Editor's Note: Neal Heard is a sports brand consultant and author of "The Football Shirts Book: A Connoisseurs Guide," published by Ebury Penguin. His touring exhibition "The Art of the Football Shirt" will open in New York and Los Angeles in July 2018.
(CNN) - "You're not fit to wear the shirt!" Pity the poor footballer, shuddering on hearing this chant from the baying massed crowd. To the fan, the disciple, this is one of the worst insults they can throw at a player. The shirt is sacrosanct. It declares who you are and where your allegiances lie, and, as importantly, separates you from the dreaded "other," that lot across the tracks who wear a different strip to you.
Is it any wonder that the global juggernauts responsible for the latest offerings of our heroes take the design of the kit very, very, seriously? Brands like Adidas, Nike and Puma have specific departments, packed with designers from across the globe, working away to make sure they get the kit right. And never are their efforts under more scrutiny than when they're designing for the World Cup, the international apex of the sport.
The kit offerings for the upcoming tournament in Russia have been more ruthlessly inspected and discussed than any that have come before, as the football shirt makes its transition to fashion status symbol. Sleek new football sites and magazines like SoccerBible, Mundial and Copa90, fastidiously cover the garms for a youthful, fashion-conscious audience, as do street style sites like Highsnobiety and Hypebeast. On social media, where a photo of Nike's new Nigeria kit garners 45,000 likes and hundreds of comments on Instagram, the change in the game is even more noticeable.
Gone are the days of new jerseys being announced to the world with a shot of the full team, sat with arms folded, smiling for the camera. Today, a new shirt is debuted in an edgy fashion shoot, often with neither ball nor pitch in sight. Last year, Tottenham Hotspur took things a step further and staged a lavish kit launch party at a North London nightclub, where grime MC AJ Tracey performed for a trendy crowd.
For this year's World Cup, designers at the big brands have largely decided to reinterpret past offerings in fashion-forward ways. Adidas have revisited World Cup 1990 for both Germany and Colombia, giving the two iconic Italia 90 design classics a 21st-century remix. For Belgium, the grand old brand has revisited another classic from the European Championships of 1984, argyle-print chest pattern and all, while Spain and Russia look back at uniforms from the 1994 World Cup and the 1988 Olympics respectively.
It's not just Adidas either. For the brand's latest Brazil offering, the Nike design team went to the Sao Paulo's football museum to inspect the revered jersey worn by the 1970 World Cup-winning team, just to make sure they got the shade of yellow exactly right in their new jersey. The brand also looked to the past for its imaginative Nigeria offering, one of the most talked-about jerseys of the tournament. Taking inspiration from team's "Super Eagles" nickname, it features a bold neon green pattern that echoes the pattern of eagle wing feathers, and is reminiscent of Nigeria's jerseys at the 1994 World Cup, where the Nigerian team made its first appearance.
Dan Farron, football design director at Nike, explained in a statement, "With Nigeria, we wanted to tap into the attitude of the nation. We built this kit and collection based on the players' Naija identities."
Indeed, to my mind, the best jerseys are achieved when the traditions and flavors of the country are prioritized. My personal favorite from this year's World Cup is the Adidas production for Japan, which draws heavily on the ancient Sachiko stitching technique, with the rough white threads on an indigo base being reinterpreted onto the new shirt. I also admire Puma's Switzerland jersey: the contours of its mountain ranges make up the jersey's pattern.
Jersey historians will know that taking a country's history and indigenous culture into the design process is nothing new, and previous offerings of this genre have produced shirts that now find themselves in the pantheon of top football shirt design.
Think of Mexico's 1998 World Cup uniform, printed with the Aztec calendar, or one of my favorites, Adidas' Nigeria kits for 1994 World Cup in the US, with traditional Nigerian fabric tribal patterns on both home and away kits. (The host's away jerseys also deserve an honorable mention: The denim-look fabric covered with fluttering white stars screamed U-S-A.)
It will be interesting to see which of this year's World Cup shirts will be revered in years to come, but my money is on Nigeria and Germany. As for who will reign supreme on the pitch? Well, that's a whole other story...