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  • by Matt Leslie February 05, 2022 6 min read

    We’re into the second week of the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) 2021, and if you have not been paying attention to events in Cameroon so far, we are sorry to report that you have missed out on quite a bit so far. Those of you who have been enjoying those weekday 1pm, 4pm and 7pm group games will have been treated to the usual great goals, high drama and -  most importantly for us - a whole host of beautiful football shirts.

    And as usual at FSC, it is the kits of AFCON that we will be focusing on today. From the Naija designs that have been making fashion statements since 2018, to the chaotic colours of Burkina Faso, the sartorial selection at this year’s AFCON feels particularly stacked, and that fact has not gone unnoticed by other viewers as well.

    There is clearly something about the kits of African international teams that hit different compared to those of other nations from around the world, and to find out why exactly that is, a look through the history books of Africa’s premier international tournament is a good place to begin.

    This might be your first AFCON, your first time seeing Morocco’s deep red shirt come up against the bright yellow of Gabon, but teams have been producing on the style front at AFCON for decades. 

    Some are iconic enough to be regular inclusions in ‘Most Wanted’ and ‘Top 10’ lists, like South Africa’s 1998 away jersey, or the 1994 Nigeria shirt. Reminiscing on that particular vintage, Mayowa Quadri of Versus instantly listed-off what made that shirt so special. “The black logo with the super eagle, the shorts, the detail and black number detail on the chest. A Beautiful football kit.”

    Mayowa went on further to point out that the 1994 shirt directly inspires the side’s recent home shirts from Nike. The designs were first released to universal acclaim in 2018 and then arguably bettered in 2020. They seemed to mark a turning point for the football shirt design scene as a whole, marking a move away from template designs, to more bespoke looks. The fact that Nike were willing to make this move with Nigeria suggests that brands see African nations as the right place to try new designs. 

    Rob Warner designed football shirts for Puma throughout the 2000s, and he confirmed that the brand saw AFCON as a particular opportunity to experiment. “At Puma we viewed the AFCON as being our chance to launch new ideas ahead of the other brands. Everyone was typically focussed on the World Cup, but we were able to steal a march on them.” 

    These design experiments were no more evident than with Cameroon at the 2002 and 2004 AFCONs, when Samuel Eto’o and co. showed up wearing sleeveless and all-in-one shirts.

    “We had a strategy to make Cameroon everyone’s second-favourite team” recounted Rob, who worked on the infamous kits. “As part of that strategy, we planned to be disruptive through innovation. There were no gimmicks to the sleeveless or all-in-one kits - they were both designed to reduce shirt-pulling and make players faster.”

    Unfortunately, FIFA ignored these performance improving elements and took disciplinary action on Cameroon. “Both kits were retrospectively banned, despite being initially approved for the tournament. With the UniQT (all-in-one), FIFA deducted 6 points from Cameroon’s WC qualifying campaign and imposed a hefty fine. On appeal, the points and fine were rescinded and PUMA matched the value of the fine, using the money to support grassroots football projects.”

    Despite this typically-FIFA overreaction, the two Cameroon kits gained cult status in the football shirt community. “The decision to go sleeveless is one which is still talked about at length to this day in kit circles,” said FSC’s own Phil Delves

    So while Rob’s designs were never allowed to make it to a World Cup, their AFCON appearances were more than enough to leave a lasting mark thanks to Puma’s experimentation, and the brand are still a strong presence at AFCON 2021.

    But not all kits have to take this experimentation to the levels of Cameroon and Puma in the early 2000s. For Phil Delves, even just the colours on show have been enough to make the shirts at AFCON stand-out. 

    “This is going to sound funny, but when I think of AFCON or African kits I think of the colour green. Now I know green isn't exactly exclusive to African shirts - shoutout to Ireland and Mexico, amongst others - but over the years the likes of Nigeria, Cameroon, Senegal and others have brought some serious heat to the kit table in the form of green kits.” 

    While for Mayowa Quadri, the mix of these colours and their link to national identity is what elevates the kits of African national teams. “Flags and colours have real importance to these countries and it’s always a real honour to see those colours represented. AFCON really allows you to see an array of colours on kits.” 

    The presence of animals, too, is something Mayowa picked out as being a vital part of AFCON shirt design. “Kits have had eagles, kits have had references to animals from the cat family. AFCON displays the symbolic nature of animals.” Pointing to the specific example of Mali’s AFCON 2021 kit, he continued, “My favourite for AFCON 2021 has to be Mali. There is something so poetic about the Eagle on the front with the wings that join.”

    Describing the shirts in one word, Mayowa settled on “vibrant”. Rob agreed when assessing the kits on show at AFCON 2021. “The whole event screams passion and vibrance, so the kits have to be a reflection of that.” He also concluded that such vibrancy specifically fits AFCON. “Brands of all sizes seem to have embraced the opportunity of AFCON to create distinctive designs that just wouldn’t work on many of the European teams.”

    Rob’s mention of multiple brands introduces another reason that the kits at AFCON can be so special. 

    At the Euros last Summer, six brands manufactured the kits worn by the 24 competing teams, with Hummel, Jako and Joma covering one team each, while the rest were signed with the big three of Puma, Nike and adidas. 

    Meanwhile, the 24 teams currently present at AFCON 2021 are represented by 15 different brands. The difference here is extraordinary, because alongside adidas-designed Algeria shirts there are Mali's Airness manufactured kits, and next to the Nike x Naija jerseys we get to see Le Coq Sportif’s take on Cameroon’s colours.

    “I love the diversity on show,” raved Phil Delves. “There's truly something for everyone. On one end of the scale you have Nigeria who are still the darlings of many shirt fanatics, whilst you also have small brands getting to show their name on the big stage.

    “It's particularly great seeing brands like Le Coq Sportif and Kappa involved; brands with a lot of history who have produced some of the very best international shirts of all time over the years.”

    Beyond just the bespoke designs this variety brings, Rob Warner suggests it may also benefit the shirt collecting community as well.

    “A big part of shirt collecting (or even just appreciation) is the ‘hard-to-find’ element, and it’s becoming harder to find things that are hard to find - football and retail are both so global that we see and can buy anything anywhere now. It wasn’t the case until 15 years ago, but now very little feels new. AFCON gives us the delight of newness and surprise.”

    And the desire for a lot of the shirts on show has been real. Phil’s got his eye on Mali’s eagle-centric shirts, but not a lot of hope of picking one up. “From what I gather the Mali shirts are virtually impossible to get hold of, which is a shame as that would be a fun addition to the collection.”

    Often rare, sometimes controversial, always vibrant, the kits of AFCON are a treat in the international football shirt space. As time goes on, the shirts will likely begin to appear in the usual spaces for collectors to buy, but until then just embrace the quality of each of the kits on show in Cameroon. We definitely will be!

    Matt Leslie
    Matt Leslie

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