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It’s official: The best jersey of the entire World Cup will no longer be playing in the actual tournament. Yesterday Lionel Messi and rest of the Argentinian team defeated Nigeria in a tense 2-1 game, knocking them out for good alongside the other international fan favorite, Iceland. But while Iceland will be remembered for being the only team with a cheer that actually slaps, Nigeria will go down as the only team that decided to do something interesting with its uniform.
Though it was only worn once on the World Cup stage — Nigeria acted as the home team in its match against Iceland — it seemed to be omnipresent everywhere else. It was the shirt with the three million pre-orders and that sold out within 15 minutes, the shirt that inspired a robust black market in Lagos, the shirt that GQ called a “streetwear grail.” It’s a shirt so good that even a few Croatia fans incorporated the design into their own trademark red and white checkerboard.
We've had half-and-half scarves. Now we have half-and-half jerseys! pic.twitter.com/k6uMYXvrVh— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) June 16, 2018
Ultimately, it’s a shirt that begged the question: Why weren’t all the World Cup jerseys this good? But there’s a reason why only a team like Nigeria could have created something so surprising.
Soccer fans in historically dominant countries tend to be deeply conservative when it comes to a team’s look. There’s a reason why Argentina’s vertical stripes are not to be fucked with, and why so many of this year’s teams basically just wore plain red shirts. There are histories here, and in some cases, like that of Uruguay’s, superstitions. Any minor change to a uniform risks enraging the fan base, so it’s easier to play it safe.
Nigeria, a team that’s been around since 1949 but didn’t qualify for the World Cup until 1994, told a different story with its jerseys this year. Though the green chevrons represent an eagle’s wings in flight (the Nigerian national team is known as the Super Eagles) and are somewhat of a throwback to the 1994 jerseys, it was also a statement on the current identity of the team.
“While no one expects Nigeria to challenge for the World Cup, we felt that there’s something going on with Nigeria as a young team,” explained Nike FC’s design director Pete Hoppins in an interview with the Fader. “There’s a confidence in all these young players, they’re going to go for it and we were attracted to that. ... We thought that there’s something in here to do something different.”
Though that “something different” never would have been approved by a team like England or Brazil, the lack of expectations from fans and the media allowed both Nike and the Nigerian team to take a big risk. “Often, you’re dealing with an older generation to get these kits signed off on, and they won’t always go for newer ideas, even if you know that’s the thing the kids will be into,” Hoppins explained.
And Nike’s “Naija” collection, named for a more patriotic, forward-looking word for “Nigeria,” was exactly that: It included items like a floral zip-up, a bucket hat, and patterns heavily influenced by streetwear. It also helped that the London grime artist Skepta and other celebrities with Nigerian roots proudly wore the jersey in the lead up to the World Cup.
In an interview with Sports Illustrated, Hobbins said that the popularity of the jersey actually took Nike by surprise. But now that Nigeria’s run for the cup is over, the jerseys will still be there to remind fans that even in a staunchly traditional sport like soccer, a bold choice sometimes pays off.