How the Blazers Got Their Chequers – and other stories

Why do the men’s world cup teams of 2018 look the way they do? Where do their nicknames come from?

I’ll start with England. England wear a red change kit because of a Haitian called Joe Gaetjens.

(Yes I know it’s from the cross of St George, go with me on this).

Until the 1950s England wore blue jerseys when faced with a lilywhite opposition. England traditionally wear white and blue as these were the colours of the FA. Aside from the occasional red sock for a bit of variety, white and blue were the order of the day until one famous afternoon in Belo Horizonte.

The 1950 world cup, England v the USA. The Americans wore white, so the Three Lions put on their familiar blue. The English, in their first world cup and one of the favourites, were widely expected to demolish the team of semi-pros and Sunday leaguers, who drafted in a Scot, a Belgian and the Haitian “Ti-Jo” Gaetjens to strengthen the team.

Gaetjens, from an elite Port-au-Prince family, came to the US in 1947 to study accounting at Columbia, and caught the attention of the US selectors playing for Brookhatten, who took him with them to Brazil. 37 minutes in, and Ti-Jo dived in to deflect a Walter Behr shot into the back of the net. That was enough to defeat England. Oh Spenser St John, Graham Greene, Hesketh-Hesketh Prichard – your boys took a hell of a beating!

After this embarrassment, the accursed blue kit was binned. The next time a change kit was needed, England appeared in their now-fabled lucky red outfit. Of course, England got worse afterwards, and things did not change until The Magical Magyars of Hungary disintegrated England’s defence twice in a row (6-3, 7-1). Fortunately, England were wearing white on those days, so the red shirt was spared the dustbin of history.

Gaetjens returned to Haiti soon afterwards. In 1964, he was arrested on (tenuous) suspicion of anti-Duvalierist activity, and sent to the infamous Fort Dimanche torture camp. It was there he died.

kazu2
Kazu of Japan, now in blue, 1994

England aren’t the only ones who changed their look for superstitious reasons. Japan used to wear red and white in mimicry of their national flag, like most other countries do. Things went so wrong during the early 90s, that the Japanese went blue. Things got better, and now blue is here to stay, celebrated by their current nickname, the Blue Samurai.

Three Leopards on the Shirt…

England also got their nickname from the FA. The Three Lions adorn the traditional English crest first adopted by the association after its boozy founding in the Freemasons Tavern pub in 1863. The “leopard” as it was known was first used by Henry I, but trebled by Richard the Leopardticker a few decades later, because he had a thing for big cats.

England’s latest nemeses, the Belgians, themselves are the first lot to be known as the Red Devils. Before Salford, and before Man Utd. After a brief dabble with white uniforms, they stuck with red, and after Pierre Walckiers gifted them their luciferian moniker in 1906, the name and the kit were set in stone.

Not to be outdone, the Spanish are known as the “Red Fury” – La furia roja. This is as much a reflection on their traditional style of play as it is their jerseys – a lesson lost on their class of 2018 who suffocated themselves and half of their audience with their centre-passes-to-right-passes-to-centre play. Completing this furious tricolour are yellow and blue. Red and yellow are the Aragonian colours that comprise the flag. I’m not certain where the blue comes from, perhaps from the Castillian shield. But it has to be blue.

Not purple.

Definitely not purple.

Whereas in Britain that colour is associated with royalty, in Spain it has distinct republican connotations, and the Spanish performance was treasonous enough without accusations of wishing to abolish the monarchy.

spain-18
It’s not purple. Genuinely.

In contrast to Spain’s rigid rules, their conquerers, the Russians, cannot quite decide what suits them best. They are currently on a red, flag-themed number, after dabbling with whites and blues as well as a recent flirtation with the traditional colours of maroon and gold. It’s probably why they keep the nickname simple – “Sbornaya” – or “team”. It’s similar in that way to Die Mannshaft of Germany, or the Melli of Iran. Go team.

Some go even simpler than that – Costa Rica are dubbed Los Ticos, or, “The Costa Ricans,” whereas Iceland go with the loving “our boys,” appropriate for a team that brought 10% of the country with them. Others nickname their teams after their colours. Sweden are known as Blågult or “blue-yellows,” Peru and Poland? They’re both known as the “white and reds.” Argentina? La albiceleste, the blue and whites.

Flag Bearers

Many nicknames and kits reflect or extend the team’s role in nation-building and patriotic excitement. Portugal are the “team of the five” (Seleção das Quinas) reflecting the five shields on the national crest. Serbia’s “White Eagles” follow the lead of the double-headed eagle that came to Serbia from the Byzantine days.

Some teams are less traditional, and are instead monikered as if run by the Tourist Board. Egypt are the Pharaohs – no brains strained on that one. Morocco are the Atlas Lions, adopting that now-regionally extinct creature. Tunisia hark back to Hannibal as the finely-named Eagles of Carthage, and the Koreans represent as the Warriors of Taegeuk, the harmonious symbol that adorns the South Korean flag. Best/Worst in Show would belong to Australia’s Socceroos, were it not for the Canal Men of Panama.

The most obvious way in which football teams are conscripted to fly the flag is by dressing as a flag, further undermining the ridiculous notion that international football has nothing to do with politics. Brazil, The Canaries, they used to wear white too. Once again, their change of outfit was forged in defeat. After the soul withering defeat in the 1950 world cup final to Uruguay at the Maracanã, the plain white-T was deemed insufficiently patriotic, and so a competition was held to design a new kit based on the colours of the flag. The winning entry debuted four years later.

Brazil’s iconic blue change strip came as an accident. In 1958, against Sweden in the final, yellow met yellow, and Brazil had no alternative. The Canaries rushed to the shops and bought a set of blue jerseys, in which they won the cup. In the 1950s, as the world cup and international football rose up within a post-war era of redefining nationalisms, many teams moved towards a more patriotic model. For example, at this time Mexico abandoned their old maroon and blue combo to be dressed as a tricolour.

Brazil 1970
Brazil, at their finest, 1970 – Source: The Guardian

The Green and Gold of the Association Football Kangaroos, to use their full name, was first adopted in 1924 but later ascribed meaning – gold for the beaches, green for the land. In fact, the tradition comes from the decision by Aussie cricketers to wear baggy green caps on tour to England one year.

Some kits are not only an outward expression of nation, but a memory of a moment in time. Uruguay where sky blue in celebration of River Plate FC’s famous victory over the legendary Argentinian side Alumni. In Uruguay, that was a seriously big deal, as the first time a Uruguayan side had conquered the pride of Argentina. In tribute, the national team wore sky blue shirts that mimicked River Plate’s change kit that day.

Colombia, the “coffee growers,” before finally turning patriotic, have often flattered the great teams of their age with mimicry. In 1938 they donned sky blue in honour of Uruguay and Argentina. In the 70s, the went Dutch Orange.

Colombia

Peru’s adored red sash is a piece of cultural history. It is said to be inspired by Peruvian schoolboy football, where so many teams once wore white that the away team would wear sashes over their kits to identify each other.

Despite the unimaginative nature of a great many team nicknames, some bring joy. Denmark became known as the Danish Dynamite in honour of their spine-tingling ’80s vintage, whilst Switzerland exude cool arrogance with their moniker, the A-Team. Nigeria, once the Green Eagles, renamed themselves the Super Eagles after a painful defeat to Cameroon in the 1988 Africa Cup of Nations Final, to give the team that extra edge.

By far my favourite nickname belongs to Senegal, the Lions of Teranga. It’s a title that stretches beyond simple nationalism into culture and the collective spirit that marks the best of international football. Teranga, a Wolof word, reflects hospitality, giving, caring and looking out for one another. Cisse’s lions accordingly look after one another, and reflect grace in victory and in defeat.

original
France v Croatia, 1998

I’ll end, then, with the two finalists. France’s blue kit originates from the old days when they were another walking flag, and their name, Les Blues, naturally comes from that. Adorning their crest is the Coq Gallois, that roosting symbol of French sport. It is an ancient French symbol, restored during the revolution, to mark the daily triumph of light over dark. This was, of course, absolutely, 1000% the inspiration behind Griezmann’s celebration as he put France 2-1 up.

The Croatian Blazers also come tricoloured, but with a twist. I’ve no idea why they are called the Blazers, but their infamous chequerboard design originates from the crest on the flag. Upon its advent as an independent nation, the new Croatian football team eskewed traditional kit design and brought the šahovnica, the chessboard, to the fore, so they could stand out as different. And although the Croatians fell short in their first world cup final today, they have certainly stood out.

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