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.

Those pesky half-and-half scarves

IN THOSE sepia-tinted days, the memento of a football match was the programme, hence they were called just that, “Souvenir Programme”, a reminder of an afternoon or evening shouting yourself hoarse for 90 minutes of exhilaration or disappointment. Programmes are, sadly, dying out and it is hard to see a future beyond five years for a commodity that was once a staple of any matchday.

There were other items of memorabilia that accompanied the fan experience: rossettes, rattles and scarves. The wool version of the scarf was later replaced or complemented by a “silk” version, although there wasn’t an ounce of silk in them and you didn’t want to get too close to anyone with a cigarette in their hand for fear of third degree burns. Football violence dissuaded many fans from carrying their colours, but in the Premier League age, the sign of allegiance is the football shirt, that highly flammable, static-inducing garment that beer bellies and bingo wings are squeezed into at every opportunity.

Football in major cities has become a tourist attraction and crowds at places like Stamford Bridge, the Emirates and the Tottenham stadium are full of day-trippers and visitors to London. They empty the club stores of merchandise, hungrily snapping-up evidence of their trip. At the same time, they take photos on their phones, even record the action from high up in the stands. Quite often, they will have a scarf around their neck, a poorly-constructed strip of synthetic fabric with the fixture emblazoned across it: Chelsea v Lille or Arsenal v Villareal, for example. 

Regulars and old-school supporters despise these scarves, considering they are unnecessary and a sign of a lack of fanatical, even myopic, devotion to the cause. They also reflect the contemporary need to demonstrate where the owner of the scarf has been. Doubtless, the item will be seen on social media before the game has even kicked off.

But what is so offensive about these scarves? I would agree they are unnecessary and pretty tasteless, but then wandering around in your best football shirt is also an acquired habit. Likewise, blind devotion in this age of so many alternatives is also a little limiting. So why not show appreciation for both teams? Why not reveal a flag of friendship?

These scarves have been “invented” to cash in on experience-hungry fans from younger generations. It is doubtful any club would issue official scarves of this nature (maybe they do???), but somewhere, in an industrial unit in a grubby corner of a home counties town, somebody is knocking-out these scarves. It is no different to the many hawkers who peddled metal badges and other such throwaway items that exploited fans eager to fill their homes with memorabilia. We’ve all been there, especially when we were young – I had a leather key ring that buttoned-up to conceal a fold-out strip of tiny shots of the Chelsea team of 1971-72 that I kept for some 30 years. I bought it at the UEFA Cup final at Tottenham in 1972. I was recently in Madrid and the craze has arrived in the Spanish capital, although “Atlético v Menchester United” is sure to be a collectable item in the years ahead.

At the end of the day, these items are hardly scarce or even valuable as there have been produced in bulk. And do we really need to wear football shirts to show our passion for the game? Most of us just don’t look good in a shirt designed for a superbly fit and agile 23 year-old. Just compare it to a fashion item – would a 70 year-old buy a tailored shirt designed for a hipster wearing turned-up jeans that give you instant membership of a church choir? Admittedly, the football shirt can be classed as an item of clothing that spans the generations, but does it… really?

Half-and-half scarves are for a specific audience and while I wouldn’t be seen with one draped around my neck, the audience that would buy them, in some ways, represents the future. The old guard are fading fast, their arthritic hips and knees forcing them into the main stand in their living rooms. Ultimately, who needs a football shirt or scarf or that item of mass produced objet d’art to show their preference anyway?