It's been a few years now since we began hearing proclamations that soccer had finally "made it" in the United States. Now the second-most popular sport among children (after basketball), soccer has reached a tipping point: As of 2015, Major League Soccer saw its average per-game attendance increase 40 percent in the previous 10 years, and more Americans watched the 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup Final than both that year's NBA Finals and the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs.
We are, apparently, watching a lot of soccer. And if you're now wondering why we're talking about soccer right now, it's because, as always, that is impacting what we wear.
Soccer — or "football" — is Earth's most global sport, and by far. Its fan apparel is as iconic in some of the most remote villages on the planet as it is in metropolitan soccer hubs like São Paulo and Liverpool. High-fashion and soccer, too, have a longstanding relationship that's only been made stronger in recent seasons with the abundance of "sportswear." What becomes of the fan apparel market, then, when something as notoriously exclusive as high-fashion adopts the aesthetics of the most accessible sport there is?
Well, it gets even bigger.
With the arrival of the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Moscow on Thursday, the fever pitch is getting louder, especially surrounding certain countries participating. Back in March, the U.S. Men's National Team (USMNT) failed to qualify for the tournament for the first time since 1990. (Later, USMNT head coach Jurgen Klinsmann told German newspaper Kicker that this set the U.S. back "several years.") The U.S.'s shortcomings, however, leave room for newcomers Iceland and Panama. Elsewhere, Peru, which hadn't qualified for the World Cup since 1982, will play against Denmark this Saturday. You can bet that in the months leading up to kick off, the demand for Iceland, Panama and Peru jerseys has skyrocketed.
"Especially in this market in the U.S., we're a melting pot of so many other nations," Jamie Cygielman, CMO at Iconix Brand Group (which, in the U.S., owns and operates sportswear and soccer equipment supplier Umbro), tells me. "You've got certain second-generation Latin Americans who are fans of the game or Europeans who are fans of the game who live here, and they obviously want to represent their team."
Each national team is made of players who play in a professional league elsewhere, like Brazil's Neymar (French club Paris Saint-Germain), Argentina's Lionel Messi (Spanish club Barcelona) and Egypt's Mohamed Salah (English club Liverpool). The system allows for a universality that's not quite found elsewhere.
Rory Smith is The New York Times's chief soccer correspondent, having turned his lifelong passion for the sport into a career. ("I have been unhealthily obsessed with it since I can remember," he tells me in a phone call from London.) As a young child in the U.K., he says soccer jerseys became his go-to gift for birthdays and holidays — as is also the case for many children around the world — and has been amassing a not-small stockpile of jerseys from international clubs ever since. "I have a collection of off-beat, or unexpected, jerseys that I think are pretty for various teams from around the world. That's not a team affiliation, but it's something that I've always liked doing," he says. "I found it funny that liking sport is a really good way to improve your geography. You've always heard of places because they've got a team, and you know the team, so you know the place."
Zito Madu, a staff writer and soccer reporter at SB Nation, grew up some 4,400 miles from Smith in a village in Nigeria called Umulele. He played soccer throughout his childhood, leading him to play at the NCAA level at University of Detroit and more recently, professionally in Turkey. He caught the attention of SB Nation when, he says, he "was on the internet making a lot of soccer jokes" and began freelancing in his spare time while in Turkey.
Madu traveled back home to Umulele last summer. He tells me about a picture he took during his trip of three young children walking around in the marketplace. "One had an Arsenal shirt, one had a Chelsea shirt and one had a Manchester United shirt," he says. "Even in the villages in Nigeria, you're still going to find soccer shirts everywhere."
Especially in the immediate time leading up to, and during, a World Cup, the soccer jersey is even more everywhere than it is in the two years between the men's and women's tournaments. Fan apparel — particularly now, surrounding the World Cup — can be tied to one's identity, be it by blood, upbringing or otherwise. Jacob Fara, an employee at New York-based soccer retailer Upper 90, better describes the jersey as a symbol of pride and culture. "It is a public declaration to everyone around you that you are emotionally and physically linked with that particular team through thick and thin," says Fara.
For some long-devoted fans, like those of Peru, those vintage-era World Cup jerseys will surely come into heavy rotation this cycle. As with any other product category, clothing-wearers use their apparel as a way to validate, or legitimize, their level of involvement. Smith calls it a "hierarchy of authenticity." "Your jersey represents your memories, in that sense," he says. "If you're wearing a 1990 England World Cup jersey, that is not only saying that, 'I belong to this tribe,' but, 'I am of a certain seniority within this tribe.'" Madu sees this in older-issue jerseys that commemorate a traded or retired player.
"The point at which your team means the most to you is when you're young," says Smith. "That's when you really love your team. We'll carry on supporting as we get older, but other stuff comes along and in all but a few cases, the team falls away a little bit. You'll always see people wearing those retro jerseys because it connects them to that really pure feeling of fandom they had when they were a child."
Obviously, that can be said for any other sport that requires uniforms. But soccer fan apparel is differentiated from that of other sports in its practicality. Unlike a league like the NFL here in the U.S., soccer jerseys themselves are designed to be breathable, slim-fitted and, chiefly, wearable. "It's automatically casual, where you can't really wear an NFL jersey unless you're going to an NFL game," says Madu. "If you wear an NFL jersey outside, it kind of looks weak." Meanwhile, soccer jerseys are designed just like normal shirts, but something like a basketball jersey is designed so much more for the game itself.
The soccer jersey's all-purpose design lowers the barrier to entry in that you don't need to know the team whose moniker you're wearing, or even the sport itself, to get involved. In addition to representing cultural pride and belonging, Cygielman sees that Umbro customers turn to soccer fan apparel to connect them with the sport's lifestyle, even if they've never played, or watched, a day in their life. The exhilaration of simply donning a jersey is palpable.
Last week, another soccer mega-sponsor and -retailer Adidas announced that it expects to see a record number of World Cup jersey sales — precisely, 8 million more than were sold during the 2014 tournament. Fara confirms as much, in the Tri-State Area, anyway: Last year's market was over-saturated with footwear (no doubt a reflection of the buzz surrounding Off-White's cleat collaboration with Nike), but this year's is largely focused on jerseys.
Umbro is also experiencing a growing intersection between the already-established soccer fandom's love of the game and the average fashion consumer. In 1970s- and 1980s-era England, soccer apparel became an integral part of the nation's street culture which is a position it still enjoys today. The aesthetic has held up for two reasons: the first, because it embodies an ambiguous "coolness" factor that isn't seen in other activities, and the second that it has that incomparable wearability.
"There's so many different teams and there's such a wide range of whatever look you want to go for," says Madu. "If you want to go for a hipster look, you can get some Third Division team from Spain, or if you want to be in the popular culture, you can wear a Manchester United, Arsenal or Barcelona shirt."
Soccer apparel sits at another interesting intersection within luxury fashion: It's both streetwear and sportswear. Accessible and exclusive. Comfortable and utilitarian. "There are layers to it, so it fits really well into what you're seeing a lot of the designers doing today in sportswear," says Cygielman. "The whole thing really just fits with what's been happening overall in fashion culture in the last couple years."
Cygielman's right: High-fashion's recent soccer kick began far before this upcoming World Cup, and before ones prior. Even just a few years ago, few in this industry would have expected for Supreme founder James Jebbia to leave the CFDA Awards with a statute for Menswear Designer of the Year, but tides change fast, and the industry's current momentum toward the sporty is unstoppable.
Umbro has had a myriad of recent fashion and streetwear collaborations, perhaps starting with 2012's link-up with London-based skateboard phenom Palace. Ahead of the 2014 World Cup, the streetwear scene followed. Soccer-inspired collections cropped up across Patta, Nike and Adidas. In 2017, Supreme even joined forces with Stone Island, a sportswear brand that, in the 1980s and 1990s, became a status symbol for soccer hooligans in the U.K.
Soccer and fashion have continued to intertwine, and their intersection has grown wider. Where Versace included the historic soccer scarf in its Fall 2018 collection, Dolce & Gabbana debuted a lawsuit-inducing "Maradona" jersey during its Fall 2016 Alta Moda show. Vêtements de Football, a hip "It" brand from Milan-based magazine NSS, dropped a capsule of bootleg soccer jerseys last October. And then, the collaborations: Yohji Yamamoto with Spanish club Real Madrid; Gosha Rubchinskiy and Alexander Wang with Adidas. Off-White's Virgil Abloh has been an undeniable player in the market, too: First came an Umbro partnership for Off-White's Spring 2017 collection, which was then followed two years later by its aforementioned 2018 World Cup technical range for Nike (which also includes designs by fellow menswear doyen Kim Jones).
Unexpectedly, the resale market is both thriving and flooded with soccer goods. At press time, one search of "F.C.," or "football club" on men's e-marketplace Grailed produced 413 items, including a $400 F.C. Real Bristol reversible bomber.
Madu's own personal soccer grail is similar: a vintage jacket from the Germany national football team, dating back to, he estimates, 1980. During our conversation, I ask if he's ever been able to track one down. He did once, on eBay, but it was $300. He laughs: "I didn't have the money at that time after I'd bought so many other shirts."
"It's such a weird place for soccer to be in because the biggest thing about soccer is that it's so accessible to everyone, right?" says Madu. "And now since it's becoming a big part of pop culture, you're seeing soccer shirts that are being marked up to $300 or $400. And it's understandable why it's becoming part of fashion just because it's such a huge thing in the world. But it's also contradictory that soccer, which has its whole identity in being accessible to everyone, is all of the sudden being marketed as this really high-class, high-fashion thing."
Fashion's involvement in the sport comes from an honest place: What the soccer uniform represents — patriotism, belonging, functionality — doesn't differ from what clothes actually are. We wear certain things to express ourselves, and certain things to express who we are to others. The same goes for someone like Madu, whose desire for that Germany jacket represents his dedication to and fluency in the sport. The same also goes for those children Madu photographed in Umulele, who were a part of something bigger — something as big as the whole planet.
Here in the U.S., soccer is one of the first organized sports to which children are exposed. I tell Cygielman a soccer-adjacent story from my childhood about picking dandelions when I was supposed to be playing defense and she told a similar one about her children. As interest in soccer apparel — in high-fashion, at the mass-market level, whatever — swells domestically, so too will general excitement surrounding the sport.
"We're really seeing that soccer is going to continue," says Cygielman. "We believe the passion for soccer and soccer-related merchandise will continue to grow in the years to come as children are being indoctrinated into the sport at a very early age."
The 2018 World Cup admittedly gives the sport a nice boost — though stateside, we'll have to find other teams to root for in absence of our own. Smith speculates that during the tournament, fan apparel becomes about pledging loyalty to your broader tribe that everybody, in that moment, is a part of. If it sounds all hunky-dory, kumbaya-ian, it's because it is. It's what makes the World Cup, and the sport of soccer, so special.
"Every two years, [soccer fans] are faced with a major competition with hopes of victory and glory," says Fara. "These massive tournaments offer the chance at bragging rights for years to come, and it all starts when they decide to purchase that jersey and put it on."
Homepage photo: Looks from the Nike x Off-White "Football, Mon Amour" collaboration, launching June 14. Photo: Courtesy of Nike