Along with the wonder goals, penalties, sending offs and pitch invasions, some of football’s most memorable moments have come in the form of the undershirt celebration: hastily scrawled or ironed-on messages expressing political views or religious beliefs, which players would lift their shirt to reveal after scoring a goal.
These messages often caused controversy – some were cheered, some were booed and others, mercilessly mocked. (Wayne Rooney’s Once a Blue, Always a Blue came back to haunt him after his surprise move from Everton to Manchester United in 2004). Some provided witty responses to stories in the media while others offered touching tributes to departed leaders and loved ones.
But while the undershirt celebration has become a familiar and much-loved fixture of football, it is at risk of dying out. In 2014, FIFA announced a new ruling banning players from revealing messages of any kind – whether religious, political, commercial or personal – on any part of their kit. Celebrations had previously been frowned upon and often resulted in bookings but the ruling introduced harsher fines and penalties. At this year’s Euros, they were nowhere to be seen.
In a loving homage to the tradition, Craig Oldham and Rick Banks have created a book which collects some of the most notable examples from the past 30 years. I Belong to Jesus (named after Ricky Kaká’s famous celebration) features examples from Premier League, non-league and female footballers from around the world.
The book is divided into four sections: folklore, religion, politics and personal. Each features images of various celebrations accompanied by a brief case study detailing the story behind it.
Oldham and Banks are passionate football fans – Oldham is a Barnsley FC supporter and has written features on football mascots and crests for CR while Banks is a Bolton Wanderers Fan and previously published a brilliant book on football type.
In an introduction, the pair describe IBTJ as a riposte to FIFA’s ruling. “Our initial reaction, quite unsurprisingly, was one of dismay,” they write. “The elation of celebrating a goal by sharing a personal, intentional message with the supporting masses is one of the last forums of unchecked, passionate discourse in football. A much-needed connection in an increasingly corporate game.”
As Oldham points out, the undershirt celebration is one of the last reminders of a time when football – and in particular, players’ behaviour – wasn’t heavily policed by brand managers and PR teams. A time when players weren’t afraid to express a point of view.
“Those idiosyncrasies are what make the game interesting,” he told CR. “Those controversies, whether it’s players doing something stupid or causing a scandal, they’re as much what we love about football as the football itself,” he adds.
Celebrations also offered a platform for players to communicate directly with fans in a much more authentic and honest way than a Tweet or an official club video. “It was the sort of last un-policed connection between player and supporter – it was direct, it was instant, no-one had any kind of filter on it. Players could say whatever they wanted and it all came out in that collective euphoria of scoring a goal,” says Oldham. “There’s no kind of dialogue anymore, apart from the chants that fans give players- and how else are we going to know what players care about? What they think of current events? How they react to things?”
The book contains some poignant examples as well as some amusing ones. The most moving is Doncaster United striker Billy Sharp’s “That’s for you son” – a dedication to his son who had died the previous week aged just two days old. Both sets of supporters applauded his goal against Middlesborough while referee Darren Deadman ignored the rules and refused to issue Sharp a yellow card for his actions.
Others reflect on conflict and political tensions outside of the beautiful game: Robbie Fowler’s “DoCKers, Sacked since September 1995” expressed solidarity with Liverpool dockers who had been sacked following a dispute with the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company (dockers had created t-shirts using a pastiche of Calvin Klein’s then fashionable CK t-shirts and sold the tops to raise funds for their cause).
“That’s what I love about the book – on a surface level, people can flick through and say, ‘Oh I remember that game’ and it will take them on a personal journey, but in researching these things you also find out all these really meaningful, rich stories about the context of the celebration…. A lot of the time it wasn’t about football, it was like a protest. Players had something to say and they were fucking going to say it … it felt like proof that [footballers] cared about other things,” says Oldham.
Images were sourced from photo libraries and club archives as well as from photographers themselves. Many of the examples date from the mid-1990s to early 2000s – Oldham attributes the rise in celebrations to increasing TV and online coverage of games, giving players the chance to reach a global audience of millions rather than the 20 or 30,000 who turned up to watch a match.
Designs range from messages produced using official FA shirt lettering to ones scrawled in marker pen and using mismatched iron-on letters. Oldham says he was fascinated with the “raw creative expression” demonstrated by footballers – Uruguyuan striker Sebastian Abreu, for example, often wears an undershirt shirt bearing a collage made up of family photos and personal images. Cameroon player Paul Bebey, in his final match for his country, revealed a shirt with the message ‘Jesus is the Best Way’ in a hand-rendered outline with imperfect and stretched characters.
The book is small (just 10x15cm) but lovingly crafted and comes with an I Belong to Jesus armband and t-shirt. Rick Banks has created a custom font based on Kaka’s celebration, which is available to buy online for £10 and appears throughout the book as well as on its cover. “The type he used for that was so iconic for our generation and that’s why we’ve led with it, even though it wasn’t the first time someone had said, ‘this is my religion,” adds Oldham.
Oldham and Banks say the book is not intended to lament the current state of football but rather, to provoke discussion around a growing disconnect between players and fans, while celebrating meaningful moments between the two from recent history.
“These direct, sometimes raw messages bear the marks of those that made them, and it’s their images that greatly contribute, and build upon, a rich folklore and history that is football,” they write. “Without them, the game isn’t simply rid of a singular message, it’s denied the affection of a shared memory. And what is football if not a recollection of those goals, those shared memories, those idiosyncratic moments that live longer than the 90-minute matches in which they were born?”
I Belong to Jesus costs £25. You can order copies, and watch the undershirt celebrations featured in the book, at ibelongtojesus.co.uk