Designing football shirts: 10 kits that made the history of the Euros

Design, research and marketing. Football shirts have increasingly established a dialogue with art and technology. We look back at the UEFA tournament through 10 jerseys that have marked its history.

by Lorenzo Ottone

Who said that football shirts are made for games alone? For some years now, kits have become a field of experimentation for artists and designers, thanks also to the blokecore trend that has redeemed them in their own right as a cornerstone of streetwear. If the football world has lost no opportunity to increase and differentiate production with a series of limited editions and collaborations, the creative industry – from music to art, as well as fashion – has also begun to look at football shirts as new platforms for expression.

This is the concept at the core of Tops Off: A Century of Football Shirt Art, an exhibition in London at OOF, the gallery located within the Tottenham Hotspurs stadium, on the occasion of the German European Championships. In a journey spanning more than a century, we are reminded how art and sport have been linked for longer than one could even imagine. This is demonstrated by a uniform dating back to 1923 and designed by Varvara Stepanova, one of the founders of the Russian constructivist movement. The garment is a prozodezhda, a combination of the words proizvodstvennaya (industrial) and odezhda (dress), a utilitarian garment that became popular in post-revolutionary Russia.

The iconographic past and the present of research on material are in constant dialogue in football uniforms. It’s the case of the 2023/24 Admiral shirt for the semi-professional club Walthamstow FC dedicated to William Morris, who lived and worked in the north-east neighbourhood of the English capital. Then there are the uniforms of France and England that artist-in-residence Christian Jeffrey turned into canvases, as well as the series of kits designed by artist Paolo Del Vecchio for Squadra Diaspora, a team made up of Italians scattered around the world who wear a new design on the occasion of every match. There is also room for the case study of AS Velasca, an amateur team founded in Milan in 2015 whose identity revolves around art and design rather than results, as suggested by the famous landmark by BBPR in their coat of arms.

Perhaps not artist's jerseys but certainly museum-worthy are many of those that have helped trace the history of the European Football Championships, from 1960 to the present day. We have selected 10 that have marked important crossroads in both design and technological advancement.

France away (1960)

France away, 1960, reproduction by Toff. Courtesy Vintage Football club

With just over sixty years on their back, the European Championships are a young tournament when compared to the World Cup. Until 1980, they were a four-game and four-team affair, often snubbed by many key European national teams. In the event of an extra time draw in the semi-finals, the finalist was decided by the toss of a coin, as happened to Italy at Euro ‘68, when the Azzurri were eventually crowned champions after defeating Yugoslavia at the replay game in Rome. 

Hosting the first ever edition was France. Although the glamour of the Nouvelle Vague was just around the corner, the design of the European kits still felt the legacy of the past, with short-sleeved summer uniforms with deep V-necks (like those of Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union) inherited from the 1950s and others in cotton, often coming with long sleeves and buttoned polo shirt collars, like that of Les Bleus. To stand out design-wise in this tournament is the away uniform in which the French play the first ever match in the history of the Euros, on 6 July 1960 at the Parc des Princes: a clean, red design with white shorts and blue socks nodding to the national flag. Embellishing the shirt is the embroidered oversized cockerel on the chest, a stylistic choice that Nike retrieved and paid tribute to on the occasion of Euro 2024.

Netherlands home (1976)

Netherlands home, Adidas, 1976. Courtesy The Antique Football

Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, heavy cotton and wool dominated the material research of the uniforms, which almost always had long sleeves and crew necks. 

The greatest innovations came from the English company Umbro, which experimented both in marketing and textiles. Two examples out of all: the introduction for the first time ever in the 1966 World Cup of a tracktop to be worn by England for their pitch walk-in, and the patenting of Aertex technology, a lightweight, breathable fabric to perform better during the 1970 Mexican World Cup. 

By the mid-1970s, however, it was Adidas that took the limelight, thanks to their branding awareness. 1976 marked the European Championships debut of the three stripes, both on the kits’ sleeves and shorts, although the iconic trefoil logo was not yet allowed by UEFA.  Amongst these uniforms was that of the Netherlands who would go no further than the semi-finals, losing to the winners Czechoslovakia, also in Adidas.

Making the otherwise essential, short sleeve kit of the Oranges a memorable design milestone was the shirt of number 14 Johan Cruyff. Due to his exclusive contract with rivals Puma, who supplied him with shoes, the Ajax star was forced to remove a stripe from the kit and the shorts, which hence came across as a knock-off of the German brand. One of the very first and remarkable cases of interference between football and marketing in European football.

England home (1980)

England home, Admiral, 1980. Courtesy Retro Soccer Kit

Next to Adidas and Puma, throughout the second half of the 1970s and early 1980s, the English company Admiral brought remarkable innovations to the field of kit design. Born as a manufacturer of underwear and exercise clothing for the Royal Navy during WWI and then specialising in rugby, from the early 1970s – thanks to the liaising of Don Revie, the volcanic Leeds United manager – Admiral also established itself in football. It soon became, albeit only for little more than one decade, one of Umbro's strongest competitors. In the very same years Admiral expanded into the USA, where by supplying kits to the then newborn NASL it showed to understand the future spectacularization of football, which necessarily unfolded via design and marketing, such as the introduction of players’ names on jerseys.

On top of the introduction, in 1976, of the revolutionary ‘braces’ kit for the Welsh national team, four years later Admiral patented an entirely new approach to shirt design with what is arguably the most loved England jersey. 

When in 1974 Admiral had taken over the England kit manufacturing, interrupting the historical partnership with Umbro, they became the first to add secondary colours to the historically white jersey. For Euro ‘80 they introduced a red, white and blue yoke on the chest that completely subverted both in terms of chromatic and geometric proportions the otherwise sober and conservative English uniform. Also in terms of material, the 1980s paved the way for an improvement in synthetic fabrics, contributing to lighter and shinier looking uniforms. Above all, it was with this design and on the occasion of the 1982 World Cup that the use of replica kits by fans began to affirm, as Admiral marketed them in adult sizes for the first time ever in football history.

Belgium away (1984), (2016), (2024)

Belgium away, Adidas, 1984. Courtesy Football Kit Archive

Belgium can’t solely boast its cycling and comics tradition, but also one in matters of football shirts. More precisely, their away jerseys have often used peculiar design ideas to celebrate the country’s cultural and sporting heritage. 

Starting from Euro ‘84, when Adidas patented, for both the home and the away kits, a one-of-a-kind polo shirt with an argyle pattern on the chest in the colours of the national flag. A template that seemed to nod to the golf jumpers that in the very same years were being popularised on the football terraces by Casuals, the stylish British supporters with a penchant for expensive European sportswear.  In the last decade, Adidas again, has supplied Belgium with two notable away kits: one in 2016 tributing the national cycling strip, and one for the current Euros conceived as a homage to the costume of Tin Tin, the comic hero born from the genius of Hergè.

West Germany home (1988)

During the 1980s the brand logos were at last allowed to be displayed on shirts even during international tournaments, leaving soon behind the days when national teams had to conceal them with patches, like occurred to Belgium at Euro ‘80. The necessity to make sportswear manufacturers stand out through their association with well-recognisable designs hence arose. The conception of distinctive seasonal templates was the answer. At first cherished for the variety and the innovation brought into football, over the years the templates have become increasingly ostracised by fans, accusing them of putting branding ahead of tradition and creativity. 

When it comes to Adidas it is impossible not to read the influence of Bauhaus and the studies on geometry of the German school. For the entire decade, and beyond, the Adi Dassler’s brand would conceive and destructure its iconic three stripes into solution always anew, now more implicit, now less. At first, by the late 1970s, the stripes became a way to enhance the chromatic lexicon of the teams’ flags when stitched on the sleeves, then they expanded onto the whole shirt in the style of pinstripes, under the influence of the global lifestyle of the Fila White Line.

West Germany home, Adidas, 1988. Courtesy Football Shirt Culture

Pinstripes could be used vertically, but also horizontally on the stomach (France, Euro ‘84) or diagonally – a patent introduced once again at Euro ‘84 for Portugal and Yugoslavia and later unearthed from the Adidas archive to inspire the Euro 2012 Germany jersey. However, Adidas was not afraid of experimenting further. Following the lesson set by Admiral’s ‘braces’ template, it was understood that uniforms could be turned into canvases where the separate elements at play all contributed to a unitarian vision in matters of design. Take the Sweden Kit for Euro ‘92: three oversized blue stripes composing an interrupted strip across the kit, of which only the two ends (one of the right shoulder, one on the left leg) were left visible. 

Among these designs, the ultimate one has to be that worn by West Germany at Euro ‘88, as well as at the following World Cup of Italia ‘90, which the team would end up winning. An essential white wrap-up collar kit carrying a geometrical and wavy motif in the colours of the German flag, almost an allusion to the Berlin Wall that would soon fall. A crossroads between Germany's present and past, between the analogue and the digital world, a shirt perceived today as a symbol of retro football but which was able to anticipate what was to come in terms of marketing and design. As Ciao, the mascot of the Italian World Cup, would soon do.

Soviet Union home (1988)

Soviet Union home, Adidas, 1988. Courtesy Football Shirt Culture

Euro '88 was a tournament in which Adidas also reaffirmed its creative vision with another kit that has gone down in history: that of the Soviet Union. The template with its strong geometric connotations seemed reminiscent of the patterns of Cubist canvases, but then acquired an almost constructivist and distinctly Soviet identity in the application of the CCCP lettering on the chest, here seen for the last time at a European Championship. The Netherlands also adopted the same design, with the two teams clashing in the final. On the occasion, though, the Soviet Union wore a way more classic and traditional away shirt in white, failing to secure their place in sporting history by conceding two goals to the Dutch.

Denmark home (1992)

Denmark goalkeeper, Hummel, 1992. Courtesy Football Headlines

One of the uniforms that best symbolises the 1990s, their volumetric and geometric excesses, is the one worn by Denmark when lifting the Euro ‘92 trophy. The kit is by Hummel, who take up and reinterpret with their own flair several lessons from Adidas, as shown by the intricate sleeve design. A process similar to the one adopted for the Euro ‘86 kit, a design as derivative as unique: a half-pinstripe, half-colour block kit that equally defined Danish football history.

Also contributing to the iconographic success of the Euro '92 kit is Schmeichel's goalkeeper's uniform, a rainbow gradient set in a black grid reminiscent of the strobe lights of the acid house raves of Manchester, the city where the Dane played at the time.Either loved or hated, just like Marmite, the shirt remains the stylistic template par excellence of the decade’s goalkeeper fashion.

Croatia home (1996)

Croatia home, Lotto, 1996. Courtesy Football Kit Archive

When Croatia's independence was proclaimed in 1991, academic, artist and designer Miroslav Šutej was commissioned to design the flag, coat of arms and notes of the newly formed state. The Sahovnica, the chessboard that defines the country's shield, was consequently adopted as the pattern for the national team's jersey. Euro '96 was the first international tournament in which the shirt, manufactured by Lotto, made its appearance.

Italy home (2000)

Italy home, Kappa, 2000. Courtesy Classic Football Shirts

The advent of the new millennium brought to football one of the patents that would most characterise both its aesthetics and playability in the years to come. Kappa introduced its Kombat line: essential slim fit designs, with crew neck and tubular sleeves, pretty much a second skin or, rather, an armour. As a matter of fact Kappa did indeed advertise its launch with an editorial featuring Italian players wearing mediaeval helmets.

At the roots of the technology is a study by the Piedmontese brand on elastic fibres, to facilitate the mobility of the players and stem the issue of hold-ups caused by the excess material of the baggy shirts of the previous decade. The jerseys, stretched to previously unseen extensions, thus became an iconographic and much-talked feature of football in the first half of the Noughties. 

Its designer Emanuele Ostini explained: “When the defender grabs Inzaghi's shirt, the shirt stretches and the referee sees it. It extends to more than 40cm more than normal, and with 40 centimetres more, you will have the chance to score more goals!" The most representative model is the one worn by the Azzurri at Euro 2000, a design reminiscent of that of the first European Championship won by the Italian national team in 1968.

Portugal home (2004)

Portugal home, Nike, 2004. Courtesy Football Kit Archive

At the beginning of the 2000s, Nike also truly stepped up its game, establishing itself as a major player in the football industry too. The success of the Total 90 line, which appeared precisely on the occasion of the 2004 European Championships, was a contributory factor. Nike could in fact count on testimonials including Ronaldo and Luis Figo, but above all on designs that could be adopted, seamlessly, when riding a booster or playing on a pitch, be it that of the European Championships or the concrete turf of a housing estate. After all, it was the crucial years of the Joga Bonito campaigns and the success of FIFA Street.

The Total 90 line was defined by a linear design in which sinuous embroidery, unfolding from the shoulders to the shirt’s bottom, framed the crest and the Swoosh logo. Making the difference on the international team kits was, in absence of sponsors, the introduction of a front circle to host the shirt number, vaguely reminiscent of the AC Fiorentina’s JD Farrow kit for the 1981/82 season. A simple but innovative choice that found its strength in the chromatic balance, above all those of Portugal and Croatia.

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