Shirt power: how football kits got political
From BLM to gay pride, local teams are showing the big boys of the Premiership how to do football strip politics.
In the memorable words of kung fu-kicking poet Eric Cantona: “You can change your wife, your politics, your religion. But never can you change your favourite football team.”
Mais bien sûr, Eric. But what about the politics of your football team?
There’s something brewing down below, in the game’s grassroots: a growing trend in non-league football, with clubs far from Premier League riches swapping sponsorship from local plumbers for messages with bite.
For obvious reasons – ie, financial ones – non-league teams have traditionally relied upon off-the-peg template kits from the big brands. But the market for boutique designs with progressive messaging is booming, courtesy of a company based in Caserta, Italy.
Rage Sport is a kit manufacturer with morals, providing ethical alternatives for clubs across Europe. Set up by self-proclaimed political activists, they pay fair wages, manufacture locally and are a proudly, defiantly not-for-profit organisation.
“It’s a dream I’ve always had, to produce sportswear for teams that believe in our same anti-fascist and anti-racist ideals,” says Maurizio Affuso on the decision to start the company.
The design that put them on the map was their 2018 collab with Clapton CFC, a non-league team from east London. Having hoped to sell 250 copies of a shirt with a motif honouring the Spanish Civil War’s anti-fascist forces, they received £50,000 worth of pre-orders in a month, not to mention considerable publicity for both club and cause.
Across London, this coming season another local team are wearing their hearts on their chests. NW London FC, which draws players from Kilburn and Cricklewood, will be declaring “Black Lives Matter” across their new, Rage Sport-produced kit.
“It’s our responsibility, being a multicultural club, to carry that message” says co-founder Wasim Khan. “Being younger owners, we thought that, instead of looking for a sponsor and gaining a couple of grand for the year, why not put Black Lives Matter on the shirt and represent the movement?”
Another team using Rage Sport to amplify their message are United Glasgow F.C. In keeping with their social focus and player recruitment policy, the Scottish club declare “Refugees Welcome” under their club crest.
“Our approach with anything design-related is to be very visible,” says first team coach Christopher Priestley. “It’s not confrontational, but it’s not being afraid to be confrontational either.”
Equally, their away shirt features rainbow sleeves, a pushback against football’s longstanding and deep-seated casual homophobia.
“In the professional game, you get patches put on strips for a single match. But we get a new strip every three years, so [we] have to think about what campaigns are a permanent aspect of what we’re looking to do.
“Our kit doesn’t carry any sponsorship and we don’t sell replica shirts,” he continues. “We try to keep football as a community asset first and foremost.”
Still, with commercial sponsorship being a valuable revenue stream for many non-league teams, the choice to replace – or even repel – sponsors with politics isn’t easy.
“Sponsorships are crucial,” acknowledges Khan, “so for us it was absolutely a gamble.”
Fortunately, more and more local teams are taking that gamble. Ballybrack Seagulls, a social football club from Dublin, sought out Rage Sport following the success of the Clapton kit.
“We were getting generic jerseys and it didn’t feel right, even when putting our own crest on them,” explains founder Wayne O’Sullivan. So the Seagulls chose “More Blacks, More Dogs, More Irish” – an inversion of the hostile notices displayed by London landlords in the ’60s – for a now-postponed friendly in England.
“It’s not to beat anyone about the past,” O’Sullivan clarifies, “but just to say: ‘We’ve overwritten that.’” And he feels the message applies to modern-day Ireland, too. “I heard [Republic of Ireland player] Cyrus Christie say there were kids taking the piss because of his skin colour. The kids didn’t know any better, but we’re here to tell them.” As he points out, modern Ireland is a melting pot. “It doesn’t matter where you come from. You don’t have to show us your papers.”
And yet, as the 2021 season looms, for all the instances of Premier League players kneeling in solidarity with BLM, there’s no clear path for political messages ascending the football pyramid.
No matter. It’s about holding space and setting an example, according to United Glasgow’s Christopher Priestley. “There is a trickling-up effect of what becomes normal. We’ve challenged the sporting landscape in Glasgow by being present, by asking the question: ‘If we do things this way, what is the response?’”
As for Rage Sport, big money partnerships are not their aim. “There has never been requests from ‘professional’ teams – and we don’t care!” declares Maurizio Affuso.“ We work with teams that believe and fight in our ideals. Rage Sport is this and will always be this.”