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The long and the shirt of it

In the first installment of a mini-series, discover how the modern football shirt is a winning fusion of design, technology and commerce.

Bixente Lizarazu: "I have more than 500 shirts, and it symbolises my career""
Bixente Lizarazu: "I have more than 500 shirts, and it symbolises my career"" ©Getty Images

Home or away, stripes or hoops, the humble football shirt holds a power over fans across the globe. Once a simple heavyweight jersey, the modern football shirt can be seen as a winning fusion of design, technology and commerce, but just where might the high-tech factor take the shirt in years to come?

The history

The football shirt has come a long way since the first organised games in Victorian England during the 1870s, but aside from the odd adaptation in collars, little changed for much of the game's first century.

Arsenal (left) adopted their colours early
Arsenal (left) adopted their colours early©Getty Images

The main innovations came with the 1909 law stating that goalkeepers "must wear colours that are distinguishable from the other players and the match officials", and the adoption of numbered shirts, first sported in August 1928 by Arsenal and Chelsea, before they were formally introduced in the English Football League in 1939.

As fashions and popular culture took off in the Swinging Sixties, football – bar shorter shorts – seemed resistant to change.

"When I played, our shirts were made of very thick wool during winter and when it rained they really became a dead weight to carry," recounts Sandro Mazzola, the great Italy and Inter Milan forward. "In the summer we wore lighter shirts instead, but they usually stuck to the body when you sweated."

Sponsors and growing commercialisation

The 1970s was the decade when the football shirt took its first big step into the future. The famous cockerel logo of French manufacturer Le Coq Sportif was the first to adorn the shirt of any team in a European Champion Clubs’ Cup final – appearing on Feyenoord's jerseys in 1970.

Liverpool's sponsored 1979/80 shirt
Liverpool's sponsored 1979/80 shirt©Getty Images

Sponsor logos gradually followed. Viennese club Austria Wien blazed a trail when they wore the emblem of the Schwechater brewery on their shirts in 1966. Over the border in Germany, it was in 1973 that the German Football Association (DFB) agreed to permit shirt advertising, a decision taken shortly after Eintracht Braunschweig had become the first German side with a sponsored shirt – in their case, bearing the Jägermeister logo. Liverpool achieved the same first in the English Football League in 1979 after agreeing a deal with Japanese company Hitachi.

Three years later, UEFA allowed shirt sponsorship in its club competitions and the following season, Real Madrid's white adidas shirts bore a sponsor’s name for the first time – Zanussi.

By this time, replica shirts were starting to become more commonplace, but nobody could have imagined that clubs might one day receive more than €100m from manufacturers for the honour of supplying their kits.

The 1980s and 90s were a period of experimentation, with some particularly garish designs coming into vogue – such as the shirt Norwich City wore in the 1993/94 UEFA Cup when they became the first English club to win at Bayern München .

It was also the time when supporters began to wear their colours en masse at matches, and even as a fashion item away from stadiums.

The present

A football shirt today, according to the manufacturers' promises, can help keep a player cool. It can support muscles and stimulate blood flow. It is lighter and drier than ever before.

Bixente Lizarazu played professional football from 1988 to 2006, living through that period of questionable fashions before experiencing overdue advancements.

"Shirts have become more technical, a lot more comfortable. When you sweat, for example, it evaporates much more easily," says France’s 1998 FIFA World Cup and UEFA EURO 2000-winning left-back.

"Today’s shirts are more comfortable, they’ve got better," Lizarazu adds. "There's a nice feel to the material when you touch them and they fit better too. Our shirts and shorts at the 1998 World Cup were too big, whereas today they're closer fitting, and made from a nicer, 'stretch' material. There have been different fashions. I knew the era of very tight shorts which showed off your thighs, and then we had the very long shorts which weren't good for a player who's not the biggest!"

What the stars say

Bixente Lizarazu, former France defender: "I have more than 500 shirts, and it symbolises my career. When I look at them, it helps me keep my memories alive. It's a bit like having the scalp of your opponents."

Pirlo: 'Such overwhelming emotions come from wearing the Italy shirt'
Pirlo: 'Such overwhelming emotions come from wearing the Italy shirt'©Getty Images

Andrea Pirlo, Italy’s 2006 World Cup-winning playmaker who lifted two UEFA Champions Leagues with AC Milan: "Such overwhelming emotions come from wearing the Italy shirt… that second skin, with its Smurf-like blue, gives you a whole new image across the world. It makes you better, takes you to a higher level."

The future

Wearable technology is all around us already, with plenty more possibilities in the coming years thanks to nanofabrics and connected fabrics.

Nanofabrics are smart fabrics, such as the fabric used for adidas Climachill T-shirts, which have embedded titanium and aluminium particles to reduce body temperature. These become activated by the wearer's body heat.

Connected fabrics, meanwhile, have embedded sensors and a core that collects information from the sensors and transmits it to a separate device.

This means it is entirely feasible that before long, a coach or analyst could see data on a player's heart rate, perspiration, temperature, adrenaline and cortisol level at the push of a button.

Another sensor in the same shirt could tell the media, or fans watching at home, how much distance that player has covered and at what intensity.

This could, of course, inform substitutions, tactical decisions and prevent injuries, but it is a vision of the future which Lizarazu, for one, views with a degree of unease.

"Scientific parameters tell us part of the story," he says. "We should use them but not act solely within these parameters… football is still a sport where you get the feeling if Messi decides to change the course of a match, he can do it all on his own."

And a sport where, still, the shirt can have its own inspiring effect…

The full version of this article was originally produced in UEFA Direct edition 166 in April 2017.