Soccer might be known as the beautiful game, but it has never inspired beautiful design. As the World Cup in Germany gets into full swing, patriotic fervor will move millions of fans to purchase their team’s jersey, resulting in innumerable crimes against good taste.
In the early 1990s, sports and fashion began to converge, with labels like Polo Ralph Lauren and Prada launching sportswear lines, and sneakers becoming de facto footwear even for fashionistas. As television broadened soccer’s global reach, more people started to wear jerseys on a day-to-day basis. Now they represent a multibillion-dollar business, with the three big sportswear manufacturers, Adidas, Nike and Puma, vying to supply the kit of both club and national teams.
There is fierce competition to dress soccer stars off the pitch, too. Giorgio Armani kits out the England team, while Dolce & Gabbana dress the Italians. The flamboyant Japanese team is kitted out by British brand Dunhill, which has been dressing the immaculately coiffured “ultras” in impeccable style for the last seven years.
Still, it is the shirts players wear on the pitch that earn the really big bucks, and with a cumulative TV audience of over 30 billion viewers, the World Cup is the ultimate promotional opportunity for these firms. Adidas, the official partner of the event, will reportedly spend over $110 million on marketing through the tournament.
Besides supplying the official match ball, Adidas kits out Spain, France, Germany, Argentina and Japan. Rival Nike sponsors eight teams, while Puma has 12, including all five African nations.
Although they are often keen to show off their flair for design, sports apparel makers are often limited in what they can produce: International soccer’s governing body FIFA issues a 48-page rule book outlining acceptable kit, and the federations of each nation often have strict stipulations as to what their team can and cannot wear. The Japan Football Association, for example, insists on having its black eagle motif on all of the national team’s shirts.
Michelle Bender, Adidas’ category manager for soccer apparel, told Associated Press that most of the countries that the brand outfits (including Germany, Argentina, France and Japan) do not allow much variation on their traditional colors, and that the Japan jersey was “the only one where we stepped out of the traditional.”
Japan’s kit has something of a 1980s look, with curving streaks down the sides supposedly representing samurai swords. The jerseys, like those of Germany and France, have come under fire for their oddly curved standing collar, which is very unflattering for wearers with slender necks.
Some fans, though, take a very positive view of the strip. Taisuke Hirosawa, a student who bought his first Japan shirt during the build-up to the 2002 World Cup, says that it is a big improvement on the previous one.
“Japan is famous for futuristic design, so we should have a fashionably futuristic shirt,” he says. “I didn’t know the stripes down the side represent samurai swords, but that’s kind of cool, too.”
While Japan’s kit has a hyper-modern look, the prevailing trend for the tournament appears to be retro. Paraguay has gone for an old-school look with vertical stripes recalling the kits from the 1920s; Holland opted for a ’60s vibe with its day-glo orange kit with polo shirt-style collars, while Spain’s yellow pinstripes on a red background recall some of their strips from the early 1980s.
Nike’s red and white checkerboard shirt for Croatia surely ranks among the most garish on show, but some of the least appealing designs come from the smallest sportswear firms: Lotto, who outfit Ukraine and Serbia-Montenegro, has plastered the shirts of both teams with unsightly arrows, while Costa Rican firm Joma have outfitted their compatriots with a nasty 1980s bleach-effect stripe across the chest.
Aesthetes will just have to content themselves with the fact that even this year’s most offensive designs are at least not quite on a par with Mexico’s 1998 kit, emblazoned with a scowling Aztec face; the skintight sleeveless numbers Puma designed for Cameroon at the 2002 African Cup; or the unitards it kitted them out in for the 2004 version of the same tournament.
If that seems like little consolation for those who deem brightly colored polyester visually disturbing, bear in mind the fact that the quadrennial event won’t be held again until 2010.
World Cup ’06 kits and misses
An exhibition titled “National Team Uniform Collection” at Logos Gallery, Parco Part 1, in Shibuya, offers the chance to see up close and personal the crimes committed against good taste in the name of soccer.
Twenty of the football strips of nations participating in the World Cup are on display alongside large-scale designs of the remaining 12 kits. Coinciding with the publication of “World Soccer Collection 2006,” a book in Japanese about the uniforms, the exhibition runs till June 22. On June 17-18 from 2-4 p.m. and 5-7 p.m., there will be free face painting for fans and the opportunity to record a video message of support for their team in front of cameras set up inside the exhibition space.
The messages be streamed on the Japan Information Network, a Japanese- and English-language Web site.
For more information call the Logos Gallery at (03) 3496-1287.