Over the last decade or so, a gigantic football fan group has formed. It spans the world, stays in touch virtually and has helped propel a massive legal and illegal marketplace. It usually isn’t partisan and doesn’t back just one club or nation, but rather appreciates them all, from the Champions League winner to the tiny Estonian non-league club. This group unites behind the fabric that colours the beautiful game: they collect football shirts.
Now, many people consider themselves collectors because they buy their club’s new shirt every season and have a handful to choose from when they visit the stadium or a pub. But there are people out there who have hundreds of football shirts. Often representing nations or clubs they know barely anything about.
I am one of these weird people. I have around 500 national team shirts and recently set aside an entire room for them. Surprisingly, I don’t have the biggest collection in the world, not even in my small niche of national team shirts, nor is it just me and a few likeminded souls. The largest network of collectors in Germany alone, where I am based, has almost 12,000 polyester fans.
But why would anyone amass a massive pile of old clothes? The answer is not universal and every collector out there will be fascinated by a different aspect of this weird hobby. For me, collecting a national team shirt from every country in the world is a way to learn a little bit more about this planet, its inhabitants and football.
I have always been a geography nerd and learned all the capitals and flags of the world when I was a 10-year-old boy. It fascinated me to know that tiny little bit of information about far-flung places. Now, I own my own little piece of almost every country in the world. I can see some of their aesthetics, some national symbolism and often find the flags I learned as a kid embroidered on the shirts in my wardrobe.
However, that was really just the start and what got me hooked on collecting. What keeps me going are the connections I make on the way. You can easily buy a football shirt from most of the top 50 national teams in the world, but beyond that going to a random online shop isn’t an option. If you really want to get a football shirt from, say, Malawi, there is no way around chatting to Malawians! The manufacturers of such shirts, Adidas in this case, just reject Malawi as a market too small to be worth selling replicas.
Watching the Africa Cup of Nations and seeing half of the fans in self-made t-shirts with national symbols, as they cannot sport the official kit due to the unavailability hurts – but it also makes collecting such shirts all the more interesting. Without keeping records, I would assume that I have chatted to well over 1000 national team players, coaches, physios, sports journalists, player agents or FA officials from around the globe over the last decade. To unite the colours of the world in my wardrobe, I had to speak to the world.
The Holy Grail to any collector is a so-called match-worn football shirt. Yes, that’s right, a shirt that was actually worn in a game and often comes stinky and with grass stains all over it. Ironically, a lot of non-collectors find this weird, while at the same time everyone seems to acknowledge that Bobby Moore’s boot from the World Cup ’66 final definitely belongs to the National Football Museum in Manchester. Such items, used in the moment of glory or failure, are simply historic. They present 90 minutes of football history. Owning well over 100 such match-worn shirts myself, I thus hold 90 minutes of the history of all these countries. I have not been there, I might not have witnessed it, but I can relive it by holding this hallowed item in my hands.
For reasons that are not entirely clear, the football shirt collector scene has grown significantly over the last decade. The internet and platforms like eBay made buying shirts and exchanging with other collectors very easy and probably attracted many more to give it a go. That nurtured an ever-growing amount of football shirt shops, blogs and homepages and even led to a “kit con”, which will be staged in Edinburgh later this year. On the downside, it also led to a massive market of counterfeits, which are getting better every year. It never was easier to collect and harder to avoid fakes.
In the coming weeks, five pieces of football history of random countries will be further explored in an attempt to explain what is so fascinating about collecting often plain or even ugly pieces of polyester. A collection of shirt stories, if you will.
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