The Rise of Retro: Why Do We Keep Coming Back?

retro shirt

For some, a soccer jersey is just an article of clothing worn by soccer players during a game. But for many, they are a beauty, a fashion statement and a constant reminder of the past. Clubs around the world are pumping out new kits like there’s no tomorrow and raking in millions in merchandise sales. But in recent years, demand has shifted from new to old. Fans aren’t that keen on the new releases anymore, with just a few minor changes from the previous season’s outfit and an extra £10 to the price tag. Instead, fans would prefer to buy classic or vintage football shirts.

Vintage is all the rage in the fashion industry, and the same goes for football. When it comes to football apparel, the power is in the past.

This has been recognized by football clubs around the world. Many are releasing reissued shirts, essentially a kit from the past but modernized. Just last week I saw Adidas announce a collaboration with Manchester United, launching a retro 9-piece collection inspired by the 90s and the Class of 92. As an Arsenal fan, I’m no stranger to a remake myself. In December 2021, Arsenal launched a retro selection inspired by the famous Hummel kit of the 93-94 season, which was of course modeled by Ian Wright.

While aesthetically very pleasing, I have a feeling the remakes are just a marketing ploy. I mean look at Manchester United and Arsenal, both teams have gone from winning the league in my lifetime to fighting for champions league football. To me it feels like clubs use these kits to distract themselves from the disappointment of their current situation. Just another way to get even more money out of the fans.

And above all, they are not real. It’s something else to own the original. Let’s face it, we all love a bold retro shirt. Whether it’s an Italian ’90s top, a ’70s Brazil jersey, or an Aztec Mexico ’98 jersey, there’s definitely something psychological that makes retro more appealing.

Anyone who’s met me knows I’m a fan of old football shirts. I have a closet full of these, many of which hit the market before I was even born. My bank balance is constantly suffering from my growing desire to expand my collection. I swear to stop until a well-timed discount code from my favorite classic shirt shop shows up in my email and tempts me to buy three more tops.

This article will discuss what exactly it is that keeps bringing me and many others back to the shirts of the past.

nostalgic moments

Football is surrounded by nostalgia. With an evolving story, it constantly creates new moments and memories to look back on for years to come. The football jersey plays a big role in triggering the nostalgic feeling among the fans. Have you ever looked at an old football shirt and been reminded of a specific player, iconic goal or memorable moment? That’s where the nostalgia comes in.

For many, the desirability of a vintage shirt is often influenced by how successfully the team has worn it. As an integral part of a team’s identity, fans tend to associate it with their club’s success/failure on the field. Psychology studies have shown that we look back on our past through rose-tinted glasses and erase all negative memories from our memory. I think that also applies to football.

As a football fan, you’re far more likely to remember your team’s jersey from a triumphant title-winning season than a disappointing midfield result. Ask any Liverpool fan what their first thought is when they see the 05-06 home kit and they will all say the same thing. They will say Steven Gerrard’s long-range equalizer in the 90th minute of the FA Cup Final against West Ham. What they definitely won’t say is a humiliating 2-0 loss at Anfield to Benfica that knocked them out of the Champions League.

Same season, same gear, and exactly the same players, with only a month between games. One lives long in memory, while the other has been completely erased from the memory bank. That’s the rose-colored glasses in action.

Although this suggests to me that for an era or a moment to be remembered, one has to have experienced it. I do not agree with that. My favorite time for retro shirts is the late 80’s and early 90’s. From a cognitive perspective, I missed all of that era because of my age.

But if you show me the 1988 Netherlands home shirt, I will immediately associate it with Marco Van Basten’s legendary volley against the Soviet Union. Nothing I’ve ever experienced as such “in the moment” but can still clearly imagine. When you grow up a big football fan, the iconic moments of the past are just something you pick up on over time. YouTube, social media and an unhealthy accumulation of years in the Premier League growing up shaped much of what I know before 1998.

Left Field Designs

One of the main reasons for the rise of retro is the quirky designs of the past. Retro kits are notorious for being a little left-wing. This goes hand in hand with the subliminal longing of football fans for the extraordinary. We might not like to admit it, but we love to stand out from the crowd on a matchday. Vintage tops meet all the criteria of modern fashion. They are very distinctive, contain vibrant colors and have a story behind them.

On the other hand, current shirt designs have gotten a bit lazy. They are very original and very plain. They all seem to follow the same pattern; The kit creators can be seen on the top left and the club crest can be seen on the top right, with a monochromatic block in the background. They have become predictable and boring for fans.

I believe a jersey should be a visual representation of the team wearing it. It’s supposed to express their playing style. 94’s Nigerian flick was lively and jazzy, very much like the football they played. The France 98 jersey exuded a very noble vibe and symbolized a world champion team of legendary players. We have arguably two of the greatest teams (Liverpool and Manchester City) in Premier League history battling it out for the prestigious Premier League title each season. Neither carries distinctive kit that will be remotely distinguishable in the future.

As strange as that may sound, one of the first things that actually makes me want to buy a football shirt is the sponsor. Looking back at some of my favorites from the past, they all have a recognizable company on the front. I think most Milan fans would be able to tell you that their shirt sponsor was Opel in the 90’s. The same applies to fans of FC Bayern Munich and their club’s affiliation with T-Mobile. Brands that immediately make you associate with a football club just because their logo is featured on the front of the shirt.

There’s something so aesthetically pleasing about a good shirt sponsor. Especially in contrast to today’s sponsors who are chosen for their commercial value as opposed to the values ​​the sponsors represent. Of the twenty current Premier League teams, nine of them have a betting company as their shirt sponsor. None of them are memorable in any way, at least not for the right reasons.

That brings me nicely to my last reason, the modern football club culture.

Modern club culture

I touched on that a little above when I was ranting about Arsenal and Manchester United. Modern football culture is trapped in a highly commercialized world. Football is no longer a sport but a business. Arsenal and Manchester United are no longer clubs, they are brands. Supporters are viewed by clubs as customers, as opposed to supporters. It has left the culture very detached from the die-hard adherents of the old days.

Many clubs (or brands) in England are no longer run by ‘football people’ but by business people who are only interested in the financial opportunities that come with owning a football club. With the exception of a select few, the owners do not understand the deep-rooted football traditions and culture that have built up in this country over the years.

Instead of rewarding loyal fandom, clubs try to capitalize on it to make a quick buck. In recent years there has been an explosion of kits being released, a decision clearly driven by the merchandise revenue generated. Take Napoli for example, who have released a whopping 11 different tops this season. And no, that’s not a typo. I can understand the mood behind the tribute to Diego Maradona, an icon of world football and an important part of Napoli’s history. That being said, are three tribute shirts really necessary? As clumsy as that sounds, doesn’t Napoli only benefit from the death of their club icon?

The less I say about the Halloween kit the better. It would be forgivable if Napoli had a historic season, but they aren’t. Eliminated by Barcelona in the round of 32 from the Europa League. A 3rd place in Serie A, seven points behind rivals Milan. There is hardly a season that will remain in the memory of its fans for a long time.

I could talk endlessly about the exploitation of fans in football culture today, but that’s not what you’re here for.

However, modern football culture is an important factor in the appeal of vintage jerseys. They serve as an important reminder of times when football was less dictated by money. Aside from our memory, a retro football shirt is the only accessible item that can reconnect us with the old club culture.

The football shirt is often seen as a sign of our fan base and loyalty to a club. Anyone who wears something vintage gives the impression that they are a “real fan” and know their way around. At a time when the “armchair” followers and “glory hunters” are becoming more commonplace, vintage jerseys act as badges of legitimation. It separates the die-hards from the new kids on the block, the kind of fans who claim they’re “City till they die” but couldn’t name a Manchester City player before 2010.

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