A colourful history of blue

No international tournament is complete without the azzurri shirt. It is one of the most iconic garments the sport has to offer. This coming Sunday, at Euro 2008, the deep blues of Italy will match-up against the clashing red and gold of Spain – a kit, rather like the character of the Spanish team itself, fiery but often queasy. The grinding, winning football of the nazionale ensures that we usually see plenty of the distinctive colour, the almost unnerving staying power of the team so frequently evident. Perhaps only the gauche tones of Brazil, the selecao, is more recognizable, but certainly not quite so considered, the brash hues of green and gold a little too overbearing for us Europeans. Gentry takes a look back at the Italian shirts of the past to see how the fashionable shirts may have contributed to their sporting successes.

Football history is made of personal memories, shared moments registering wildly between infatuation and heartbreak. There is no team in world football more frustrating, more romantic and more dastardly than the Italians. Sure, they do it. But they always do it the hard way. They monopolize tension, escaping defeat time and again, long after safety seemed possible. Many a misguided British pundit rattles on about the ‘dark arts’ employed by the azzurri, as if common sense were some kind of voodoo, as if allowing others to make their own mistakes wasn’t at the very heart of the most practical sporting philosophies. Unlike so many teams of the current era, Italy have retained a distinct identity. There is a great weight on every player in the Italian team, one of honour and dishonour, of victory and defeat, of an approach to football particular to the peninsula. Thus, to wear the shirt, as a fan or as a player, you are taking a stance, you believe life is about certain things, you understand that it is more important to win than anything else, often at the cost of high-entertainment and fleeting glory. As Jose Morinhio put it so sweetly, it is more important to be happy after the game than during the game.

One of the first Italian national shirts to tickle the fashion circles could be the tight and complementing jersey of the early 1970s. Despite the humiliation of the team by probably the greatest international side of all time (yes, THAT Brazil team), The Italians managed to look good, even as they were made to look so bad. The simple, style, did wonders for the players so hindered by side-partings and moustaches. The seventies saw many a great football shirt: Cryuff’s Holland in their brilliant orange; West Germany in their spotless white; and even England in their majestic red. Many of today’s kits hark back to this era in the hope of recovering their cut and jive. It was the Italians, however, who offered a Rugby-influenced touch of class that would lay the fashionista foundations of tournaments to come.

Recollections of international Football in the 80s, for Italians, are dominated by images of Tardelli screaming in desperate disbelief (see above). Rightly so, as Tardelli, Rossi and co, were lucky enough to wear what might well be one of the most stylish football shirts ever conceived, This neat polo-style number was perfectly finished with red, green and white on the collars and sleeves. The v-neck harked back to the seventies and the deeper, deadlier shade of blue spoke of a more serious and difficult Italian team. Indeed, the no-nonsense physicality and practicality of the azzurri in this special year blew everyone else away.

It wasn’t until 1994 that Italy truly re-emerged as style contenders, once again. Their Diadora numer was loose, baggy and expressive, much like their definitive number 10 Roberto Baggio. Il divino codino (the divine ponytail) with his snaking, shimmying hips and swiveling turns, showed off the silky fabric of the most outrageous and comic-book-like outfit in the history of the team. The competition was blessed with beautiful sunshine, which served only to naturally select the tournament’s stand out teams, beaming dazzilingly on old enemies Brazil and Itlay once again. Although Baggio’s miraculous turn ended in tragedy, would the images of him blubbing in defeat be so memorable if his shirt was, say, mint green?

In Euro 2000, another bitter defeat awaited Italy, this time in the final to new-old-enemies France. However, apparel-wise, the nazionale made huge strides in donning the now standard stretch-style shirt (even Tottenham Hotspur have copied it). The revolutionary material was intended to make it easier for the referees to spot when a team was pulling on a player’s shirt, the effect exagerrated by the thin, elastic material. The results backfired somewhat with Marc Juliano’s penchant for dragging players back. In 2006 Italy were again on the cusp of shirt innovation, adopting a lightweight material that allowed the skin to breath more effectively. Uncomfortable for fans (it was like wearing NASA designed pajamas) but efficient for the players, it undoubtedly played its part in the tireless displays that drove the team to world cup glory.

This year, Italy will be relying upon their rather retro shirt, with the oddly pixelated numbers that UEFA seemed to have imposed, to lead them all the way. If they come up against Holland in the semi-finals, surely Sepp Blatter must step in and award Italy the result in advance purely on the basis of the choice of the Dutch team to wear sky blue socks with their bright orange shirts and shirts. I mean, really.

Here’s a run through the Italian sides of the past some of their most resplendent attire:

Mr. Paolo Cabrelli

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