Collectors Club: All FIFA nations

Joe Johnston has collected shirts from all 211 FIFA nations and a few more…

How many shirts do you have in you collection?

I haven’t counted exactly but in total, I probably have somewhere around 430. The goal was to get a single international shirt for all 211 FIFA nations but you get side-tracked and end up with lots of duplicates of certain countries. For example, I have ten Scotland shirts because I’m Scottish, and ten Bhutan shirts because I got fascinated by Bhutan and became a bit of a fan. Or if someone gets in contact asking if you want a lucky dip of 5 Belarus from the kitman’s bag then you can’t really say no, even if you happen to have 2 perfectly good Belarus shirts already. Let’s not forget all the non-FIFA nations too. I mean, if you’re offered a matchworn Vatican City shirt then you say yes, even if they’re not likely ever to be in FIFA because, you know, it’s the Vatican, and for a start their shirts are incredibly rare and secondly there’s just something hilarious about owning the shirt of a team of a nation that’s half a square kilometre in area!

Why collect all shirts of the FIFA nations?

Well, that sorted of happened by accident. I had an Argentina shirt that I had bought during World Cup 2010 just because I always liked Argentina. For years I thought their away shirts were cool and I bought one off Ebay quite cheap. Then I had a friend going around all the charity shops in town buying up all the shirts he could find and in hardly any time he had built up quite a cool collection of teams from around the world. I fancied a piece of the action so I popped into an Oxfam shop one day and came out clutching a Slovenia shirt and a Scotland shirt that had cost like a pound each. When I laid all three of my shirts out together I realised that I had accidentally started a collection of international shirts.

My next logical thought – an insight into how my brain works – was to wonder if it would be possible to complete the collection. I tried to dismiss that thought but it kept nibbling away at me and I found myself on the internet checking out how many teams were in FIFA (208 at that time). I found myself on Ebay buying a cheap Croatia shirt, an Ireland shirt and an Italy shirt and it just kind of spiralled out of control from there. Pretty soon I found quite a few other collectors who were all trying to do the same thing. We formed an online community and have all helped each other out sourcing rare shirts from across the globe. I think we have all kept going because we have inspired and encouraged each other when things got difficult. I quite liked the ‘quest’ element of the thing too, it meant there was a finite point to it, rather than just aimless collecting that might go on forever. I also became fascinated by football’s global reach, and the link between football and national identity – having a team is a statement of nationhood. Every country has a team, no matter how small, or how isolated from the rest of the world. North Korea, Bhutan, Afghanistan, Tonga, Turkmenistan… they all play and they all have to have a team, even if they know they’ll probably never reach a World Cup. As a result all the disputed states like Tibet set up their own teams a statement about their status as a ‘real’ country. I find it really fascinating.

Which was the hardest to find?

Well the last one in my collection was Madagascar, but I knew for about a year beforehand that it would happen at some point. There were several very difficult ones to get but the hardest two were probably Republic of Congo and Sudan.

Republic of Congo shirt I ended up getting from their captain Prince Oniangue after talking to him on Facebook for a couple of years – he actually sent me his own shirt from the African Cup of Nations 2015 which was a really lovely thing to do.

Sudan was even more difficult; I couldn’t find a way of contacting any of their players as Google Translate isn’t much good for Arabic and I couldn’t find any of their players on Facebook. I ended up asking the UK ambassador in Sudan, Michael Aron, if there was any way he could help me as I noticed on Twitter that he had described himself as a Gooner, meaning he was interested in football, and that he had linked to a couple of articles about the power of sport to unite different cultures, which is part of what my quest is all about. He replied to my email very quickly saying he would try to help, but he found very quickly that there are no official replica. I didn’t hear from him for another year, but then he got in touch to let me know he had managed to get me an official shirt from the owner of one of Sudan’s biggest club teams. A very nice thing of him to do, and I really don’t know how else I would have ever managed to get a Sudan shirt.

Which is your favourite shirt?

I have many favourites, either because of the designs or the stories behind them. One of my favourites is an Azerbaijan U-17 shirt that I bought from a seller who didn’t realise that it had actually been presented to Pope Benedict XVI. I worked this out from translating the German message the team had written on the front of the shirt and by doing a lot of googling and using Google Translate on a few Azerbaijani sports websites. In the end I got it for £40.
Another favourite is my Bhutan shirt which was worn by the goalscorer Dorji Tshering in their most famous victory which took them through to the actual first round of World Cup Qualifying a couple of years ago – it was a game that got a huge amount of press attention across the world.

But my overall favourite purely for it how cool it looks is my player issue Tajikistan shirt. It’s black with blue trim and a green line across the top and it just looks totally badass. It’s very rare too. As far as I can work out the team only seem to have worn it once, and that was the Under-22s in a game against Iran a few years ago; there were never any replicas of this design and I’ve never seen another one in any other collection. Anyway, the collector I got it from has nicknamed it ‘the Tron shirt’ because of the way it looks and I think that’s just about right!

How do you store all the shirts?

I have them all in a gigantic wardrobe in an alcove under the stairs; we bought it specifically to put them in. It was a consideration when we bought our house last year; we were viewing all these places and one of the main questions was “where would we put the shirts?” When we saw the house we ended up buying it just because it had the perfect space for a huge wardrobe we had. It’s all worked out very nicely! The only down side is that because of the sliding doors you can only ever see half of the collection at once. But that’s a very minor consideration really, it’s far more important that the shirts have a good home!

Where do you go from here? Is the collection finished or do you start upgrading the shirts to better versions?

Well, I have done my best all the way through this quest to verify that my shirts are official. If fakes counted then I could have been done ages ago by just ironing a Madagascar badge on to a green Nike template and calling it a Madagascar shirt, and where’s the fun in that? I’d be no better than the hordes of annoying Ebay sellers doing the same thing. There are two or three shirts that I can’t prove the authenticity of and I’d like to replace them with definite genuine versions. Plus, as I’m sure most of the readers will know, collecting football shirts is pretty addictive so I’m not sure I’ll really be able to completely stop. But I’ll certainly be buying a lot less! Having said that, I’ve even bought a few since I got the Madagascar, and then there are all the non-FIFA nations – I already have quite a few, but there are many more still out there to collect, so I guess I’ll still be buying shirts for a while yet!

Read Joe Johnston’s blog – The global obsession

Shop International Team shirts here