Besides the interesting dynamic that occurs when national football teams representing rival political ideologies compete together, and the near hegemony of adidas kits being worn across both sides of the Iron Curtain, one theme that we keep on coming back to here in the Cold War Classic is that of certain kit features – which would often go on to become common in football – debuting long before is generally known.
These revolutionary apparel techniques include:
- France’s use of manufacturer branding and small, front shirt player numbers in the early 1970s (the latter of which was already experimented with as early as 1923, documented by an Argentina vs Third Lanark friendly match that year)
- an Ireland shirt in the late 1970s that briefly employed a crest that would only become famous ten years later
- and the introduction of international shirt sponsorship – which internationally speaking may yet still prove to have been ahead of its time, given football’s inexorable slide into commercialism
By the time the Cold War ended in the early 1990s, the classic three-stripe motif first seen on French kits 20 years earlier had evolved to large post-modern blocks covering one or both shoulders with the adidas trefoil receiving a similar fate. And, following their historical cameos, front numbers began to appear full-time on shirts used in international tournaments. Another new addition seen at the 1992 European Championships was the player’s last name on the back above the squad number.
Like front numbers, names had appeared on American football jerseys and in other American sports for decades, including the North American Soccer League of the 70s and 80s. As it turned out, adidas’s updated Equipment design for the 1990s was not really the ideal template with which to introduce the concept to European football, as it meant the letters would have to pass through two different colours if it was a medium-to-long name. While the French coped well by using a large, white font across the blue and red background of the shirt, the small black letters employed by the post-Soviet CIS over their red and white version meant that the long eastern Europe names were practically illegible from a distance.
But of course, followers of Museum of Jerseys’ sister site Squad Numbers and others will remember that this was not the first instance of surnames appearing on the backs of international footballers in action. As world renowned kit expert Simon ‘Shakey’ Shakeshaft explains here, Scotland were the first national team to try the concept from 1979-1981, inspired by a visit of their association chairman to a NASL game.
One of Scotland’s 13 occasions using shirt names was away to England on May 23, 1981 in the British Home Championships, with the hosts themselves in their own most revolutionary kit to date.
A few days later, England played Switzerland in Basel, a World Cup qualifier marred by violence. But the game was noteworthy for on-pitch reasons too – like the Scots, the Swiss were evidently experimenting themselves with player names on their shirts, combined with the use of a lesser-seen adidas number style of the time (again many thanks to Simon Shakey Shakeshaft for filling us in on this).
Then, on June 6, less than two weeks after the Scotland game, England would amazingly once again come up against a team using player names – the third time in a row.
The opponents, as you may have guessed, were Hungary, making their second appearance in the Cold War Classic after they starred in the debut edition of this series with a vintage kit-mix-up involving the Dutch in 1986. Earlier in 1981, Hungary had played at home to Romania and away to Switzerland and Norway, in the same group as England, with standard nameless backs on both first- and second-choice versions.
The fact that Scotland were in Umbro at the time and Hungary in adidas rules out the possibility that the use of names was related through the manufacturer. But perhaps with the England-Scotland Home Championships game serving as a scouting trip for their next opponents, someone from the Hungarian FA noticed the names and thought it a good idea. England losing the game to the Scots, 1-0, may have helped too.
And so the English would make their way to Budapest for the first time since 1960 and wear said revolutionary kit, famed Admiral effort which is one of those that barely needs explanation. While the large amount of red and blue on the chest, and the royal blue shorts rather than navy, are known to throw off some English (and non-English) traditionalists, from our purely objective point of view it is aesthetically majestic and fits perfectly in its era.
Hungary were in a relatively simple strip with a basic collar that they been wearing since the 1978 World Cup (at times without a trefoil), although their traditional central crest positioning and white/green/white/red/white sleeve striping did give the shirt its own classic charm. With white shorts and green socks, the distinctive colourway combines across the kit to make the countries flag, which is also a major favourite of ours.
If England had won in the contemporary style charts for the front of the shirt, the backs belonged to Hungary. Although the visitors’ blocky red numbers were also undoubtedly pleasing to the eye, the Magyars’ equivalents – having changed from the trademark adidas stripe style seen in 1978 – were sleeker, slimmer and slightly more futuristic. But, of course, the main thing was the text of the players’ names above, which was also more compact and modern than those on the Scottish jerseys. However, the names would not prove as lucky for Hungary as they were defeated 3-1.
For Hungary’s next game, the return tie against Romania in September 1981, the player names had already vanished. Whatever the reason for their brief adoption, it was only a matter of time before they caught on on a wider scale and became commonplace in both club and international competitions.
While their opponents that day, England, would be among the first to wear them again as part of Euro 92 (as would Scotland), unfortunately for Hungary, their lack of qualification success meant they would have to wait until 2011 to finally see names return to the backs of their shirts, as the practice was rolled out among all classifications of international matches.