From Argentina to…Zaire: The Top Ten World Cup Shirts of All Time

There is so much more to the World Cup than what happens on the pitch. The anticipation in the months and weeks leading up to it. The exoticism of the host countries and the competing nations. The excitement and the atmosphere that’s created by seeing so many different cultures side by side, as fans fill up the stadiums and the streets of the host cities, kitted out in the colours and jerseys of their homelands. A lot of these factors have been absent in the run-up to this year’s anomaly of a tournament, but usually, even without being there, we manage to soak in some of the feeling though our tv screens. 

Those same jerseys that supporters clamour to buy ahead of the tournament are also part and parcel of the World Cup experience. Club shirts are intended to represent the identity of a team, but international shirts have the more challenging task of becoming a symbol for a whole nation. Millions of people with no interest whatsoever in football will at some point in their lives have watched a World Cup match that their country was playing in, just to be a part of the atmosphere, and they’ll have felt represented by those players and jerseys on the field.   

Looking back, it’s virtually impossible to judge these shirts on aesthetics alone. The opponents they faced, the goals scored in them and the players that donned them, they are inseparable from the glorious World Cup context we know them from and the memories that they’ve played a role in creating. There have been plenty of absolute beauties over the years, but we’ve done our best to pick out our top ten.

10 – Brazil 1970

With the players Brazil had in this squad, they would have looked great playing in bin bags, never mind this perfectly proportioned old school masterpiece. Brazil’s 1970 team are considered by many to be the best ever winners of the tournament, and they had a kit to match their style on the pitch. A yellow cotton shirt with a green crew neck and cuffs, blue shorts and crisp white socks; no other team has a strip like it, and none could ever try to pull it off.

This colour combo is synonymous with Brazil. Their 4-1 victory over Italy in the final was capped off with a fantastic team goal, which saw them win the ball back in defence, purposefully move it up the pitch before Carlos Alberto put the icing on the cake with a thunderous finish from just inside the box.

9. Peru – 1978

At this year’s World Cup, 20 of the 32 teams will wear either a mainly red or mainly white home shirt. Thankfully Croatia have an interesting combo of both, but they are in the minority of teams who have something other than a relatively plain, colour-blocked shirt. A wide array of colour combos should rightfully be a part of any World Cup, adding some of the aforementioned exoticism to proceedings. In 1978, Peru delivered in that regard, with their beautifully crisp white shirts, diagonally bisected by a bright red sash.

La Blanquirroja are the only international team in the world to feature a sash on their kits, and they certainly know a thing or two about how to pull it off. With three stripes on the sleeves and a giant badge on the left of the chest, they set a great example of how to keep things simple while standing out from the rest.

8. Jamaica – 1998

Jamaica played in their first – and to date, only – World Cup in 1998 and definitely made a statement with their baggy Kappa kits. The Italian brand were in their absolute prime in this era and came up with something very fitting for the Reggae Boyz. The asymmetry of the pattern and its continuation onto the shorts, the standout black collar and the centralized Kappa logo gave the shirt a lot of personality, and the colourway lent itself brilliantly to this particular design.

A 3-1 loss to Croatia in their opener, followed by a Gabriel Batistuta hattrick in a 5-0 thrashing at the hands of Argentina won’t have created too many of those happy memories mentioned in the intro. Fortunately, they managed to beat Japan 2-1 in their final game to salvage some dignity before going home. They’ll be hoping to do better next time out, but it would take something very special to top these kits.

7. Zaire – 1974

Zaire, now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo, arrived at the 1974 World Cup as recently crowned African champions, tripped by some to impress. Instead, they lost all three games by an aggregate of 14-0. The story is much more complex than that however, with unpaid bonuses, a players’ strike that led to their 9-0 loss to Yugoslavia, and threats of exile/death from Zairean dictator Mobutu Sese Seko all going on behind the scenes.

Although it will be little consolation to the players who returned home as national pariahs, their kits were fantastic. Green with yellow trim like the Adidas stripes and wing collar, front and centre was a massive circular badge reading “Leopards Zaire”, complete with a graphic of a leopard pawing at a football. The combo of green shirts and yellow shorts really worked well too.

6. USA Away  – 1994

They have definitely come a long way, but until Qatar, the USA was probably considered the least “footballing” nation of all the countries to ever host a World Cup, especially back in the mid 90s. The opening ceremony was a suitably Hollywood affair, and through their USA away kit, Adidas did an amazing job of capturing the wider world’s perception of the self-proclaimed “greatest country in the world”. 

A washed blue, faux denim fabric covered with stretched out white stars, finished off with red trim and a badge with a very cartoon “soccer ball” should by all logic have seemed tacky, and it possibly did at the time. In hindsight, however, for that era, that tournament and that very patriotic country, it was perfect. Despite literally being the one and only home team in the whole tournament, the USA wore their away shirt in all three group games, registering one draw, one win and one loss. Their home jersey finally got a run out in their quarter-final defeat to eventual winners Brazil.

5. Argentina Away vs England – 1986

This is one shirt undoubtedly worthy of the label “iconic”. Worn by the greatest player of all time while scoring the most controversial goal in World Cup history and then following it up with the tournament’s greatest ever goal, this blue Le Coq Sportif number was never even supposed to be exist. The cotton shirts the squad had brought to the tournament were deemed too heavy for the searing Mexican heat, so one of the coaches was sent out to find something more breathable. He came back with two options from a local sports shop, and it was of course El Diego who had the final say.

Indicating the now famous shiny-striped version, he proclaimed “That’s a nice shirt, we’ll beat England in that”, and the rest is history. An older version of the AFA badge was stitched on and sparkly silver numbers made for American football uniforms were printed on the back, adding another unique layer to the jersey. The shirts prepared for that match are the only ones in existence, and Maradona’s number 10 shirt was sold earlier this year for more than €8 million.

4. France – 1982

Les Bleus have had their fair share of gorgeous shirts in their time, but the one that Michel Platini and his teammates wore at the 1982 World Cup in Spain could well be the pick of the bunch. The French team have foregone royal blue in favour of a dark navy for many of their recent home shirts, a decision that is made look questionable by this majestic cotton number. The pinstripes, the tricolour detailing on the cuffs and the combination of a polo collar and wide v neck were very in keeping with France’s sartorial reputation, while the oversized cockerel badge is very symbolic of their fierté.

Quite a memorable tournament for the French, who missed out on a place in the final after losing 5-4 on penalties to Germany. The match ended 3-3 after 90 minutes, but it could – and probably should – have finished with a different scoreline. In the 58th minute, German goalkeeper Toni Schumacher infamously launched himself into Patrick Battiston inside the box, knocking out two of his teeth and cracking three ribs in the process. A challenge like that was surely worthy of a penalty, but Dutch referee Charles Corver somehow decided against giving one.

3. Italy – 1990

Hosts of one of the most fondly remembered tournaments which gave us so many great moments, memories and shirts, Italy’s own offering from Diadora was up there with the best of them. The Italian Football Association (FIGC) had some fairly strict kit rules back then, most notably that no manufacturer logo could appear on the team’s match shirts. This set them apart from all other teams and meant that all attention was on the Italia badge. The 1990 shirt featured the much-loved round variation, with three stars, the national flag and “Italia” text at the top, while the collar and cuffs bore tricolour trim.

In case the shirt didn’t reflect il Bel Paese well enough on its own, Totó Schillaci was on hand to exhibit the endearingly expressive nature of its people, passionately demonstrating his every emotion while wearing the jersey, creating a wonderfully Italian combo.

2. Mexico – 1998

Much like Germany in 1990, Mexico held onto a previous design for the 1998 World Cup, knowing that it deserved to be shown off on the biggest stage. Some minor adjustments were made to the original shirt for the big occasion, like the addition of some red trim and the use of slightly lighter shades of green, but they were always going to keep the eye-catching Aztec calendar as the centrepiece. Centrepiece may not be the most accurate choice of words here, as the graphic covered the entire jersey, front, back and sleeves.

Made by Mexican brand ABA Sports, the country’s rich culture and history served as inspiration for the kit in a way that has not been done to the same extent since. This jersey deserved a long run in the tournament, but it was not to be. Germany eliminated Mexico and their wonderful jerseys in the round of 16, but by that stage, the wild pattern had already left its mark on the tournament and this subgenre of World Cup history.

1. West Germany – 1990

Which other shirt could possibly take the number one spot? Germany probably can’t claim to be many people’s second team at World Cups, but it’s very unlikely that you’ll meet a football fan who doesn’t appreciate this shirt. At Italia 90, Salvatore Schillaci won the golden boot and the hearts of many fans while sporting Italy’s lovely home shirt, but Germany wore this piece of football history in every game bar one on their way to lifting the trophy. Apart from the legacy generated by winning the tournament outright, the shirt was involved in another, much less aesthetically pleasing incident: Frank Rijkaard spitting in Rudi Voller’s hair. 

The kit was introduced in 1988 and used well into 1992 before finally being replaced. It was the first Germany jersey to use so much colour and an extremely innovative way of incorporating the national flag into the shirt, as well as a novel way for Adidas to rework their trademark three stripes. Adidas were so satisfied with the design that they applied it to track tops and sweatshirts for die Mannschaft too, with these items now possibly even more sought after than the jerseys themselves. 

Honourable Mentions

Ireland – 1990

The Boys in Green were playing in their first ever World Cup and Adidas made sure they were well-dressed for the occasion. An arrowhead jacquard weave gave the green shirt something a bit different, the orange accents on the cuffs and collar worked perfectly and the team put in some very respectable shifts on the pitch. The FAI badge from that era will forever bring on floods of nostalgia for a whole nation. 

Netherlands – 1994

Although their Euro 88 shirt is undisputedly better than any of their World Cup efforts, it always feels like something is missing when we don’t see their trademark orange jerseys at the tournament. Lotto stuck to the script in 1994 with a clean design that assured Bergkamp and the boys were looking their best.

Japan – 1998

Japan had some brilliantly experimental kits throughout the 90s and we’ve seen a revival of that in recent years. At France 98, Asics put flame graphics on their sleeves, continuing a theme they had started two years earlier and making sure the whole world had the chance to catch a glimpse. 

All the Shirts at Italia 90

1990 was easily the most stylish edition of the World Cup, coming at the dawn of the golden age for football shirt design. Adidas were responsible for a lot of the shirts on show, with great templates, shiny jacquard patterns and so many vibrant colours. They just don’t make them like they used to.