A somewhat unplanned but reoccurring theme in this series has been our fascination with how a very western, very capitalist brand was uniformly employed by eastern European states for their athletes during the communist years, even though said brand seemingly epitomised the enemy’s moneymaking, corporate ethos in the Cold War. Or so you would have thought.
The brand we are talking about is of course adidas, which by the end of the era was being worn by the international football teams of every country in the eastern bloc. This apparent juxtaposition seems to prove that links to the west were more acceptable than may have been perceived, at least on state level, and that capitalist practices such as shirt branding were apparently compatible with communist ideals (even if trefoils were half-heartedly covered or removed at times). In retrospect, the adidas trend ties in with the eventual fall of communism in Europe, as, logically, they would not have been needed if all was going positively on that side of the Iron Curtain.
We have theorised before on how the need to realistically compete at the highest level, including when it came to kit and equipment, eventually trumped any ideological loyalty. Plus of course, there is the money. Adidas’ three stripes had started to appear on national teams’ kits of the region by the 1974 World Cup, with Poland, Yugoslavia, and Bulgaria all donning the distinctive feature at the tournament. The Poland away shirt even displayed a trefoil too. Czechoslovakia were next in 1976, followed by Hungary, the USSR, Romania and Albania in the following years.
The last domino to fall was East Germany who made the switch to adidas by 1983, and even before this were using unmarked kits by Erima, which was a division of adidas. This was especially poignant considering the West German origin of the kit-maker.
East Germany had worn blue shirts from the state’s inception as a reference to the colour of the ruling socialist party’s youth wing’s uniform, and, apart from switching the away shirt of white with blue trim to first preference, not much else changed over the next 30 years. Their last kit before adidas looked severely out of date in 1982 compared to its contemporaries around Europe, basically only featuring a crest (albeit an iconic one) and nothing else, besides collar and cuff trim.
The adidas upgrade changed the collar, added trefoil and sleeve stripes, and a blue-trimmed seem going from under-arm to collar. Nothing too revolutionary, but for the team that was in it, and the very pleasing colourway, it was an instant classic of the era.
Thankfully for the sake of Marx and Lenin – who must have been tired rolling in their graves at all these stripes – kit branding in eastern Europe didn’t really exceed this, either at domestic or international level, until the collapse of communism. But in the west, as we have also previously discussed, things had already been taken much further with full-blown shirt sponsorship appearing in Denmark by the late 1960s, before the baton was passed to France in the 1970s. The practice would of course soon become common for most club sides, but the next logical step from a money-making point of view was for sponsorship to be taken to national team shirts.
Scandinavia again led the way as Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Iceland would all produce national team shirts with sponsors in the 1980s, some of which were for promotional use, but others for actual matches. Only friendly matches of course, as competitive games didn’t allow for them, but sponsorship would later become unheard of in general at international level, giving them quite the surreal look to modern eyes.
A Denmark game against Malta in 1989 also saw the Maltese don sponsored shirts, and famously the Republic of Ireland had Opel, however this never saw use beyond testimonials and replicas. One country who did use them to great effect though was another of the Nordic nations in Finland – a Scandinavian country in culture, if not ethically, linguistically or geographically for the most part.
The pinnacle of this whole phase may have been a Finland vs Sweden game in Helsinki on August 6, 1986, with both sides wearing sponsored shirts; two in the case of Finland. And, of course, it wasn’t just in eastern Europe where adidas were dominating, as the two countries also used the West Germany brand.
Incidentally, the Sweden away kit on show may be one of the greatest ‘unknown’ kits of all time, featuring diagonal pinstripes, accordingly diagonal sponsor Sparbanken (‘Save-bank’), a tidy wraparound collar, white trefoil, big chunky crest, shadow striped shorts, and, to add some jazz to the blue of the shirt and shorts, yellow socks. Simply amazing.
The hosts’ kit was not so stylish. It was in fact fairly similar to East Germany’s adidas debut strip in both colour and design, and hence also slightly out-dated by this stage. Long-sleeved shirts were used as opposed to the short sleeves of the opposition, while the shorts were actually identical to those of the Swedes apart from white trim instead of Sweden’s yellow, displaying the popularity of the shadow-stripe template at the time.
But, most importantly, a separate shirt to what would be the match version was used for player profile pictures before the game, promoting an automotive gear-oil brand, Neste Alfa. The red and green of the logo against the white and blue of the rest of the strip really helps make it seem like you’re looking at a club’s kit.
This was also during the odd period when adidas made the aesthetic choice to ‘slice’ through the two horizontal lines on their trefoil, proving that even a literally perfect design is not safe from marketers looking to change things. This shirt featured the even stranger iteration which only sliced through the first of the lines, leaving the lower one intact. Goalkeeper Ismo Korhonen’s pre-match sweatshirt does a good job showing this on a grander scale.
The actual match shirt itself that day would be worn again two weeks later at our featured game, so we will get to that now. On August 20, 1986, none other than East Germany were to be the guests for another friendly in Helsinki’s Olympic Stadium, thus setting up a mighty clash (a mighty friendly clash, that is) between one nation that physically embraced and embodied the capitalist driving force of the west through the shameless splashing of corporate marketing over their national colours, and another that had been the last hold-out against doing the same in their ideologically opposed region.
For Finland, the blue logo and name of the financial company Pohjola now appeared on the centre of their white jerseys, at least matching the general colourway. The company name was borrowed from a location in Finnish mythology that was apparently home to an evil witch – deliciously apt for people who deal with insurance and banking.
Unable to wear their first-choice shirt, East Germany used a straight reversal of their opponents’ strip, with a white version of the shadow-stripe shorts. Of course, this created an overall clash, although one which clearly didn’t really matter given it was a friendly, as opposed to the hoops Bulgaria had to go through in competitive games to avoid it, as seen in our previous Cold War Classic. A very popular adidas shirt template of the time was employed in short sleeves, which also featured shadow striping, this time horizontal.
What is unusual, though, is the central positioning of the crest. Traditionally, the East German crest was positioned on the left like most, even when they wore this otherwise same shirt on other occasions, and the template clearly was not designed with such positioning in mind (or used that way by most other teams). The fact that the crest appears to be ever so slightly off-centre only adds to the intrigue.
Not that it really matters, but in case you were wondering, Finland won the game 1-0 and that was that. But East Germany would return to that part of the world for another friendly the following month against Denmark. Another 1-0 defeat, the game is relevant because they would wear an all-white-version of the kit seen againstt the Finns. The shirt included the central crest positioning, proving that the design experiment wasn’t just limited to the away jersey.
East Germany weren’t long for this world after that, and could really be defined as THE Cold War state, as they are the only country whose existence was solely confined within that time-frame. But for Finland – who continued, and continue, to exist – their love of shirt sponsorship went onwards and upwards, and would rival France for saturation at domestic level in the 1990s.
Given the extremely logical and orderly nature of Finnish culture, it does make sense that advertising saw priority over design. But the endearing, no-nonsense nature of their people, plus the delicious retro-aesthetic, makes it far more palatable than the likes of gaudy American advertising culture.
Sponsorship on international match-shirts was destined for a similar fate as the East German state, but the Finns wern’t ready to give up that dollar just yet, as evident in May 1987 for a huge friendly visit of football royalty Brazil.
Wearing a blue change shirt – which featured very faint vertical shadow striping – the soccer superstars of Suomi proudly bore the giant corporate squirrel of the bank Kansallis-Osake-Pankki, along with the appropriate tagline ‘Miljoona Potkua’ (‘Million Kicks’, since a million is a large amount of money and kicking is a thing footballers do).
Brazil won’t have minded too much though, considering their use of a sponsor on their crest at the 1982 World Cup (a story for another day).
In fact, they may have even taken inspiration from the Finns, as for another friendly that year, against Chile in December 1987, they would play with a huge, red Coca-Cola advert