When people know you’re into collecting football shirts, one topic is usually brought up as the first point of conversation: money.
Football shirts have covered all manner of design spheres and crossed into interesting areas outside the sporting world, but naturally most people aren’t concerned with any of those things. In my experience people usually ask you why football shirts are so expensive at the moment, and follow up with a question like what is the most expensive football shirt?
Today I want to focus primarily on that second question. What is the most expensive football of all time, and will we ever cross that mark again? Perhaps with the rising prices of player issue shirts it might not take so long …
What is the most expensive football shirt of all time?
Let’s not waste any time getting to the answer.
You’ll find some terrible lists online for the most expensive football shirts, but the answer is straight forward. Almost 20 years ago to the day (March 27, 2002), Pelé’s Brazil shirt from the 1970 World Cup final against Italy sold at auction for £157,750.
The Brazilian legend’s shirt was always going to command a high price, not least because he actually scored in the final whilst wearing the shirt, but the final price managed to exceed pre-auction estimates. Still, it’s notable that the record hasn’t been broken after two decades, and football shirts clearly have a long way to go to match other collectable markets like trading cards and stamps.
Two years prior to the Pelé auction, another World Cup final shirt held the record at £97,750; Sir Geoff Hurst’s 1966 matchworn shirt. Hurst of course scored a hat-trick in the game, and the combination of a worn shirt from a player who scored in a World Cup final proved enough to create the perfect storm.
What is the most expensive football shirt you can buy today?
If you wanted to buy a football shirt right now with absolutely no budget restrictions, £1000 would get you the vast majority of shirts available at retail. Across a variety of online sellers, you’ll find a selection of kit goodness at the 1k mark from a match issue 2004 Thierry Henry France shirt to a match worn 1999 Diego Simeone Lazio shirt. Classic designs like a Holland ‘88 can command sums in the several hundred pound mark too depending on size, condition etc.
The real money is found on auction sites though. On specialist match worn auction sites, shirts will often sell above £5000, with shirts belonging to famous players being particularly coveted. Many auctions will include some sort of charitable donation as a cut of the final price; a factor which likely drives up prices in the best possible sense.
Why are matchworn shirts so expensive?
Not all matchworn shirts are expensive. If you want to pick up a shirt worn by a player of your local non-league team, you might not need to fork out much more than the cost of a typical replica shirt. Indeed some clubs make match worn kits readily available at the club shop or through marketplaces like eBay, so be on the lookout if you’re keen on dipping your toe into the match worn scene without the financial outlay.
It’s a different kettle of fish when talking about shirts from players of bigger teams, though. Though there isn’t a defined scale, the obvious rule applies that the more high profile the player and team, the more expensive the shirt. Prices can rise exponentially when the shirt is used for a notable fixtures, such as at a major international tournament (these can be particularly coveted due to the inclusion of match-specific detailing, amongst other things), and if a player scores in a notable game then you best be prepared to lay down the equivalent of a deposit on a house.
Ultimately when you're dealing with matchworn shirts you're dealing with 1 of 1 items. As such the 'value' of a given matchworn shirt can rise of fall depending on factors outside the intrinsic value of the piece of clothing. We talk about the memories that are attached to football shirts, no matter the tier, but with match worn shirts those memories have a direct connection. Throw in a few scuffs and marks and the aura is enhanced further.
There's also a market for 'match prepared' shirts, and depending on how unique the shirts are with match details and other dressing room specific tweaks you could be looking at money up to the price of a shirt worn during a game.
A brief word of certification. When you're entering the big leagues some sort of COA (certificate of authenticity) is a must. The last thing you want to do is pick up a supposed match worn shirt, only for its credibility to be disputed later on. If you're buying online and the authenticity cannot be verified in any way, proceed with caution. You might be better off treating the shirt as any other player issue shirt, rather than a match worn, for the purposes of your valuation.
Why are player issue shirts so expensive?
In the last few years player issue shirts (often called “authentic” shirts) have become increasingly popular amongst collectors. As you’re no doubt aware these shirts will often retail for over £100, and many people outside the collecting bubble are understandably sceptical as to the value of these shirts.
For the extra mark-up you’re usually getting fancier, more expensive materials, extra details and relatively subtle ‘upgrades’. Perhaps most important is the fact that player issue shirts more closely resemble what is worn by players on the pitch.
This gets to the crux of the issue. In a similar way to how matchworn shirts are worth more because a player has worn them in a game, player issue shirts are worth more than replicas because, in part, they are similar or identical to what is worn in a game.
Time will tell as to whether the price of player issues holds, decreases or increases, but don’t be surprised if we see more steady increases given the fact that limited edition shirts (see below) can already easily trump player issues in terms of price…
Why are limited edition shirts so expensive?
Limited edition shirts have been a thing in the industry for a while now, but like player issue shirts we’ve seen an explosion in popularity when it comes to these highly collectible, highly pricey pieces of kit.
Driving the price up is a combination of factors including artificial scarcity (shirts with individual numbering are highly desirable) and the involvement of 3rd party brands from areas outside of the traditional footballing sphere like fashion.
Not all limited edition shirts are overpriced, and clubs like Parma have released standout limited edition designs at prices well below the RRP of a player issue shirt. What’s more, we’ve seen many clubs use these sorts of special releases to raise money for charities, softening the 'blow' of the high price tag somewhat.
Football shirts have never been more expensive and as the interest in them continues to rise, we’ll likely see prices increase across the board. Though this isn’t reflected at the very top end of the market, you only have to look at the price of replicas and player issue shirts to understand what is happening.
When it comes to the most expensive kits though, the record is waiting to be broken. When either Ronaldo or Messi retire, a matchworn shirt of theirs from a notable match would be a likely challenger to Pele's throne, even without the possibility of a World Cup winning final shirt in their arsenal as of yet...