Off The Ball

In all shapes and colours

A club or national team jersey is more than just a mere item of clothing. These revered garments are the symbol of a team's history and heritage, and whenever a player pulls one on the fans expect them to show nothing less than 100 per cent commitment to the cause. takes a look at the origins behind some of the most celebrated strips on the planet.

While the green and yellow of Brazil is without doubt the most popular colour scheme in the world, the Canarinha jersey has not always been so distinctive. The Seleção sported a white shirt up until the 1950 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, but their fateful defeat to Uruguay in the tournament's decisive game led to white being associated with mourning and grief. The South Americans thus decided to adopt the green and yellow of the national flag, which symbolise the forests of the Amazon and the country's gold reserves. And the switch has certainly paid off, with the Brazilians since becoming five-time world champions.

Travel to both sides of the River Plate and you will hear two different versions of how Argentina came to wear sky-blue and white stripes. For the Argentinians the colours represent the flag the country adopted when it became independent in 1810. Over on the north bank of the river, however, Uruguayans will tell you that they are the colours of their original jersey and that they kindly allowed their neighbours to use them at the beginning of the last century, sky blue shirts being worn by River Plate, the leading club in Montevideo, who had just beaten Alumni, Argentina's premier outfit at the time.

Like the two South American giants, a lot of other sides have looked to their national flags for inspiration, among them Italy, who traditionally sported white. In 1911, however, the Italians decided to adopt a blue strip for a match against Hungary, blue being the colour of the House of Savoy, from which their royal family descended. Like the Nazionale Azzurra, the Netherlands also sought regal inspiration, issuing their international players with orange shirts in honour of the ruling Orange dynasty.

The early days of La Vecchia Signora
Many club shirts are also steeped in history. Juventus have long been associated with black and white stripes, but it may surprise some to know that in its early days the club's players ran out in fetching pink shirts. Indeed, the Turin powerhouses only became known as the Bianconeri due to an act of absent-mindedness by an English clothing manufacturer, who in 1903 sent a consignment of black and white shirts to Turin instead of their intended recipients, Nottingham side Notts County. In view of the cost of returning the shirts and the time it would take for new ones to be made, the Italians decided to use the mis-directed garments and went on to win their first scudetto just two years later.

Strangely enough, Juve are not the only legendary outfit indebted to the city of Nottingham for their colours. Prior to adding white sleeves in the 1930s, Arsenal wore an all-red tunic in homage to Nottingham Forest, who donated money to two of their former players to help them found the London club.

Southampton are another English team who have supposedly influenced sporting fashions abroad. In their formative years Athletic Bilbao of Spain and their Madrid 'branch' Atletico donned blue and white shirts identical to those worn by Blackburn Rovers. Legend has it, however, that a member of the Basque club sent to England to buy Rovers jerseys returned with red-and-white striped Saints shirts instead.

A less romantic explanation for the change is that the stripe design was cheaper to manufacture as red and white were the colours printed on mattresses. The two Spanish clubs' nicknames would seem to bear this theory out. While the men from Bilbao continue to be known as Los Leones (The Lions), Atletico are often referred to as Los Colchoneros (The Mattress Makers).
* White, a symbol of purity*
Elsewhere in Spain, the ex-Basel player Joan Gamper decided to use his former club's colours of dark red and blue when he founded Barcelona, while fierce rivals Real Madrid owe their all-white strip to Englishman Arthur Johnson, the club's first centre-forward. Johnson it was who decided that the Merengues should wear the same strip as Corinthian FC, the most prominent football club in late nineteenth-century London.

Real are not the only white-shirted team to scale the heights of European football. Olympique Marseille of France opted for the same colour to contrast with the black worn by their predecessors at FC Marseille and also to symbolise the purity of the Olympic movement founded by Baron Pierre de Coubertin. In doing so, they followed the example set by the athletes taking part in the 1896 Games in Athens, who also competed in white.

Another French club to swap black for white were Auxerre. Founded by the clergyman Abbe Deschamps, the Burgundy side originally sported black shirts in honour of the priest's dark cassock but were eventually obliged to pull on white jerseys because the stadium floodlights were so weak it was hard to make out the players during night games.

Ajax Amsterdam had to make a change of their own to distinguish themselves from domestic rivals PSV Eindhoven and Feyenoord Rotterdam. After winning the Dutch league in 1911 Ajax decided to ditch their red and white stripes for a white shirt with a distinctive red band running down the middle.

Swedish flags and red devils
Boca Juniors' equally eye-catching blue shirt with yellow horizontal band came into being purely by chance. Unable to reach agreement on the shirt their new team should play in, the club's founders decided to head down to the port and choose the colours of the first boat sailing into view, which just happened to be Swedish.

Sworn enemies River Plate owe the design of their famous kit to a musical troupe known as The Inhabitants of Hell, who wore costumes symbolising the devil. At River's first game, the players took a strip of material from the musicians' outfits and attached it to their white shirts. The legendary diagonal red band was born and over a century later the Millonarios are still wearing it.

But there are some occasions when changing your shirt does not pay off. Take the case of Deportivo La Coruna, who travelled to Monaco for a 2003 UEFA Champions League tie having replaced their traditional blue and white stripes with a striking orange and blue outfit. The Galicians then went on to concede eight goals in a disastrous performance and promptly consigned their unlucky change strip to the bin.

Have your say
Does your own team's kit have an interesting history? Click 'Add your comment' and let us know...

Explore this topic

Recommended Stories

Origins of the Football kits II

Live Scores

Origins of the Football kits II

04 Dec 2008

Origins of the football kits

Live Scores

Origins of the football kits

04 Dec 2008