When England and Switzerland kick off Euro 96, football’s European Championship, at Wembley on Saturday, the stadium should be a riot of colour – white for England, red for Switzerland.
When England won the World Cup at Wembley in 1966, supporters used to tout bobble hats, scarves and noisy wooden rattles in the colours of their teams. Now replica shirts are the most popular method of proclaiming your allegiance.
Marketing-driven manufacturers milk this revenue-generator by changing a club or national team’s strip as often as they think the fans will swallow it and cough up, if you’ll excuse the mixed metaphor. But behind the addition of silly collar designs, superfluous insignia and some teams’ penchant for having a third strip, certain basic aspects of a team’s colours are usually sacrosanct.
Liverpool would not be Liverpool without the players wearing red shirts, ditto Newcastle United’s black and white stripes, QPR’s blue and white hoops, and so on. For national teams the significance of the colours goes even further.
Brazil’s yellow/gold shirts and blue shorts have an appeal which crosses all cultural and language barriers. Any football fan who has seen a Brazil team play well can testify to the greatness imbued in the Brazil shirt. Indeed, the Brazil jersey can be seen as readily in the night- clubs of London as on the beaches of Rio.
National team strips are often derived from the national flag. So England wear white from the flag of St George, and France a blue shirt, white shorts and red socks. But not all nations follow this nice, logical route. Germany wear white and black Adidas, for instance, albeit occasionally aided by dubious zig-zag detailing in the yellow, red and black of the country’s flag.
Many of the basic designs of the national strips have arisen by historical accident. But do the details, the refinement of the colours, the use or deliberate exclusion of go-faster stripes, goalkeepers wearing garish, swirling, multi-coloured strips, and upturned collars la Cantona really play their part in the game?
Umbro, manufacturer of England’s retro shirt and Scotland’s tartan one, admits that market trends and fashion play an important part in the design. As does the client. “The Umbro design team spends months in consultation with the clubs to perfect each kit,” says a spokesman. “The final design is without doubt a team effort.”
Sixteen European countries have qualified. And it is the first-choice shirts which are unpicked here by Patrick Baglee from the football-crazy designers at MetaDesign London.
Baglee suggests “neither national symbolism nor aesthetic consideration seems to have a place in the layout of many team outfits. We are faced with a collection of branding opportunities and twisted Etch-a-Sketch. Italy versus Bulgaria would look like Berthold versus bad DTP”.
Baglee nominates Italy as the best, reflecting the team’s “understated power and strength”. Manufacturer Nike is “discreet in its presence, piping is picked out in delicate gold and there is a strong modern sans badge,” he says.
Croatia, made by Lotto, also scores with Baglee, the chequered red and white “reflects the design of their flag and embodies fervent national pride. That it is very much on the grid is an additional bonus”.
Lotto’s simple orange shirt for The Netherlands also passes Baglee’s muster. Turkey “combines mutant chevrons to create the effect of vapour trails from a Red Arrows display”. And Scotland “are modelled as extras from Braveheart”. Scotland’s latest shirt is a departure from the plain blue of yesteryear. The tartan, says Umbro, has no affinity with an existing clan but was developed specifically for the national side. England supporters may suggest MacDuff as an appropriate clan.
Denmark, in shirts from Hmmel, “nearly salvage an otherwise nondescript outfit by some interesting inverted chevrons”. Baglee continues: “Russia’s directionless kit… echoes the confusion and capitalist expansion within the former Soviet Union.” A Reebok shirt as political barometer? Maybe not.
The Swiss, eschewing the cross, are let down by “a flaccid collar”, argues Baglee. Germany, who seemingly anticipated Baglee’s withering comments by toning down the offending pattern especially for Euro 96, “wear a hypnotic toy masquerading as a strip”, says Baglee, “their shoulders bedecked in psychedelic Escher triangles. Apparently designed as a homage to Deconstructivism and the Machine Age aesthetic, the strip attempts to rid the team of its legendary ruthless, efficient and very boring play.”
The rest, including Olympic’s shirt for Portugal, barely excite a flicker from Baglee.
So overall, Baglee thinks the shirt design boys did not do good. “Imagine the worst airline uniform you ever saw, multiply the stripes and extraneous detailing by factor ten, hike up the brightness then manufacture in the modern equivalent of Crimplene and you might just be within shooting distance of the harsh realities of the modern international strip.”
It is worth noting, however, that MetaDesign Total Football Club play in jet black, with all on-strip type set in 12pt Meta. “The only confusing pattern we have is our play,” says Baglee. “The bottom line is that we look frightening.”
Baglee finishes with an optimistic lob: “Most of the Euro 96 teams look ready for Hi-de-hi not do-or-die. But if the games are as vibrant as half the shirts, we’ll be alright.”
EUROPE UTD EXCLUSIVE!
Football-mad graphics group Cope & Glory has designed us two strips for a theoretical Europe team, although the possibility of a Europe United seems fanciful at this political juncture.
Cope & Glory’s Andy Carrol (Ispwich and England) created the yellow-based strip, while Steve Gibson (Man Utd and Scotland) went for blue.
Both used the European flag of 12 yellow stars on a blue background as a starting point. The yellow shirt ended up looking “like it could be worn on the Tour de France”, suggests Carrol.
Shorts play a large part in the ensembles, with a star starting on the shirt and ending on the shorts in one of the designs. Gibson nobly admits to being influenced by the logo of convenience store Circle C in his effort.
Carrol says both results are “clubby” and admits to wanting to wear them. His Cope & Glory partner Ian Nuttall, however, derides them as “peculiar” and wouldn’t wear either of them.
But the experience has taught Carrol not to fall into the trap of ranting against strip designers. “I found it very difficult. I went mad in Photoshop and it started to look like a goalie’s shirt.
“Designers are always looking to add rather than take away and it all looks more fiddly as a result. Football shirts work best when they are simple, like England’s.”
Cope & Glory ended up designing the shirts as flat pieces of graphics. So it’s no surprise to learn that Umbro, for one, packs its design team with textile and fashion designers. “I have a new respect for them,” admits Carrol.