Wearing football shirts – why?

A FEW years ago, my wife and I were at a game in Prague, at the very atmospheric Bohemians stadium, with the famous Mr Panenka sitting high in the stand. The opposition fans were in full voice but most were as naked from the waist upwards as Vladimir Putin on his horse. You could almost smell the testosterone as the bald, stout gang of ultras demonstrated their masculinity in the autumn wind. “Why?”, I asked, shivering away as the trams whirred past the ground. “Perhaps their football shirts don’t fit, so they just strip off?”, replied my wife, tongue-in-cheek.

It was a good point, because at virtually every football ground around Europe, beer-bellies and bald heads squeeze into football shirts, testing the resistance of the fabric and making thin-stripes instantly into broad stripes.

One might say the replica shirt is a garment that makes us all equal, that it introduces a form of democracy to the football experience, but nothing could be further from the truth. The fact is, football shirts are for the young, they are the costumes in a costume drama. But somehow, the act of putting on a football shirt creates a form of sporting “Dad’s Army” out of most of us.

It is understandable that fans want to show their allegiance, but wearing a football shirt is, if you think about it, vaguely comical. You are basically wearing the uniform of the footballer, a fit, nimble picture of vitality. We all want to turn back time and defy the ageing process, but dressing like a 22 year-old is not necessarily the best way to show that you’re still relevant.

Indeed, when you look at the ways in which designers are decimating club colours, from what resembles blood-splattered away kits to the hideous new kits that include the name of the club and no crest, why would you want to give credibility to some truly awful creations? And then, of course, there’s the unflattering fabrics, showing every hill and vale of the body. Still want to wear that Liverpool third kit?

There’s a moral issue aswell, notably the source of the shirts themselves. Are they created in small sweat-shops in places like Cambodia, Indonesia or China? Are they products of cheap, explotive labour? Most people don’t want to know, but in this era of visible displays of social responsibility by football, shouldn’t we want to be aware of how these products are put together?

Maybe it is time for a kit manufacturer to come up with something very innovative and sensible – the plain blue or red shirt. With more and more people trying to adopt a more simplistic lifestyle, embracing minimalism and basic principles, how wonderful would the plain shirt look in the TV interference that is shirt design? The most iconic strips of all time have included the all-white Real Madrid kit, the Arsenal red with white sleeves, Inter Milan’s blue and black stripes and Brazil’s yellow, among others. I would certainly applaud any kit company that pushes aside the nonsense and says, “here we are, our new look – blue and white (red and white)”. Forget the graffiti, the splashes and the delicate shades, let’s really bring back club identity.

It is quite possible kit producers deliberately make their latest offerings as complex as possible, firstly to justify marketing another shirt for each club and secondly to make counterfeits more difficult to make. The latter is understandable and we have to accept that for clubs, shirt sales are an important part of their commercial activities.

The fans complain about “another shirt for Manchester United”, but they still buy them and queue up to get the latest abomination. In other words, they continue to feed the beast, laying out large sums of money to ensure they remain on trend.

But is it really important? If you want to show allegiance, buy a scarf or a badge. Not convinced? Next time you put on a replica shirt, take a look at yourself in a full-length mirror. Ask yourself which part of your torso looks big in this and I would wager you will be tempted to put that shirt back in the drawer. I know, I’ve tried it.

This article appeared in the most recent edition of Football Weekends.

Javier Tebas has a point about state-owned clubs, but is there an agenda?

JAVIER Tebas doesn’t like state-owned clubs, but here’s news for you, Señor, not many people do. They unsettle the playing field still further and although their wealth may level-up clubs alongside those who have been at the top for decades, their presence makes imbalances even worse. In other words, they might create greater competition for football’s hierarchy, clubs that feel their place is at the forefront of the game, but they cast-off so many who simply cannot compete anymore.

As president of La Liga, Tebas has to do the bidding of Real Madrid and Barcelona, among others. This is no easy task, you would assume for these clubs like being the Alpha males of European football and don’t enjoy seeing their position threatened. So Mr Tebas undoubtedly comes under pressure from all directions, but he will surely be aware that a successful Real Madrid does more for La Liga’s marketability than any amount of advertising spend. And ultimately, football is an industry where growth is mostly achieved “organically”, mergers are not really part of the equation. As long as clubs stay within their defined financial boundaries, they can go hell for leather in building their global footprint.

Tebas has launched a few clumsily-guided verbal attacks on Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City, questioning many different aspects of their operations. It is not out of the question that some legal action may be coming in the opposite direction, but the simmering conflict between Tebas, PSG and Ligue 1 will do nobody any good, and it could even drive a wedge between top European leagues and reignite the European Super League project. Let’s not forget PSG were not among the clubs advocating the ESL and City were quick to withdraw when PR turned nasty. But Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atlético Madrid were all willing partners to the end. Tebas may actually be sitting on something of a powder keg – if European football becomes more divided, opportunists may decide the big clubs really do need their own party.

PSG were not advocating the ESL but Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atlético Madrid were all willing partners.

Tebas has, in the past, spoken negatively about the Premier League and its broadcasting fees. La Liga have made a lot of positive modifications to their own model in recent years, but it’s a fact their blue-riband clubs, Real Madrid and Barcelona, are not as influential as they once were. They may still have enough clout to remain among the elite and Real’s Champions League victory this past season demonstrated they are always capable of winning the major prizes. And while they keep winning the trophy that is most associated with their history, the state-owned clubs have yet to lift it themselves. Of the “new money” clubs, only Chelsea have won the Champions League (in 2012 and 2021).

Are PSG and Manchester City ruining European football as Tebas suggests? Certainly they have artificially raised the bar in both England and France, although in the case of PSG, their extraordinary financial power does make them the ultimate flat-track-bullies. Tebas was very direct in his criticism, which comes after Real Madrid were gazumped by PSG’s huge new deal for Kylian Mbappé. “Listen, Nasser (Al-Khelaifi, PSG’s President), what you are doing is screwing football. It’s as dangerous as the Super League project.”

The news reports claim La Liga understands that the irregular financing of these clubs is carried out either through direct injection of cash or through sponsorship contracts that don’t make sense. As well as the Mbappé deal, Tebas cites the Manchester City signing of Erland Haaland. Interestingly, Real Madrid and Barcelona were both interested in Haaland at some stage. PSG, aware of the concerns around the Mbappé contract, commented: “The first person who needs lessons on conflicts of interest, financial management and market distortion is Javier Tebas.” Furthermore, Al-Khelaifi responded: “Tebas is afraid of Spanish top flight clubs being inferior to Ligue 1 in terms of quality.”

Ligue 1’s Vincent Labrune called Tebas’s outburst “disrespectful smears” and reminded him Real and Barca have broken the world transfer record six times and their salaries remain huge. Although Tebas may feel he is doing the right thing in “calling out” PSG and City, it also sounds like a case of sour grapes given the position some of his clubs have in football’s hierarchy.

That said, Tebas will have significant support from across the football world for being outspoken. Losing out on both Haaland and Mbappé wasn’t just a blow for the clubs willing to buy him, it was also a setback for La Liga, who are eager to replace the Ronaldo-Messi dynamic that has now gone. Over more than 10 years, these two players represented the face of La Liga. Mbappé and Haaland are the next generation, but they are now plying their well-compensated trade in France and England.

And there’s more to come. Newcastle United are likely to fall into this gilded category in the next year. Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund is behind the consortium that now owns the club, so in theory, they are the richest, or one of the top three richest, in the world. Tebas has already remarked the Saudi takeover was a case of “stealing football”.

The only way anyone can control this type of investor activity is through a type of governance that becomes the antithesis of the free market. Football is, all said and done, a competition and despite the claims the current set of uber-clubs make for an uneven playing field, the game has never been about a level field of play. The more money that is poured into football, the higher the stakes when investors are looking to buy a club. The obscenely-rich come in small numbers, so there’s no way the top 20 or 30 will all be bought by the type of owner PSG and Manchester City have. Levelling up would create the type of league that exists in the US, and that would not sit comfortably in Europe. Salary caps and transfer limits may well have the desired impact, but they, in themselves, would have drawbacks. However opponents of elite football couch it, there’s no easy way to change the status quo. Taking the very rich out of the competition and creating their own plaything may actually help the rest. The inauguration of a super league, perhaps? Whoops, we’re back where we started.

Brazil, Chelsea and England 1970 – Why the perception of “iconic line-up” still misleads us

THE BBC recently published a story in 2021 highlighting how rarely some clubs’ iconic line-ups actually played together. It showed that football carries many myths in its rich heritage, but also confirmed that our perception of the component parts of great teams rarely takes into consideration injuries, suspensions, loss of form or just being “out of favour”.

On the other hand, 50 years ago, football was less of a squad game, therefore it was arguably far easier to name a “regular” side. It helped that collectors cards, and there were a lot of them, fuelled the misconception that most clubs had relatively static teams. It was easy to name the best elevens of most top division outfits – or at least how we saw them.

The Leeds United team of the 1970s supposedly had an XI that never altered. However, what we consider to be Leeds’ regular side of the Don Revie era – Gary Sprake, Paul Reaney, Terry Cooper, Billy Bremner, Jack Charlton, Norman Hunter, Peter Lorimer, Allan Clarke, Mick Jones, Johnny Giles and Eddie Gray – only lined-up once. It is hard to believe, but apparently true. This is all the more surprising given Leeds had a relatively small squad compared to some clubs, but they also had a player who could fill-in across many positions, Paul Madeley.

Similarly, Chelsea’s “classic” team from 1969-70, which was denied its big day in the FA Cup final due to the injury of Alan Hudson, also had a limited lifespan – just nine games. That team comprised: Peter Bonetti, David Webb, Eddie McCreadie, John Hollins, John Dempsey, Ron Harris, Charlie Cooke, Alan Hudson, Peter Osgood, Ian Hutchinson and Peter Houseman.

Chelsea had a few decent players in reserve such as John Boyle, Tommy Baldwin, Alan Birchenall, Bobby Tambling, Marvin Hinton and Stewart Houston, so it is likely that manager Dave Sexton stumbled across this side after trying several permutations and overcoming a lengthy injury list.

This combination had its first game on December 6, 1969 at Old Trafford, a 2-0 win for the  Blues. Two goals from Ian Hutchinson against opposition that included George Best and Bobby Charlton underlined Chelsea’s quality and moved some reporters to declare that Dave Sexton’s side could make a bid for the league title – “What price these Southern Softies now?” asked Harry Miller of the Daily Mirror.

The team won eight of its nine games, their only defeat coming at Wolves on December 13. The last time they lined-up was the FA Cup semi-final at White Hart Lane on March 14 1970 when Chelsea secured their place at Wembley with a 5-1 win against Watford.

After that success, the team started to encounter problems: Alan Hudson missed the last league games and the two FA Cup final meetings with Leeds; Ian Hutchinson had a series of injuries that eventually brought his career to an end in 1976; Eddie McCreadie had a troublesome stomach injury; Peter Bonetti was ill with pneumonia; and Peter Osgood endured a lengthy suspension in 1971. New players like Keith Weller, Chris Garland and Steve Kember were added to the squad over the two years.

In 1970, Brazil won the World Cup with a team that became household names across the globe: Felix, Carlos Alberto, Brito, Piazza, Everaldo, Clodoaldo, Gerson, Rivelino, Jairzinho, Pele and Tostao. This team appeared as one body just four times, three occasions during the World Cup and once more on September 30, 1970. This is not totally surprising as World Cup teams normally disperse once a tournament is over, the competition is invariably the end of a build-up process rather than the start of something.

England, at Mexico 1970, looked to have a team to compare with their 1966 World Cup winners. Sir Alf Ramsey named his squad and gave the 1 to 11 shirts to: Gordon Banks, Keith Newton, Terry Cooper, Alan Muller, Brian Labone, Bobby Moore, Francis Lee, Alan Ball, Bobby Charlton, Geoff Hurst and Martin Peters. Ramsey had fielded this team for the first time on May 10 1969 when England beat Scotland 4-1 in one of their best post-1966 performances.

On June 1 1969 this group of players faced Mexico in the Azteca Stadium and drew 0-0 in a pre-World Cup tour game. By the summer of 1970, it was widely regarded that this team was Ramsey’s best selection but he could only play this side twice in the actual World Cup, the last game being the ill-fated Quarter Final against West Germany. The team played together six times and lost just once and kept four clean sheets. The German side that beat England in Leon, incidentally, was never fielded again. Not one of the England team would see a World Cup beyond 1970 – it wasn’t until 1982 that they qualified for the finals again. It’s unlikely anyone would describe some of the teams that wore the white shirt in the intervening years as “iconic”.

@GameofthePeople

Photo: PA