Football shirts are anything but just jerseys worn on a football pitch.
For some they are just a way to distinguish between the two teams playing in front of them, but for many others they are so much more. Football shirts define a moment, define an era and evoke feelings and emotions stronger than any clothing garment ever should. Just think of Holland winning the European Championships in that iconic adidas pattern, New Order and Umbro making England cool again with a set of shirts for the ages, or the timeless look of Pele donning the Brazilian style of the 1970s.
Each shirt tells a different story and transports you back to a time and feeling we all long to zone out to away from moments on the daily grind. Which is why on the eve of Classic Football Shirts’ Fabric of Football event in Manchester – where they’ll be displaying some of the greatest shirts of all time – I wanted to share my own personal love story of a shirt that I regard as my greatest football shirt of all time.
This love affair began at quite a young age, as a wide-eyed eleven year-old whose only care in the world was where to consume even more football. Luckily my weekly fix was covered thanks to the likes of Shoot and Match magazine, and it’s upon their shiny 1990’s pages that I first laid eyes on this shirt and for the first real time in my young life it was love at first sight. Alongside the current England and away kits (the underrated 1993 set with the big collars) and Brazil’s majestic Umbro number for that summer, stood a shirt unlike anything I’d ever seen before. As someone already beginning a fascination with all things Americana (mainly down to Saved By The Bell and everything WWF) I was already intrigued by the combination of my obsession with football and my growing interest in the good old U S of A, yet the sight of this new football shirt sent that path into overdrive.
Standing out from the page in a moment akin to when Wayne Campbell first sees Cassandra – although less of Gary Wright’s Dreamweaver – was the USA’s 1994 away kit in all its 90’s glory. Launched for the first ever World Cup on North American soil, the USA’s change kit of 1994 was as patriotic as you’d ever going to get from a football shirt, but tinged with that 90s design that only that decade could produce. Awash in homage to Old Glory, the shirt was decked-out in traditional red, white and blue and topped off with a glut of huge white stars from USA’s national flag, in a design that Uncle Sam would be truly proud of. However, the standout design feature of this truly memorable adidas shirt is the shade of blue used. Years before 90s girl band B*Witched made it their trademark, the 1994 USA team took to the biggest stage in football wearing a football ‘jersey’ made-up from a tone of blue that was called, and was quite clearly based on denim – or faux-denim to give it’s actual moniker.
I stared at that catalogue page for hours, trying not to get overwhelmed with a feeling of need and want that I’d never experienced before. Every time I put down the magazine, I’d go back five minutes later to take in it’s every detail and imagine myself wearing the same shirt that Roy Wegerle (already my first QPR hero) would be donning that summer at a World Cup in a country I longed to visit. I went everywhere to find that shirt, but unlike in 2018 where the Internet makes it possible to purchase any shirt of your choice, new and old, twenty-five years previously it was a different matter. The aforementioned catalogue sold out by the time the next copy of Match arrived, while several attempts at local sport shops proved unsuccessful. Even a plea to a family friend I’d never met before who was about to holiday in the States fell on a deaf ears as I was accused of being ‘rude’ by my embarrassed parents. Clearly they’d never fallen in love with a football shirt before.
With every avenue blocked it was deemed as a case of the one that got away for at least that summer and instead I had to settle with watching the USA team parade in it on TV. Having debuted the stonewash denim in a 1-0 win over Bolivia earlier that Spring, the national team went on to wear it for all three of their group games during the finals – a notion that in later times has seen the kit actually be referred to as the home strip in various outlets – as USA progressed from their group before being eliminated in the knockout round by eventual winners Brazil. This time wearing the official home shirt, another masterpiece of the decade if not quite on par with the beautiful denim change jersey. Each time I was glued to the TV, not just to take in a World Cup like no one had seen before, but to see the likes of Eric Wynalda, John Harkes and Alexi Lalas (who looked like he was born to wear that shirt) run around in a the greatest piece of clothing I’d ever seen. To rub salt in the wounds USA even wore the strip during their friendly defeat to England in that September, caring little for Alan Shearer’s two goals and only fueling my summer romance with faux-denim yet further and creating a life-time goal on getting my hands on this holy grail of football shirts.
Thankfully like all classic love stories, this one does have a happy ending and I finally met my first love in person some years ago, thanks to Classic Football Shirts. And that same feeling I had more than a decade ago came rushing back, only this time it was magnitude was even greater as I now had ‘the one that got away’ safe in my arms and looking even more resplendent than I could ever have imagined as an eleven year-old – despite the shirt being as thick as a pair of 501’s that inspired the look. The shirt now hangs pride of place in the centre of my office, looking as vibrant and unique as the day it was created, as a symbol for a country that finally embraced the beautiful game. Even alongside some the era’s other vintage friends, the denim of USA 1994 stands alone in the history of football shirts and the use of such an iconic design that is yet to be repeated.
In later years in my role as host of Alive and Kicking – The 90s Football Podcast, I’ve been lucky enough to speak to Alexi Lalas and John Harkes and hear their stories of that summer and that shirt to variant degrees and pride and hilarity. Yet no story compares to my own and the day I fell in love with faux denim that sparked a lifetime obsession with that single piece of World Cup history and the greatest football shirt of all time.
Ash Rose is host of Alive and Kicking – The 90s Football Podcast. Subscribe here to listen to the weekly ‘This Week In The 90s’ show and longer more themed shows every fortnight. #Keepit90s