Although MoT is normally concerned with visual expressions of taste (architecture, gallery exhibitions, shoes), the occasional performance is worthy of note, especially when it attracts the attention of the global population (not to mention the occasional cephalopod mollusk). Described as the “most popular sport in the world,” the “ballet of the masses,” the “game Americans pay a little attention to every four years,” soccer is deserving of such note since it appears that, to a certain degree, success in this sport hinges on the exercise of a certain kind of taste. To be sure, the Hand of God, creative referee calls, omniscient octopi and even, dare we say it, talent, have their place. But in addition (and appreciated to a much lesser extent), as the World Cup has shown: taste matters in soccer.
The taste we’re talking about here is not good taste; rather, the badder, the better is the rule in soccer. Intentional bad taste appears to give successful teams a winning edge. This has nothing to do with athletes’ on- or off-field behavior, or the antics of fans (although the horrifically annoying vuvuzela probably deserves some credit). Our concern here is the gear that is worn by the players.
Evidence from the 2010 World Cup reveals the effect that the choice of uniform (or “kit,” for those of you who insist on calling the sport “football”) makes on the field (“pitch” to you). Take, for example, the biggest blowout of the series: the Group G meeting of Portugal and North Korea. Portugal’s players, in costumes that resemble Christmas ornaments with a squirt of mustard, completely overwhelmed the North Koreans, who made the mistake of wearing simple white with a splash of red, giving the chromatic advantage to the Portuguese before anyone was done tying up their shoes. They never had a chance, and the 7-0 scores shows it.
It follows that those teams that display the greatest abuse of the color wheel with with the most garish, trippy uniforms have greater success over teams that tend toward the refined and subtle mingling of hues. Just look at the historical record: judging by this crime against color worn by the Mexican team back in 1994 (shown to right), Los Aztecas should have worn the Cup; the only reason they did not take it home was the even more outrageous uniform donned by their competitions. (No photo available due to aesthetics-sensitive web filtering software installed on MoT HQ computers.)
Another way for a team to color itself victorious is to select one single hard-to-wear shade and then go all out. No country has dominated a hue as completely as the Netherlands in its command of oranje. Orange is a tough shade to pull off in any quantity; eleven big Flying Dutchmen a l’Orange constitute an overwhelming wave that drowned out most of the competition. Even Brazil, clad in an ungainly mix of green, yellow and blue could not withstand the Orange Onslaught. The Dutch leave us Netherlerious.
Wherefore this crime against chromatics, this terror on taste? The root cause is probably the thing for which all these teams are competing: the World Cup itself, the trophy, which does not fare so well in an aesthetic match among its peers. Shiny prizes are handed out all over the place to reward athleticism; while many are painfully uninspired ([American] football’s Heisman and Lombardi trophies are truly insipid), others are really quite impressive. Witness the elegant Football Association Challenge Cup (yes, European football), the very cool Indian-inspired Calcutta Cup (warning: the number of excellent trophies developed for rugby may shock and awe viewers to this site) and (to left) the Venus Rosewater Dish (a functional piece, a tea tray for the ladies who win the singles championship at Wimbledon).
Once up on a time, FIFA had a handsome trophy (not the one to the left). Designed for the 1930 World Cup by Abel Lafleur, an Ecole des Beaux-Arts graduate, the original Coupe du Monde was a small gold cup held aloft by Lafleur’s interpretation of the second-century B.C. Winged Victory of Samothrace standing on a blue base of lapis lazuli. It was stolen in 1970 and replaced not by a replica of the original design but, inexplicably (except for the general level of taste witnessed in the early 1970s) by the design of Italian artist Silvio Gazzaniga (seen at left), whose inspiration was, apparently, a gold-plated softball nested in a jiffy pop.
Perhaps soccer fans have Gazzaniga’s hideous doorstop to thank for the greater spirit, verve and excitement (such at it is, relatively speaking) of their game; it is true that the earlier teams were more demurely adorned, in keeping with their trophy, and they played a more gentlemanly game. As the picture here shows, back in the day even the Dutch team wore simple togs of black and white. The twenty-first-century teams that follow this sedate lead have proven no match for those of their more peacocky competitors.
Consider another team tromped by the new and improved, orange-clad Dutch. Uruguay’s understated (one is tempted to even say pretty) blue, white, and black reveals the risk of the quiet colors (not to mention the hands-down best socks in the tournament). Their final game in the 2010 Cup was against Germany, who had earlier learned the lesson: in the semi-finals against Spain, the Germans (to their peril) wore hue-drained black and white uniforms that could not stand up to the colorific assault of Spain. Germany v. Uruguay promised to be a meeting of the mild. But Deutschland had learned its lesson: the Germans mach-ed schnell to the tailor and adopted a spätzle’s worth of zazz from the national flag: a little red at the collar, metallic gold for the numbers (we would have gone all out and suggested lamé shorts, had you asked.) The result? Win!
The danger of the subtle soccer uniform has been proven time and time again in this World Cup. MoT’s home team, the United States, was dressed far too old-school for such a young, scrappy team. Their sharp uniforms, featuring the national colors asymetricallly and stylishly disposed without actually looking like Old Glory, couldn’t stand up against Ghana’s fruit salad-inspired uniforms. (Next time, we recommend full Elvis jumpsuits, as designed by the guys at Marvel Comics.)
Likewise, behold the most extreme example of the dangers of simplicity. France is the world’s most fashionable nation, hands down, and the chromoriffic simplicity of Les Bleus proves the point. No team looked better, more put together, more majestic; and no team was so ready to self-destruct, victims of their own fashion-forwardness. They went home disgraced, but looking haute all the way.
And in soccer, that is how the croissant crumbles, mon ami.