Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi at the Fifa Ballon d’Or in Zurich, Switzerland, in 2015
Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi at the Fifa Ballon d’Or in Zurich, Switzerland, in 2015
Image: Getty Images

Fasten your seat belts. A bunch of spendaholic peacocks are headed to Russia to strut their stuff. The fashion show is about to begin.

The love affair between footie and fashion kicked off in the swinging sixties when George Best — aka The Fifth Beatle — went stark raving mod. Best, the Manchester United winger, became a pied piper for those of us who were attempting to claw our way out of postwar austerity. I was born in Reading, in 1952, with a great view of the Huntley and Palmers biscuit factory (back then Reading FC, my team, was nicknamed “the biscuits”) and a burning desire to get my swag on. Hedonistic, beautiful George, with his velvet jackets and his floppy collars, was my groovy enabler, jump-starting my interest in footie and forever linking it to the world of style. Thanks to him, I have been surveying the footie landscape through a fashion lorgnette for more than half a century.

Since Best, things have only got worse, or better, depending on your point of view. If, like me, you enjoy a bit of flamboyance and fashion exhibitionism — dragon tattoos, jangly wrist-scapes, manbuns and manbags — then you doubtless celebrate this growing parade of pampered popinjays. Possessed of a natural elegance, these wiry young studs are the perfect canvas for today’s retro biker jackets, souvenir blousons, wallet-busting sneakers and nut-mangling Balmain jeans.

Not only do the lads have the requisite build, but they also dig it, big time. Whether from Nigeria, Bahia or Essex, today’s players are unapologetically fashion-addicted. What better way to show the world that you have successfully lifted yourself from backstreet obscurity than by carrying a designer man-purse? And, God bless ’em, they pay full retail. Why? Because they don’t have a choice. When you earned $93m last year — bom dia Ronaldo! — bleating requests for designer discounts tend to fall on deaf ears. Footballers are, therefore, the ultimate patrons de la mode.

The footie/fashion landscape has never been more chaotic than it is today. But closer examination reveals that today’s fashionable footballers fall into five principal teams. Allow me to guide you through the magic and madness of these style squads.

Sergio Ramos
Sergio Ramos
Image: Getty Images

THE LABEL KINGS

A true Label King never leaves for training without his £600 Louis Vuitton washbag tucked under his arm. In fact, the house of Louis Vuitton — the most counterfeited brand in the world and the company that makes the carrying case for the Fifa World Cup — has a history that parallels that of football. Founded by Louis Vuitton in 1854, the company pre-dates the founding of the first football club (Sheffield United in 1857) by only three years. In 1896, Louis’s son Georges rolled out the iconic LV monogram canvas print. A century later, the prestige-acquiring footballers of the world are mainlining all things Vuitton, a blinding cavalcade of washbags, wheelies and backpacks.

Hot on the Vuitton Victors’ monogrammed heels are the Gucci Gladiators. Drenched in glamour and controversy since the opening of the first Gucci store, in Florence, 1920, the Gucci brand has always flaunted its logo. Just like many of the best footballers, Gucci advertising images have often walked the line between acceptable and offensive. The brand’s unique combo of history, craftsmanship and contemporary erotic sizzle has made the brand a favourite with players, who are frequently seen cramming Gucci shopping bags into the minuscule boots of their supercars.

Label Kings are the largest and most quintessential of my tribes. Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo snoozes on his private plane under Hermès H blankets. Spain’s Sergio Ramos daringly teams his Louis Vuitton wheelie with a Gucci washbag. Even England’s working-class hero Jamie Vardy crams his personal effects into an MCM studded and monogrammed backpack.

Dani Alves with Neymar
Dani Alves with Neymar
Image: Getty Images

THE PSYCHEDELIC NINJAS

The Psychedelic Ninjas are the most provocative and polarising. In their studded Philipp Plein leather jackets, jaunty chapeaux and Comme des Garçons man-blouses, these lads are avant-garde extremists who push the boundaries of convention. Among them — Paul Pogba (France), Riyad Mahrez (Algeria) and Roberto Firmino (Brazil) — styles vary from punk to full-blown clown. The one thing they share is a commendable disregard for the opinions of others.

Formerly of Barcelona and now of PSG, Dani Alves is one of the most decorated footballers of all time. When you are as mind-blowingly accomplished as he, you have carte blanche to let your freak flag fly. And he does. Alves’s taboo-busting approach to fashion is the gift that keeps on giving. No amount of social media blowback inhibits his fearless style choices.

As you can probably gather, I am a vociferous champion of this group. Psychedelic Ninjas are unconventional style provocateurs, life-enhancing individuals who make footie a more interesting place. Dressing insanely is a fundamental human right. Looking like a maniac is hearty and healthy. Long live the Psychedelic Ninjas.

Antoine Griezmann
Antoine Griezmann
Image: Getty Images

THE HIRED ASSASSINS

The Hired Assassin is lean, mean, scrappy, edgy, and screams “rough trade”. Wall-to-wall tattoos, sanded denims, worn leather, they dress like eastern European hit-men or Jason Statham in a Crank movie.

Adopting the sauvage and sinister Hired Assassin look is thrilling and enervating. It’s a combo of high voltage and high function. Navy and black are the Assassin colours. Trainers? Virgin white Stan Smiths. Formal attire? A zippered bomber, or a Brando biker jacket.

Why do players opt for this somewhat understated look? First, it reeks of testosterone. Hired Assassins are chick-magnets. Second, it’s low-maintenance. And last, and most importantly, footie players — everyone from Kevin De Bruyne (Belgium), Antoine Griezmann (France) and Raheem Sterling (England) — gravitate towards the look because it is unimpeachable and hater-immune. Nobody trolls an assassin.

Harry Kane
Harry Kane
Image: Getty Images

THE GOOD TASTE AMBASSADORS

For every unhinged spendaholic there is a Good Taste Ambassador. These players actively rebel against all the clichéd notions of flashy dressing and conspicuous consumption. Past examples include Thierry Henry, Andrea Pirlo and Steven Gerrard MBE. The ne plus ultra of Good Taste Ambassadors is former Bayern Munich central midfielder Xabi Alonso, who was always vocal about his aversion to bling: “The only piece of jewellery I wear is a watch.”

Why might a particular player retreat from the I-just-won-the-pools world of designer flash? First, image rehab. Wearing conventional smart clothes — as opposed to MC Hammer pants and a Buffalo hat — can help to expunge both on- and off-pitch transgressions and adds gravitas to your public perception. Second: maybe the player in question is looking to fly below the radar. Oftentimes, the lad in question is reaching the end of his career and desperate to be perceived as a bloke who is now ready for future big-boy opportunities — as a manager, pundit or full-blown brand. Nobody is going to hire you to shill their cars, watches or health-food drinks if you ponce about all Gangnam Style.

The next generation of Good Tasters will be on display at the World Cup. England team captain Harry Kane — always classic, never trendy — will be doing his best imitation of 1950s geography teacher. Álvaro Morata, the Spain and Chelsea striker, will be dressing with the restraint of a bored aristocrat. John Stones, from Barnsley, will be giving blokey chic, and Jan Vertonghen of Spurs and Belgium, will be serving Northern European Normcore neatness.

Olivier Giroud
Olivier Giroud
Image: Reuters

BOHEMIANS AND FAUXHEMIANS

When the Brits won the World Cup in 1966, footballers had zero access to cool culture or groovy music. Yes, they rubbed shoulders with celebs, but they were more likely to find themselves hanging out with Twinkle or Des O’Connor than with Jimi Hendrix or the Velvet Underground. Innovative music was anathema to footie, as were hippy-dippy clothes. In recent years there has been a shift: not exactly a full-length embroidered burlap Mamas & the Papas muumuu, but a shift nonetheless, as contemporary culture has become so vast and demented that nobody can quite keep track of what it means to be “alternative” any more.

Are Sanskrit tattoos the sign of an Essex boy or a Brooklyn boho? Are hardcore Firm members allowed to drink organic brews? There is, however, one clear sign we are moving towards a genuine bohemian utopia: beards. Footie World has always cultivated an antipathy towards beards. The working-class ethos that underpins the game was at odds with the peaceniks of the last century — until now. Starting around 2013, the cockatiel haircuts and mini-hawks were increasingly balanced out with shadowy facial hair. Ere long, full beards arrived. On December 10 2016 I tuned in to watch Arsenal at home to Stoke. As soon as the lads emerged from the tunnel, I saw something clearly amiss. A quick overview of both teams yielded the shocking stats: 19 of 35 Stoke players had beards. And more than 50 per cent of the Arsenal players were fully bearded.

Within a short space of time beards have become ubiquitous, with France’s Olivier Giroud starting to resemble a Brooklyn pickle-maker. This all begs a very important question: how long before they abandon their sharp militaristic haircuts and surround those beards with Woodstock tresses? Prediction for World Cup 2022 in Qatar: the lads will be serving up full Spinal Tap.

Saturday Night Fever Pitch, the magic and madness of football style, by Simon Doonan, is published by Laurence King.

This article is originally published by The Financial Times.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018.

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