The 1990s had not been kind to Italy. While the national team had continued to reach the latter stages of major tournaments, they had been thwarted by penalty kicks in the three successive World Cups. The new century did not quite promise a new beginning, but it certainly signaled a new look. Italy arrived at Euro 2000 sporting an innovative kit design that proved highly influential. Made from a figure-hugging blend of polyester and spandex, Kappa’s “Kombat” shirt accentuated the wearer’s physique, lending players an added degree of athleticism while supposedly preventing defenders from resorting to the cynical tactic of shirt tugging.
The shirt was a lighter shade of blue for Italy, more akin to Napoli than the national team. Other unprecedented details included deliberately exposed stitching and the repositioning of the three stars (for each World Cup win) to the sleeve, where the inclusion of the Kappa logo represented another novelty which is quite commonplace today. Upon its launch the revolutionary kit was surrounded in hype and speculation, and fans were initially skeptical about the idea of their heroes parading in skin-tight soccer uniforms. As it happened, the shorts and socks remained fairly conventional, while Italy’s style conscious set of internationals opted for wearing their shirt a size too large, providing them with a decidedly more comfortable fit with which to face the rest of Europe’s elite. With its retro badge and spare design, the shirt itself had a sort of modern simplicity, which at the time was a breath of fresh air following the anything-goes approach to kit design that had borne some truly garish results in the 1990s.
Coached by former World Cup-winning captain Dino Zoff, Italy boasted an exceptional squad going into the tournament, despite having lost first-choice goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon and Inter striker Christian Vieri, who’d netted five goals at France ’98. Their understudies proved more than capable: Francesco Totti, Alessandro Del Piero and Filippo Inzaghi all grabbed goals as Italy advanced to the semi-final. In Amsterdam against joint-hosts Holland, Francesco Toldo had the game of his life between the posts, saving three penalties – one in normal time and two in a shoot-out – as the Azzurri marched to a final against World Champions France.
In Rotterdam Italy were seconds away from their first European trophy in thirty-two years when Silvain Wiltord capitalized on a rare error at the back to equalise. In extra-time, David Trezeguet fired home a spectacular “Golden Goal” winner. As the country recovered from another bitter defeat, Zoff resigned in protest following public criticism from Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. A few months later, having moved to the northern Italian town of Pavia, I picked up my own Italy 2000 shirt (long-sleeved version), no doubt recognising its potential cultural significance.
Giovanni Trapattoni’s Italy wore an almost identical jersey at the 2002 World Cup, where they were controversially eliminated at the hands of the co-hosts Korea amidst an avalanche of conspiracy theories. Over the next decade Kappa’s “Kombat” uniforms were adopted by some of Europe’s top club sides — including Roma, Auxerre, Sampdoria, Real Betis and Werder Bremen — while spawning a host of imitators. The era may have finally ended in 2012 however, when Roma abruptly announced the end of their long-standing relationship with the brand, citing a significant decline in quality.
Italy ditched the Kappa shirts in 2003, and replaced them with uniforms by Puma. While the Azzurri have had more on-field success while wearing the German manufacturer — winning the World Cup in 2006 and reaching the final of Euro 2012 — none have proven as memorable or as popular as those worn by Euro 2000’s runners-up. The influence of the “Kombat” series mustn’t be underestimated: over the last few seasons football strips have become increasingly slim-fitted to the extent that today it’s not uncommon to see players take the field in truly skin-tight shirts, confirmation that Kappa’s radical departure in kit design was several years ahead of its time.