27 March 2024

Why football kits represent identity and how brands capitalise

Charlie Skillen

What’s in a kit? Quite a lot, it turns out.

Not only was last week’s edition of the UK culture war played out over the ‘playful update’ on the cross of St George on the new Nike England shirt, but fans in Germany are mourning the loss of adidas from the national team’s kit.

The three stripes have adorned their native German shirt since 1950, with the brand born in the Bavarian town of Herzogenaurach just a year earlier. It was announced on Friday – to the shock of Germany supporters and football heritage geeks everywhere – that Nike, the US brand at the centre of ‘crossgate’ over here, will supply all Germany kits from 2027 onwards.

While Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer both made public declarations against the version of the cross on England’s collar, senior government ministers in Germany expressed shock at adidas losing the national team contract.

They do this for the reason any politician – or any brand, for that matter – does anything. They know it strikes a chord with the public.

Football kits are childhood, identity, badges of tribalism and loyalty – with the symbols and logos they carry an intrinsic part of that.

You never forget your first… and mine was a beaut. Chelsea’s away kit of 1995-96, orange-and-grey (or tangerine and graphite for the purists). OK, so it frequently tops ‘worst-ever Premier League shirts’ listicles, but I loved it – and the penchant for 1990s fashion has reinstated it as a cult classic. An original adult-sized one with ‘Gullit 4’ on the back is currently retailing for £399.99.

(I also desperately wanted one of the dreadlocked wigs the sold by the stalls dotted along Fulham Road in the mid-1990s to emulate my first football hero, but enough about that…)

It also meant that manufacturers Umbro were my sporting brand of choice. Six-year-old me’s favourite beer was Coors. With no real concept of what Coors was or, certainly, what it tasted like, I simply couldn’t believe my Dad was drinking anything else (this was well before today’s entirely-appropriate law that prohibits alcohol or gambling brands from being emblazoned across children’s chests).

It’s why someone will quickly snap that £399.99 version up – the colours, the scratchy polyester, the badges and the brands will be an inextricable link to someone’s first love. Show me a millennial Arsenal fan who doesn’t get almost as misty-eyed about the now-defunct Japanese electronics manufacturer JVC as they do for the famous back five that spent their careers in north London running about advertising them.

Back in Germany, as more political figures spent the weekend currying favour by calling Nike’s win a blow for patriotism, there is a genuine sense of loss.

Fans don’t particularly care about the DFB’s (German FA) protestations that the more lucrative Nike deal helps pay for thousands of grassroots clubs, players, equipment and referees – they just want the kit to look like it did when they were 10. I sympathise, hugely.

This is why brands get involved in sport in the first place, to connect with a passion that surpasses all normality and logic.

Celtic and Rangers – Scottish football’s ‘Old Firm’ – have traditionally had the same shirt sponsor to avoid a mass boycott by the ‘other’ half of Glasgow.

There were other forces at play around the storm over the cross, but as that subsides with England now actually in action, fans can look forward to a summer with the country bedecked in flags and football shirts – from the new £124.99 ‘authentic’ shirt to retro versions first sported by Beckham, Gazza, Moore et al.

The collective identity this brings, the connection between beer-soaked fan, star-struck child and football hero is a dream for Nike. Not only will they get a huge influx of cash from fans ready to wear the hotly-debated new kit, their brand will be subliminally intrinsic to scenes we hope will be entirely celebratory.

And they won’t get too disheartened if England muster up their traditional defeat from the jaws of victory – Nike are kitting out at least seven other nations in this summer’s tournament.

With the feast of football in Germany this summer, however, the Portland giant has already achieved their ultimate away win. The 10-year-olds in 2027 may spent their adult football lives harking back to those glorious Nike Germany kits.