The making of a World Cup kit

What goes into a World Cup jersey? More than you think.

One of the most anticipated moments of a World Cup comes well before the first whistle blows. Before the fans gather around their televisions. Before the teams arrive — and before the rosters are even set.

It’s when the kits are revealed.

Click on a kit to enlarge

As uniforms have evolved from simple equipment to elevated fashion, the conversation around team jerseys has become an integral part of global soccer culture.

“It’s a lens through which a lot of national identity goes through,” said Stewart Scott-Curran, who worked on multiple World Cup kits as a designer at Nike.

Nike will outfit the most countries (13) of any manufacturer at this year’s World Cup. Seven countries will wear Adidas; six will wear Puma; the remaining six will each be represented by smaller brands.

At least 64 kits — jerseys, shorts and socks — will be worn at the World Cup in Qatar. The shirts typically garner the most attention.

And each one tells a story.

The run-up to a World Cup is full of questions for brands and teams. How can you ensure that a player has the best product possible? How do you capture the essence of a nation in a shirt? How will it satisfy athletes and fans?

“You use those [World Cups] as a landmark, a moment to shift the aesthetic and the innovation around a sport,” said Pete Hoppins, the senior design director of global soccer apparel at Nike from 2016 to 2020. “That’s almost the perfect time to release a new look.”

From concept to release, the creation process for a World Cup shirt generally takes 15 to 16 months. That development can take multiple forms — materials and fabric upgrades; new methods of seam and fit construction; different forms of graphic applications, such as heat transfer and embroidery — and is usually motivated by an ethos of providing an athlete with zero distractions.

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Product innovations like Italian brand Kappa’s skintight kits in the 2000s and German brand Puma’s kits for Cameroon — first the sleeveless in 2002, then the all-in-one kits in 2004, both of which were later banned by FIFA — marked important moments in the world of technical kit design. All of those were intended to give their wearers a competitive advantage at a time when shirt-pulling was a common problem on the field.

These shirts optimized for players aren’t exactly the same as those most fans buy, but brands strive to keep the looks as similar as possible. Every addition to a shirt, from a collar to a stripe, can elevate the cost of production.

Once product development is complete, work can begin on eye-catching visual designs.

Some of the most famous World Cup kits successfully managed to create a distinct national identity through a jersey. Denmark’s half-striped, half-solid home shirt in 1986 heralded a new era of graphic design in kits. The U.S. away shirt at the 1994 World Cup radiated a vision of Americana, with its floating stars and stonewashed denim print. The Nigeria home shirt in 2018 repurposed an iconic look with great success.

Hover on kit to zoom

Senegal Home

This year marks two decades since Senegal’s run to the 2002 World Cup quarterfinals, so it’s only fitting that the Lions of Teranga’s kit for Qatar is a tribute to that history-making squad. On the home shirt, the V-neck collar and cuffs — striped in the green, red and yellow of the nation’s flag — call back to the same features of the Le Coq Sportif kits worn by Senegal in its 2002 World Cup debut. With a tagline of “classic teams, classic matches, classic jerseys,” Puma’s home kits this year are retro-inspired designs that play heavy on nostalgia.

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Brazil Home

Brazil’s yellow shirt is one of the most iconic in sports. Each year, Nike must create a new look while also not deviating too far from tradition. “You can actually see how the yellow in their jersey has metamorphized,” said Susan Sokolowski, a sports product design professor at the University of Oregon. “Small tweaks will modernize the jersey and make it more relevant for the time.” The biggest of those developments this year: a graphic base print of a jaguar, a national icon that also represents the lightning-fast speed of the squad.

Brands often will send design teams to do on-the-ground research in a country and identify imagery and iconography that have a cultural connection. Local typography could be a source for a name font; mythical or historical motifs could become the focus of a print.

Insight from the federations could be just as valuable. Ahead of the 2010 World Cup, South Korean players told Nike’s designers that they saw themselves as warriors when taking the field. The word “warrior,” written in brush-and-ink calligraphy, then appeared on the interior side of the home and away shirt’s badge, over the heart.

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All of these ideas, of course, have to work within the bounds set in FIFA’s 128-page equipment regulations. Brand logos are restricted to a certain size, and the width of each player number on the back of a shirt must fall within two and five centimeters. Some concepts are off-limits — for example, the shape or outline of a country is banned.

Efforts at developing a country’s visual identity sometimes fall short. With the larger federations in particular, there’s a long list of stakeholders who need to be satisfied, and brands regularly field accusations of falling back on “templated” designs.

When a design works, though, it’s a hit. If a team happens to play well in a memorable kit, too, that’s an added benefit.

“As a kit designer, you want to design for the best teams on the planet and you want to see them win all the best cups on the planet,” said Craig Buglass, who designed Brazil’s winning Nike kit in 2002. “It’s probably the closest thing I will feel to scoring a winner of a World Cup.”

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Upon seeing the first kit designs for the Senegal national team in 2006, former Puma designer Rob Warner remembers, an assistant coach in the room broke into tears. Puma had featured an icon on each team’s jersey, and the coach remarked on how proud he felt to see the baobab, a tree that is a revered national symbol of Senegal, on display to the world.

“You’re creating something that’s going to represent a nation on what’s probably the world’s biggest platform,” said Warner, who also designed the Puma kit in which Italy won the 2006 World Cup. “If you can meet the athlete’s needs and satisfy the desire for national identity, that’s where you’ve hit the sweet spot.”

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Mexico Away

For Mexico’s green home shirt, “the focus was on iconic simplicity,” Mateo Kossmann, a senior product manager on Adidas’s global soccer apparel team, wrote in an email. “The away kit allowed for more creative expression.” The red-and-white shirt features different symbols found in indigenous Mixtec art. See if you can spot the malinalli, a type of grass that ascends to heaven but connects to the underworld with its roots, or the staff of Quetzalcoatl, the Aztec god whose signature serpent is also displayed on the inside collar.

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Tunisia Home

Kappa pulled the pattern for Tunisia’s kits from the Ksour Essef cuirass, an ancient piece of battle armor often linked to Carthaginian general Hannibal and kept in the country’s national museum. Designers first proposed this design for Tunisia’s third kit, but the initial reception from the federation was so positive that it ended up on all three. “When you look closely, you could see this graphic that is something really close to the people of Tunisia,” Kappa global marketing head Filippo Maffiotti told The Post. “It’s not something that catches your eyes, but you need to discover it.”

Perhaps no jersey in World Cup history found that sweet spot as much as Nigeria’s home shirt in 2018, a bold green-and-white look that stole the show in Russia.

When Nike’s design process began, Nigeria wasn’t set to receive an entire collection of streetwear and apparel merchandise on top of the standard jersey releases. But once the idea was born — inspired by trends in the music, fashion and soccer scenes of London and Lagos — it took off.

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After a record 3 million preorders, the Nigeria home shirt sold out in minutes once it dropped online, bringing in millions to Nike and the federation. (Nigeria released a new set of kits this September that again were met with acclaim, but it failed to qualify for Qatar and will miss out on similar revenue to 2018.)

“It was such a seminal football shirt because it touched a wider sphere, far outside of the football bubble,” remarked Phil Delves, a shirt collector and content creator who has built a large online following in the kit enthusiast community. “Hundreds and thousands of people wanted to buy this shirt. They probably couldn’t even name a player on the Nigerian team. They just wanted to own the shirt.”

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Belgium Away

In sharp contrast to its bright red home kit, Belgium’s white away look is a collaboration with Tomorrowland, the world’s largest electronic dance music festival held annually in a town near Antwerp. The theme of this year’s festival was “The Reflection of Love”; the Belgian kit is “a positive, fun statement of love in times of turmoil,” Kossman wrote. “The detailing around this festival-inspired football kit is where we were able to inject different elements that make the kit stand out,” he said, “from the LOVE sign-off and the bold graphic print, inspired by Tomorrowland’s famous fireworks.”

Hover on kit to zoom

Denmark Third

Denmark’s shirts are intentionally some of the most muted at this year’s World Cup. They’re meant to protest Qatar’s alleged human rights violations against migrant workers. The designs — especially of the black third shirt, which Hummel described as “the color of mourning” — sparked a global conversation. “We know that we’re not changing the world by toning down our logo and chevrons on the jerseys,” Hummel said in a statement provided to The Post, “but it helps to show our protest against the World Cup in Qatar — and more importantly, it creates a necessary debate about human rights.”

As this World Cup kicks off in Qatar, soccer shirts have become more mainstream than ever. Websites track uniform leaks and reveals in the way that some follow player transfers. High-end brands from Balenciaga to Gucci have incorporated the classic soccer jersey into recent collections, elevating it from the field to Fashion Week.

Sports merchandise giant Fanatics has seen sales across all national teams increase more than 600 percent relative to 2018, the company said in a statement to The Post, with jerseys set to account for roughly half of overall sales. Doug Bierton, co-founder of vintage apparel retailer Classic Football Shirts, said the company sees its largest spike in demand for international shirts during a World Cup.

“You could never own Zinedine Zidane [scoring for France in the 1998 World Cup final]. You could never re-create that moment, but the shirt exists, and it exists forever,” Bierton said. “It’s that living memento of that, of all the cherished times that you can’t go back to. That’s why they’re so powerful.”

About this story

Design and development by Yutao Chen. Illustrations by Jose Soto. Photography by Ricky Carioti. Design editing by Eddie Alvarez. Copy editing by Ryan Romano.