Liverpool v Real Madrid, 1981 – the tale of the tape

Tonight, Liverpool take on Real Madrid in the Champions League final in Kiev, with the sides prominently displaying the logos of the technical partners, New Balance and adidas respectively.

It will be quite different to their previous European Cup final meeting, in 1981 in Paris, when the term, when sports kit marketing was in its infancy and Horst Dassler of adidas pulled a stroke which would eventually lead to his company taking over the Liverpool contract.

At the time, the Reds wore Umbro and had carried the famous double-diamond logo in winning the 1977 and 1978 finals. The English company were adidas’s distributors in the UK, benefiting from boot-making expertise in return, and – considering their own position impregnable – had ‘gifted’ adidas a few clubs, among them Nottingham Forest, Birmingham City and Ipswich Town.

Horst Dassler was, above all, a ruthless businessman and he wanted Liverpool on adidas’s books. The death of Umbro boss John Humphreys in 1978 – son of Harold, who founded the firm with his brother Wallace (Humphreys Brothers) – had allowed him to begin the process, as John had dealt directly with Liverpool and the club felt they weren’t receiving the same level of service.

Dassler began to court Liverpool – much to the chagrin of John Humphreys’ brother Stuart – and a rift began to develop between adidas and Umbro. So, when Liverpool and Real made it to the 1981 final, Dassler spotted another opportunity to land a blow.

As mentioned above, Liverpool had carried branding in their previous final wins but on the day of the game, Dassler convinced UEFA bosses that such advertising shouldn’t be allowed for the decider – and, what’s more, Real Madrid were aware of this and had had patches stitched over the trefoils on their shirts (the shorts and socks didn’t carry the logo).


You may note in the image above that, while the trefoil is absent, all three elements of the kit carry the three-stripe marking, making it instantly recognisable as an adidas kit. While the Real Madrid players were relaxing in their dressing room, across the corridor their Liverpool counterparts were urgently applying white medical tape to one another’s chests. The fact that the shirts were made from Airtex material made the task tougher as well as increasing the likehihood of the tape falling off during the game.

In addition, all but two Liverpool players were wearing adidas boots. As part of their boot deals at the time, adidas would have someone specifically designated to ensure the clarity of the stripes on boots, painting them on in some cases.

So, at the same time as Umbro’s presence was being covered up – including on the pre-match tracksuits, apart from Graeme Souness’s – the legendary Ronnie Moran was ensuring that he adidas stripes on the boots were clearly visible. The Liverpool players were told at the time that it was a TV restriction, and this has been the story most circulated in the intervening period.


Bob Paisley, normally an even-tempered man, was most unhappy, but despite kick-off being delayed, Liverpool weren’t unduly affected, Alan Kennedy’s 82nd-minute goal giving them the win.

The incident only served to increase the friction between adidas and Umbro, and Dassler continued to press the Anfield hierarchy. He got them using adidas balls for home games from 1982 onwards and, citing further (possibly non-existent) hostility from Umbro, he was able to get the club to agree to an adidas kit deal from 1985-86 on, promising to look after them personally.

Even then, there was a final insult – Liverpool wore the new kit in the 1985 European Cup final against Juventus, an incident which would have received more notice at the time but for the Heysel disaster.

Adidas did have to pay Umbro some compensation for that bit of deal-breaking, but that battle was a small price to pay for winning the war.


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