Més que un club. It’s a motto of which FC Barcelona’s fans, directors and marketing department persistently remind us, but not without justification: in European football the club has always been something of an anomaly. As is perhaps to be expected for a club that exists as the world’s most positive and visible source of Catalan pride, Barça have always tended to have their own way of doing things. For a long time these differences extended to the team’s kit. Famously, Barcelona were the last major club in the modern era not to sully their shirt with a commercial sponsor. It seems hard to believe given today’s all too frequent Nike efforts, but not too long ago the blaugrana strip barely changed over the course of a decade. Produced by the Spanish company Meyba, this classic kit was (along with an innate dislike for Real Madrid) one of the few constants at the Camp Nou in the 1980s. The shirt is often listed as dating from 1984-89, but I see no difference in the kits worn either side of that period, which leaves me convinced that it remained unchanged for nine seasons between 1981 and 1990.
For the team it was a turbulent period characterised by strained relationships and only sporadic on-field success, not to mention a slew of big-money signings and big-name managerial casualties. The first of these was the aging Argentine Helenio Herrera, who despite picking up a Copa del Rey with Barça in 1981, could only lead the team to a disappointing fifth-place league finish. Herrera’s replacement was Udo Lattek. The West German maintained a prickly relationship with compatriot Bernd Schuster, but reignited a bond with the Danish forward Allan Simonsen — an old acquaintance from Lattek’s days at Borussia Mönchengladbach. Barcelona reached the final of the 1982 European Cup Winners’ Cup, which just so happened to be hosted that year at the Camp Nou. Though they went behind against Standard Liege, Barça’s home advantage eventually proved the difference, and goals from Simonsen and veteran striker Quini clinched the victory. Though the Catalans finished a close second to Real Sociedad in the league — with Quini securing the Pichichi top scorer trophy for the third season in a row — the Liga title continued to elude them.
Back row: Urruti, Sanchez, Schuster, Alexanko, Julio Alberto, Migueli; Front row: Carrasco, Victor, Alonso, Marcos, Maradona.
The plan to change that came in the shape of Diego Maradona, who arrived at Barcelona in the summer of 1982. The fee paid to Boca Juniors was a then-record £5 million, but the greatest player in the world seemed worth every penny, at least according to Barcelona’s elected president, Josep Lluís Núñez. Unfortunately the Argentine’s first season in Spain was plagued by a bout of hepatitis, causing him to spend three months on the sidelines. Maradona recovered in time to help Barcelona beat Real Madrid in the final of both cup competitions (the Copa del Rey and the Copa de la Liga), but they could only manage fourth in the league. Lattek departed that summer, and in stepped chain-smoking Argentine César Luis Menotti. Known as “El Flaco”, Menotti had coached Argentina at the last two World Cups; it was hoped that this factor that would help him bring out the best in Maradona. That plan was thrown into jeopardy just four games into the new season, when a reckless tackle by Athletic Bilbao’s Andoni Goikoetxea left the Argentine with a broken ankle. Maradona returned in time to play his part in a shockingly violent Copa del Rey final also against Bilbao, but it was a relatively meagre third place finish in the league that sealed Menotti’s fate.
Impressive results with Queens Park Rangers, and an endorsement from England coach Bobby Robson, helped Terry Venables’ fill the vacant seat on the bench at Barça. With Maradona having left that summer for Napoli, “El Tel” built his team around a strong back four, the commanding Schuster in midfield and a fellow Brit up front: Scottish striker Steve Archibald. It proved a winning combination, as Barça galloped to a tenth title — their first since 1974 — with a ten-point lead over Atlético Madrid. Venables’ was no one-season wonder: his team boasted a nucleus of Spanish internationals, including Victor, Migueli, Julio Alberto, Caldere, Marcos and Carrasco. The side proved strong enough to reach the European Cup Final for only the second time in 1986. Their opponents in Seville were the talented Romanians of Steaua Bucharest. A typically close final ended goalless after extra-time and Barcelona’s lacklustre display was confounded by a remarkable penalty shoot-out, in which they saw all four of their penalties saved by Steaua keeper Helmuth Duckadam.
Carrasco, Migueli, Julio Alberto, Marcos and Caldere.
Keen to recover from that blow, Venables signed two stars of that summer’s World Cup: Spain goalkeeper Andoni Zubizarreta (who would replace the veteran Urruti) and England centre-forward Gary Lineker. Fresh from having won the Golden Boot in Mexico, Lineker was expected to form a deadly partnership alongside Mark Hughes, who had arrived from Manchester United. Unfortunately the Welshman failed to settle in Catalonia, earning himself the pejorative nickname “El Toro” before being swiftly loaned out to Bayern Munich after a single season. Lineker on the other hand quickly made himself at home, and immediately endeared himself to the Barcelona faithful by scoring on his league debut after just two minutes. Later that season “El Matador” bagged a memorable hat-trick against Real Madrid, further cementing his place in Catalan hearts. But despite Lineker’s prolific goalscoring Barça were pipped to the title by Real Madrid for the second year running, this time by just a single point. However it was the ignominy of home and away defeats to Dundee in the UEFA Cup quarter-final later that season that most likely cost Venables his job just a few weeks into the 1987-88 campaign.
The Englishman’s caretaker replacement, Luis Aragonés, remained in charge for the rest of the what proved a tumultuous season on and off the pitch. A government clampdown on tax evasion had seen players asked to have their wages cut in order for the club to repay what they owed the authorities. The row reached its climax in April 1988 when the bulk of the squad convened at the Hotel Heredia calling on Nuñez to resign. In the end the president stayed, with most of his players departing instead. It was clearly time for a fresh start, and the man handed the task of leading Barça into a much-needed new era was Johan Cruyff. With a steadfast conviction in his footballing philosophy, the Dutchman introduced a style of play that had its roots in the Total Football of Ajax. The new manager seemed less than taken with the team he inherited, moulding his new side around several new players: Bakero, Goikoetxea, Amor, Beguiristain and Salinas. Victor, Schuster and Archibald all left the club, while Cruyff preferred the tall Salinas as a target man up front, forcing Lineker out wide on the right wing. From his new position the Englishman inevitably found the net less frequently, but did provide the cross for Barcelona’s first goal in the 1989 European Cup Winners’ Cup Final, in which they beat Sampdoria 2-0.
Bakero, Beguiristain, Salinas, Eusebio; Koeman, Laudrup, Stoichkov.
Lineker rejoined Venables at Tottenham Hotspur later that summer. Carrasco and Quini also left Camp Nou, with Dutch defender Ronald Koeman and the elegant Dane Michael Laudrup arriving. 1989-90 turned out to be the final season for Barcelona’s now familiar kit, in which they had experienced such extreme highs and lows. In 1990 the shirt was modified for the first time since 1981 with the inclusion of a subtle stripe detail woven through the fabric of the shirt. By now Cruyff had begun to assemble what became known as the “Dream Team”, signing the Bulgarian Hristo Stoichkov and plucking homegrown prospects Guardiola and Ferrer from the “B” team. Barcelona finally won the league at Cruyff’s third attempt in 1991, initiating a period of domination that would last for four seasons. Despite losing that year’s Cup Winners’ Cup Final to Manchester United (in which Barça reject Hughes scored twice) the Catalans maintained their momentum in Europe the following season, reaching the European Cup Final at Wembley, where once again they faced Italian champions Sampdoria. A typically close but absorbing contest was settled in extra-time by a bullet-like free-kick from the boot of Koeman. In recognition of the occasion, at the final whistle the team quickly threw on home shirts for the trophy presentation (they’d worn an orange away kit during the match), in which the club’s official captain Alexanko (now playing the role of substitute) was given the honour of hoisting aloft European football’s ultimate prize.
Barcelona’s Wembley victory proved a fitting conclusion to its long association with Meyba. In 1992 the club struck a deal with the Turin-based company Kappa, whose Madrid-white branding along the sleeves of the new shirt caused immediate consternation among fans. Cruyff’s “Dream Team” won four Liga titles in a row, their one misstep a 4-0 capitulation at the hands of Milan in the European Cup Final in 1994. Following Cruyff’s departure, Bobby Robson led a Ronaldo-inspired Barça to a record fourth Cup Winners’ Cup success, before Louis Van Gaal and Frank Rijkaard achieved further success in the Dutch tradition. But it was under Cruyff disciple Guardiola that the Dutchman’s footballing vision reached its extreme peak, and inevitable conclusion. Between 2009 and 2012 Barcelona became an almost unstoppable force at home and in Europe, developing a style of possession football that became known by the onomatopaeic term tiki-taka. Of course, this period of consistency was contrasted by annual — and at times radical — changes to the club’s once-iconic strip. A complete reversal from the 1980s, when Barça changed everything but their kit.
*Exact date unknown
Having devoted a vast portion of my waking (and non-waking) life to football I’ve become pretty good at identifying football shirts and ascertaining their date and provenance. Yet even with the wonders of the internet at my disposal and several bona fide experts on the case, I have yet to establish the precise origin of this rare Brazil shirt.
It was given to me in the summer of 1991 by an Italian teenager whom I hadn’t met until the evening his father, Dr. Consoli, a well-appointed local surgeon, took me and my family out for dinner at a remote restaurant in the Tuscan hills. It was one of those hidden places that can only be reached by a seemingly endless drive along dark and winding country roads, but then you finally enter to find the joint bustling with locals and the requisite display of Fiorentina posters plastered all over the walls. Anyway, after a typically rustic blow-out we returned into town to the Consoli family’s villa in Scarperia. The doctor’s two teenage sons, Lorenzo and Giacomo, were more than happy to show me and my younger brother their impressive collection of shirts, the jewel of which hung on Lorenzo’s bedroom wall. I instantly recognised it as a white number 20 Italy shirt from the early ’80s, but my jaw must have hit the floor when Lorenzo quickly confirmed that it was indeed the shirt worn by Paolo Rossi against Cameroon in the 1982 World Cup. I was too much in awe to ask how he’d got hold of it, but evidently Dr. Consoli had friends in very high places.
Paolo Rossi photographed shortly after Italy’s 1-1 draw with Cameroon in Vigo on June 23rd, 1982. The Juventus striker has clearly just swapped shirts with an opponent — how his shirt later found its way onto an Italian teenager’s bedroom wall remains a mystery.
In recognition of my knowledge and enthusiasm, Lorenzo kindly offered me the adidas Brazil shirt reproduced in the photographs on this page. Though Brazil had worn an adidas kit at the 1978 World Cup, I knew this not to be a conventional Brazil shirt, which in 1991 had been manufactured by Topper for a decade. I also knew that adidas had produced the Brazilian football team’s kit at the last two Olympic Games, where in lieu of being able to use the CBF badge the shirt had instead featured the word “BRASIL” emblazoned across the chest. But without much means of further research, and my Italian not what it is now, I simply thanked Lorenzo for the lovely gift and we went downstairs to the kitchen to watch the Copa América match between Colombia and Uruguay that had just kicked off. That’s my last memory of the evening — I wore my new mystery Brazil shirt a lot during the rest of the summer and the one that followed, then sometime later I lost track of it.
I only came across it again this summer while visiting my parents in England, after my mum found it at the bottom of a drawer somewhere. To my surprise it now fits me better than ever, and so I brought it back with me to New York. Since then I’ve recommenced — or rather, commenced — my research, for which I am now aided by the endless supply of online information. I first checked for images of the Brazil teams at the 1984 and 1988 Olympic Games. The shirts used in Los Angeles and Seoul were each made by adidas, and both featured the “BRASIL” lettering, but neither matched the shirt I had in my possession. I then wondered if it might be older than I had believed. Brazil did not compete in the Moscow games in 1980, and though my shirt doesn’t seem that old, I went back even further to 1976. As I suspected the kit worn in Montreal, while differing from the CBF strip of the period, bears even less resemblance to the shirt in question.
The Brazil team that finished silver medalists at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. Keen followers of Brazilian football will recognise former international sweeper Mauro Galvao (back row, fourth from left) and 1994 World Cup-winning captain Dunga (front row, second from left).
Digging a little deeper I felt I was getting warmer when I learned of an event known as the Pan-American Games, held every four years the year before the Olympics. After viewing several fuzzy YouTube videos of dubious source I am sadly no closer to a definitive answer. At the 1987 edition held in Indianapolis Brazil won the competition wearing the same shirts used at the ’84 Olympics. Four years earlier in Caracas they’d finished runners-up wearing a kit that appears to be a hybrid between their regular Topper strip and the shirts used in 1976. I have so far been unable to find any photographic or video evidence of Brazil’s games at the 1979 tournament in San Juan.
The Brazil side that finished runners-up at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul featured a host of players who would enjoy successful careers playing in Europe. Back row: André Cruz, Taffarel, Luiz Carlos, Aloisio, Ademir, Jorginho; front row: Bebeto, Romario, Milton, Geovani, Andrade.
Having exhausted all my leads I decided it was time to seek outside help. I contacted John Devlin, Scottish football shirt expert and author of True Colours, but he could provide no further information. I also wrote to São Paulo-based kit nerd Evaldo Rui Oliveira Junior, who digitally reproduces historic football kits in meticulous detail on his site Erojkit. He agreed that the shirt was from the 1980s, but suggested it was released purely for commercial purposes, and never used in an actual match. I even submitted it to Old Football Shirts, an online photographic football shirt archive, but have yet to hear any news. More recently I came across two shirts for sale online — one located in Los Angeles and another in Brasilia — each of which were remarkably similar to mine. The only real difference was that both had basic V-necks and green sleeve stripes (mine are blue). I contacted both sellers in the hope of gleaning some further insight into their respective shirt’s history, but neither shared my level of interest nor obsessive need to solve this particular puzzle.
Two shirts recently spotted for sale online in Los Angeles and Brasilia. The primary differences between my shirt and the one on the left are the V-neck collar and the colour of the sleeve stripes.
So after many, many hours of detective work I am no closer to an answer than I was a few months ago — or even twenty years ago for that matter. If anybody out there cares to weigh in or offer any additional clues I would be very appreciative. In the meantime I have found Lorenzo on Facebook, so perhaps it’s time I just asked him…
In the early-nineties, when the replica shirt industry was in its infancy and “mail order” was the closest thing to online shopping, South American club shirts were like gold dust. Even in today’s global marketplace they are are seldom found in stores, so imagine my surprise when twenty-two years ago I walked into a small sports shop in my hometown to find the 1989-90 River Plate shirt hanging on a rack beside several other Argentine shirts. My friend and fellow football enthusiast Tom bought the Boca Juniors shirt from the same period (the one with the FIAT sponsor) and I seem to recall they even had Independiente. Quite how this small-town establishment had managed to procure such an exotic selection of Buenos Aires-based club shirts remained a mystery, but rather than ask questions I quickly bought the shirt with “la banda roja” (it cost a mere £10) before someone else got hold of it.
I’d never seen a River Plate match on television, and only ever seen grainy photos of the Argentine league in World Soccer magazine, to which I was a monthly subscriber. Without internet or even satellite television, this was the only way for a twelve-year-old to stay informed of football taking place on the other side of the globe. From what the magazine pages told me, everything about Argentine football seemed different from the increasingly corporate game in Europe: the pitches were covered in ticker-tape, all the players seemed to have long hair, and they were still using the original adidas Tango balls.
After a long barren spell River Plate had started winning again in the late-1970s, and in 1986 won the Copa Libertadores and Intercontinental Cup for the first time. But no sooner were those historic victories achieved that the team began to break up. The elegant Uruguayan playmaker Enzo Francescoli had already left for France, and fan favourite Norberto Alonso retired in 1987, leaving a gaping hole in midfield. River then suffered a mass exodus that including some of South Americas’s most talented and experienced players. Between 1988 and 1989 goalkeepers Pumpido and Goycoechea, defenders Ruggeri and Gutierrez, midfielders Gallego, Borghi, Gorosito, and forwards Caniggia, Troglio, Funes, Alzamendi and Balbo all parted ways with the club. At the same time defender Daniel Passarella — the only outfield player from Argentina’s 1978 World Cup squad still active at a high level — returned to “Los Millonarios” for one final season. Immediately following his retirement he took over the coaching of the club, his first experience of management, and led the team to an unexpected Primera División title.
River Plate’s kit barely changed in this period, maintaining a classic adidas template throughout the 1980s. In 1989 their sponsor switched from Fate O (an Argentine tyre manufacturer) to Peugeot, and they also ditched the lion logo that had appeared on the shirt since 1984. The 1989-90 season in Argentina was the fifth and final edition to dispense with the traditional format of the Metropolitano and Nacional championships, and instead follow a standard European-style league system. The decidedly unglamourous River side kept pace with defending champions Independiente for the duration of the campaign, eventually surpassing their rivals from Avellaneda in week 27 of the season. In May, having racked up a five-point advantage, River held on for a draw in the head-to-head clash with Independiente. Two brilliant goals from striker Ramón Medina Bello in their next home match against Estudiantes were enough to secure La Banda the title with two games to spare.
Less than a month later, when the world’s national teams convened in Italy ahead of the World Cup, several of the key men in River’s title victory — including Medina Bello, Gustavo Zapata, Leonardo Astrada, Héctor Enrique, Juan José Borreli and the Uruguayan Rubén Da Silva — were missing. Carlos Bilardo’s Italia ’90 squad contained just two players from River’s championship-winning side: Sergio Batista, a midfield survivor from 1986, and defender José Serrizuela, who converted the first penalty in each of Argentina’s shoot-out victories during the tournament. There was no room either for River’s promising young forward, Gabriel Batistuta. The striker had settled quickly at El Monumental, scoring some spectacular goals in the process, only to be dropped inexplicably by Passarella midway through the season. Both parties claimed there was never any dispute between them; indeed when Passarella refused to select long-haired players for his Argentina squad in 1998, Batistuta was the one man for whom he made exception. “El Bati” left River and moved across town to bitter rivals Boca Juniors, where he forged a lethal partnership with Diego Latorre and soon caught the attention of Fiorentina.
The Primera División format became much more convoluted in 1990-91. The league portion of the competition was split into two rounds, the Apertura and Clausura, the combined points of which would determine a final league table, from which the top two would meet in a two-legged final to decide the title. River finished second in the Apertura but only tenth in the Clausura, and third overall. Their shirt was identical to the previous season, except the V-neck had become a proper collar. What I like most about this shirt is its construction. Unlike the modern kit on which River’s famous red sash is printed within the material, here it is sewn into the garment as a separate piece of fabric, lending the shirt and its most distinctive feature a little extra weight.
In 2014 I visited Buenos Aires for the first time, and one warm afternoon I took a two-hour walk up Avenida Luis Maria Campos and Avenida del Libertador, through the affluent Belgrano neighbourhood to the leafy barrio of Núñez. The purpose of this epic pilgrimage was of course the Estadio Monumental Antonio Vespucio Liberti, the home stadium of River Plate and the venue for Argentina’s historic first World Cup triumph in 1978. As I approached the stadium, I began to notice a sharp increase in pro-River and anti-Boca graffiti, while suddenly all billboards had gone from advertising cellphones and ice cream to candidates for the River Plate presidency. Avenida Lidoro J. Quinteros looks like any other residential street, but there at the end of it, like a giant Coca-Cola endorsed UFO, sits the national team’s stadium.
Fittingly for a club that likes to call itself “El Mas Grande”, El Monumental is the largest stadium in the country. Though parts of the construction look as if they’ve barely seen a lick of paint since 1978, the ground’s ultra-modern Museo River is the benchmark against which all future stadium tours must be measured. They’ve literally thought of everything: hundreds of trophies, goals on video, an alphabetical listing of every player to represent “Los Millonarios, a gallery of River-inspired artwork, plus an interactive time tunnel in which River’s successes and failures on the pitch are placed in context with important events in Argentina’s history. Alongside the vintage match-worn shirts on display is a graphic illustrating every River kit from 1901 to 2014, which is how I was able to finally pinpoint mine. Visitors are even allowed to enter the dressing room and stroll around the athletics track. Looking out into the vast arena form the comfort of the stand’s old wooden seats, as our tour guide regaled us with facts about the stadium, I took tremendous pleasure in wearing a shirt I’d bought over two decades ago, and hung onto ever since for a moment just like this. Incidentally, modern reproductions of the classic eighties shirt are now on sale at the official River Plate store for 229 pesos.