from their houses.
Despite this, the green shirt with it’s “typically Irish” crest remained for Northern Ireland and in replica form has doubtless been the only green garment worn by many an Ulsterman. But to them, the tradition of this green represents a golden age when the green of Ireland came with the caveat that it was the green of an Ireland happily loyal to the UK. Humorously, the use of the more loyalist orange on the shirt is basically out of the question as along with the green and white, this would create the colour palette of the Republic of Ireland flag. Especially ironic since the orange on said flag is there as symbol of peace to the Orangemen who despise it.
Northern Ireland (still referred to as "Ireland" in the British Pathé newsreel) in green shirts, with Celtic-cross badge visible, white shorts and green socks, vs Italy, World Cup '58 qualifier, 1958.
Probably the only instance of "The Troubles" era where Northern Irish loyalists were on the side of "green" against "orange" and not vice versa, vs Netherlands, friendly, 1977.
For even more reading on Northern Ireland, some of which relates to the above, click here for People On The Pitch #4: Linfield vs Glentoran, 1983.
Extra Time: Honorable Mentions or Non-Political
Republic Of Cyprus
Like Ireland, Cyprus is an island divided into “Republic of” and “Northern” regions. A slight majority of the country is made up of the historically ethnic Greek Republic of Cyprus, who claim the entire island, while the de facto state of Northern Cyprus is of mostly Turkish blood. A British colony as a whole until 1960, Cyprus was partitioned in 1974 following the Greek military junta’s failed attempt to unite the island with Greece and the resulting invasion of Turkish troops.
As Turkey is the only state that recognises Northern Cyrpus, their football team obviously is not in UEFA or FIFA. The Cyrpus that is a member – originally one of Europe’s weakest footballing nations until the introduction of micro states such as Andorra and Faroe Islands – wear white shirts, which is the colour of their mostly white flag (apart from an orange map of the (whole) island and two wreaths). But they do pay homage to their Hellenic heritage with blue trim and shorts, and with blue as the away shirt colour. A Greek white cross on a blue background is also the country’s naval jack.
Cyprus in blue shirts, away to England, Euro '76 qualifier, 1975.
Cyprus in their home white shirts and blue shorts and classic pitch/stadium, vs Yugoslavia, Euro '80 qualifier, 1979.
Like many states in the region, the flag of the former Yugoslav republic of Slovenia features the pan-Slavic colours of white, blue and red, and these were the colours of Slovenia’s shirt, shorts and socks respectively for their first international football match, post-Yugoslavia, vs Estonia in 1992. But by the time of their first qualifying campaign as a UEFA member in 1994
(for Euro’96) they had graduated to green as a secondary colour with the removal of blue and red, giving them a distinct look from their neighbours.
As well as featuring prominently on the flag of capital Ljubljana (quite similar to Wales), green is said to represent the mountains and countryside of the lush Balkan state. It is also used by other national sports teams such as basketball, but in recent times has been abandoned by the football team.
Slovenia in green shorts, vs Italy, Euro '96 qualifier, 1994.
Slovenia vs Yugoslavia, World Cup '02 qualifier, 2001.
While all three colours of their flag often appear on their kits (the black, yellow and red of the historical Duchy of Brabant), Belgium share a trait with Romania in that both teams wear a shirt colour that is featured on their flag but not the “first” colour. By normal logic, Belgium would wear black as a home colour insread of red and Romania would wear blue instead of yellow.
But Belgium also have used white as a fourth colour and for away kits, and in the 1970’s their devotion to white went a step further. White became the colour of their first strip in 1970 and for the rest of the decade the previously red devils could be seen in white-hot kits at home, until the normal mostly red and black ensembles returned for the 80’s. This seems to have been a purely aesthetical change, but worthy of inclusion as an unexpected side to have worn a non-national flag colour at home. But like Cyprus’ blue, the Belgian naval ensign does actually feature white, perhaps giving us a deeper link after all.
Belgium in all white, vs Portugal, friendly, 1971.
Belgium vs Norway, World Cup '74 qualifier, 1973.
Belgium, vs Norway, Euro '80 qualifier, 1978.