Nike has released its federation kits for the upcoming World Cup, including the home and away shirts for the USMNT. As you may have seen, the reaction hasn’t been entirely positive. ESPN called the team’s home shirt “boring” and the away kit “awful,” while players including Tim Weah, Weston McKennie and Yunus Musah have all voiced their criticisms of the kits.
All the furore around the home and away shirts got us thinking about some of the other controversial kits from footballing history.
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Manchester United’s grey away kit had an outsized impact considering its brief existence. The kit was only worn five times, and in its final appearance United – 3-0 down at Southampton – decided to change their kit at half time. United lost four of the five games in which the kit was worn before it was dropped forever.
Speaking years later, Gary Neville explained the Southampton kit switch in April 1996, saying that Sir Alex Ferguson had employed an “eye coach” who pointed out that the grey kit blended into the crowd, making it impossible to see your teammates. As Neville said, “you don’t take another kit to a game unless you’re thinking there’s a problem with it.”
There are certain rules about how a football shirt can look, and one of the most elemental ones is that it has sleeves. Cameroon decided to try their luck without sleeves, and in 2002 won the African Cup of Nations in their green vests. That was to be the end of the line for the kits, and when Cameroon appeared at the World Cup later that year, they’d had to add black sleeves.
Cameroon tried their luck again in 2004, this time wearing an even-more innovative one piece kit. The onesie design was worn throughout that year’s African Cup of Nations, leading to a $154,000 USD fine from FIFA and six docked points at the 2006 World Cup. FIFA eventually cancelled their punishment under the threat of legal action from PUMA.
One of Fiorentina’s early ‘90s away shirts has a legitimate claim to being the most controversial ever released. In an attempt to incorporate the club’s iconic viola colour into the white away kits, Lotto created a geometric pattern to cover the top of the shirt. Somehow, no one realised that the pattern looked a lot like Swastikas.
Fiorentina managed to get through a few games before the problem was spotted. Quickly the away kit was replaced – many of them were destroyed – and Fiorentina finished the season in a plain white away kit. The club even had to clarify that the design was “purely a matter of chance” and not a reference to their founder’s fascist roots.
In 2004, Athletic Bilbao recruited Basque artist Dario Urzay to create a special-edition kit to be worn during its UEFA Cup campaign. For unspecified reasons, Urzay took inspiration from blood splatters when he replaced the red and white stripes for the shirt.
Fans weren’t happy, and the level of public protest led to Bilbao scrapping the shirt almost immediately. What was meant to be a celebratory shirt for their European adventures was actually only worn for one friendly. Nowadays, the design is known as the “Ketchup” shirt.
The rules about shirt sponsors are clearly laid out by the FA, who decree that their logos must be within “one single area not exceeding 250 square centimetres on the front of the shirt.” Huddersfield didn’t like the sound of that, though, and tried something else in the 2019/20 season as Paddy Power’s logo became a huge sash across the shirt.
The kit was worn once – in a friendly against Rochdale – before being banned and replaced with a sponsorless design. It later turned out to have been a pure publicity stunt, and featuring no logo had always been the plan.
PUMA’s 2021/22 third kit design spanned different countries and clubs – A.C. Milan, Borussia Mönchengladbach, Borussia Dortmund, Fenerbahçe, Krasnodar, Manchester City, Marseille, PSV Eindhoven,Shakhtar Donetsk, Stade Rennais and Valencia to be precise – but that didn’t make it any less controversial.
The decision to replace the badge with a box containing the team’s name angered fans of all of the clubs, while using such a similar design made the teams look like they were all connected in some way. Despite the criticisms, the third kits were worn for the entirety of the 2021/22 season, although it remains to be seen if PUMA revisit the idea.