DOHA, Qatar — It is a meeting of titans and, really, the clash of the World Cup quarterfinals, a game where flickers of grace and beauty, of originality and style, will make it impossible to ever look away. No, we’re not talking about England vs. France on Saturday. We’re talking about something far bigger…
“We’re living in an era of homogenized kits,” says John Devlin, a uniform expert and author of the book, “True Colours,” which explores the history of soccer jersey design. “To see this array of colors is just stunning.”
It is. And these are, by any measure, true heavyweights. On Friday at Education City Stadium, the stands will be awash in the highest of sporting fashion: the unmistakable yellow of Brazil’s globally famous canarinho shirt, pitted against the modern fascination that is Croatia’s eye-popping, red-and-white checkerboard. The juxtaposition is artistically delightful – the classical splendor of a timeless look held up against the meaningful ballast of a progressive and unique sartorial statement.
“I think it’s going to prove to be one of this World Cup’s highlights,” Devlin says. “I’m really looking forward to seeing this combination in action.”
He is not alone, though adding to the significance of the occasion is the backstories behind each of the jerseys. For both sets of fans (not to mention the players), these are not simply wearable canvases. There is real meaning behind what players are wearing.
Aleksandar Holiga, the editor in chief of the Croatian sports website Telesport, says the link between the checkers on Croatia’s uniform and its national flag is purposeful. The same Croatian painter, Miroslav Sutej, designed both (in addition to Croatia’s bank notes), and for a nation that only gained its independence in 1991, that connection is a critical point of pride.
Croatia’s team actually debuted the jersey in 1990 – before gaining independence – in a friendly against the United States, but its popularity exploded around the world when Croatia qualified for the Euros in 1996 and then the World Cup in 1998, where Davor Suker scored six goals and won the Golden Boot.
Suddenly, everyone was talking about this new country and its unforgettable jersey.
“I think that is the main reason [Croatians] cling to it and like it so much: it is forever associated with gaining independence and getting international recognition,” Holiga says. “Since the early 1990s, the checkers are everywhere in Croatia simply because they are the easiest, and coolest, way to say ‘Croatia.'”
Pete Hoppins, who worked with both Croatia and Brazil (and many other teams) during his eight years within Nike’s global football apparel group, says Croatia was also helped by the checkerboards appearing at roughly the same period as a surge in interest in replica jerseys in general. It was only in the 1990s, Hoppins says, that “jerseys became a mass-market concept. And with Croatia, there’s something that just feels football about its look even though its rare.”
The appeal of Brazil’s design, on the other hand, is more about branding. It’s perpetually the most popular shirt in terms of global sales, Hoppins says, because “people around the world, they just want to be associated with that jersey,” a reference to Brazil’s record five trophies at the men’s World Cup.
Of course, in a classic twist, the yellow jersey — which has come to symbolize excellence — was actually birthed out of failure. Brazil’s original kit was mostly white, but after the embarrassment of losing the 1950 World Cup at home to Uruguay, a contest was held in which Brazilians were invited to create a new design that would give the Selecao a fresh identity. “Before that, people thought it wasn’t a good idea to have Brazil’s colors in the uniform because football didn’t represent the country,” says Mauricio Drumond, a sports historian and professor in Rio de Janeiro. “It’s obviously changed since then.”
The contest attracted scads of entries, and a teenager from the town of Pelotas named Aldyr Garcia Schlee, who would go on to become a renowned cartoonist, sketched over 100 different ideas before submitting his entry that would become a part of soccer’s history.
As Brazil became the sport’s most dominant team — winning the World Cup in 1958, 1962 and 1970 — its yellow jersey developed into a cultural touchstone. Add in the worldwide fame of Pele, and Brazilians embraced the canarinho as a stand-in for all that was good about their nation.
“We don’t have as many clothes with the flag on it, like you see in the United States,” Drumond says. “Here it’s the jersey — the Brazilian jersey represents the country… It’s the flag, but in clothing.”
That reality, and the sentiments that underpin it, are not always easy. Over the past few years, the right-wing government in Brazil led by Jair Bolsonaro began using the jersey as a de facto symbol of support for the president and his way of running the country, so some citizens opposed to Bolsonaro purposely avoided wearing the jersey, saying it no longer spoke for them. Brazil’s far-less-popular blue jersey became a powerful item.
“Over the past few months, though, that has started to change,” Drumond says, referring to the recent re-election of Lula da Silva as the country’s president, as well as an overarching move to de-politicize the uniform. “People began to take those symbols like the yellow jersey back,” Drumond continues. “As if they’d been kidnapped.”
There has certainly been no shortage of yellow jerseys on display in Qatar, either on actual Brazilians or those fans from other countries who want to support Neymar or his teammates. Even though its design has barely changed, the canarinho has remained ubiquitous, showing up at soccer tournaments and everywhere else for decades. In fact, that consistency is part of what makes the enduring appeal of both shirts remarkable.
Most other soccer federations, obviously aware of the financial rewards that new jerseys can bring, dabble in changing colors or designs with some frequency, a practice that can result in some weird circumstances. As just one example, Spain — whose team is known as “La Roja,” or “The Reds” — were eliminated from the World Cup on Tuesday while wearing, for some reason, sky-blue jerseys.
With Brazil and Croatia, though, such a thing feels all but impossible. Hoppins, the former Nike designer, spent plenty of time in meetings over the years discussing potential new ideas for national team uniforms, and he says everyone was always well-aware of the situation when it came time to talk about Brazil or Croatia.
“Every time, at every tournament, it wasn’t even on the cards to not do a yellow or not do a checkerboard,” Hoppins says. “It’s an unwritten rule. We’re doing them. We all just knew it.”