The Many Faces of Football

Sheridan Bird uncovers some unusual typographic choices adorning the backs of the world’s top footballers and their fans


History was made at the 1933 FA Cup final. While the result may still resonate with Everton fans (they beat Manchester City three-nil) the game was perhaps more notable for an occurrence with more far-reaching consequences: it was the first final in which players wore numbers on their shirts.

The experiment was deemed a success, even though Everton wore the numbers one to 11 and City 12 to 22. Sixty-one seasons later, surnames made their World Cup debut at USA 94, and most major leagues soon followed suit, making clubs lots of money in the process as fans queued up to have their favourite player’s name emblazoned on their shirt. Typically, retailers charge per letter – fine if your favourite player is Raúl, not so good if it’s Celtic’s new striker Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink.

Typographically speaking, little of note happened until the commercial explosion of football in the 90s. Today, in England’s Premier League, all teams wear shirts with the players’ name and number rendered in a compressed version of Optima. The letters and numbers are supplied by specialists Chris Kay and Metro Sport – big business given that every official replica shirt bought by fans worldwide must use the official FAPL alphabet. Other countries, however, allow teams to select their own style of number and letter – in fact, the world of football shirts now offers some surprising (if poorly executed) typographical variety. On the club scene, Inter Milan sport a (rough) version of Neue Helvetica while Liverpool have played their Champions League games in the ugly stepchild of VAG Rounded.

Keen-eyed fans watching this year’s World Cup may have spotted something akin to Antique Olive on England’s shirts but their rivals were exhibiting a little more typographic invention. Every team supplied by Puma, for example, sported the bespoke font Puma Pace, specially created by Dalton Maag. Nike went even further in an attempt  to provide appropriate lettering for their teams, sending designers on research trips to the countries involved. “Not only did we research the football heritage of a nation, but also we went beyond sport to absorb and apply the many other aspects of a country’s identity,” say Nike. “Members of Nike’s design community travelled extensively, documenting, researching and curating materials and information in order to make our design choices as informed as possible. For several months, design teams from around the globe collaborated to bring these culturally inspired typefaces to their completion.”

Portugal’s shirts bore a typeface which attempted to reflect both the country’s colonial past and its recent modernisation. “Clean, rounded forms evoke modernity and forward thought,” claims Nike, while “fine details symbolise a more refined age of sea-faring dominance” and are apparently based on stonework in Lisbon’s Don Jeronimos monastery. The Netherlands’ angular affair was influenced by none other than Wim Crouwel and the Cijferzegels stamps that he designed in 1976 as well as Dutch currency design. Brazil’s was supposedly based on lettering from the country’s shopfronts.

Chris Kay supplies such famous names as Dutch club Ajax, Italy’s AC Milan and the England national team. In 2002, the company began working with probably the world’s most glamorous football club, Real Madrid.

The brief was very clear – devise a fresh, distinctive look for “Los Galacticos” which stood-out and befitted a club of its status. The man handed this task was communications and creative director Anthony Barnett. His first effort, for the 2003-04 season, was a rounded yellow and black typeface based on ITC Bauhaus (designed by Edward Benguiat and Victor Caruso in 1975) which, happily, lent itself well to the name of the club’s new signing, “Beckham” and his number, the curvy 23.

Shirt designs, as every cash-strapped parent will know, typically last just two seasons, so in 2005 a brand new alphabet was required. For inspiration, Barnett made several trips to Spain’s capital to soak up its atmosphere and of course familiarise himself with the football club, its gigantic stadium, the Santiago Bernabéu, and the importance of the team to the city. One particular landmark gave him a clue to the new direction that Real Madrid’s lettering might take.

The futuristic KIO (Kuwaiti Investment Office) Towers at the Plaza de Castilla were built in 1996, and are instantly recognisable for their sharp, contemporary feel. The leaning twin towers are made from black glass with silver edges, and are the symbol of modern Madrid. Their nickname, the “gateway to Europe”, sat well with the profile of a football team that has won the European Cup a record nine times.

With the visual impression the KIO Towers make in mind, Barnett adapted Peignot, a typeface designed in 1937 for the French foundry Deberny & Peignot by renowned poster artist

AM Cassandre. Peignot is a biform typeface – it mixes modified small capitals and lowercase letters together in the same word. Elements of some of the characters are elongated, notably one of the stems of the capital H, recalling, in Barnett’s mind, the KIO Towers. He re-drew an italicised version of the face so that the extended stems leaned in the same manner as the Towers, giving it a silver outline thus further underlining the connection.

The new season has brought more work for Barnett. This time, the chosen typeface is not based on a pre-existing font. Barnett says that he tried a more contemporary approach, drawing inspiration from the architecture of the Ciudad del Futbol, Real’s state of the art training ground.

Real Madrid’s rivals in La Liga, Sevilla, however, take the prize for cutting a typographic dash. In last season’s UEFA cup final, the side took to the pitch wearing shirts bearing names and numbers in Monotype Corsiva, an italic in the style of early Italian cursives, replete with extravagant swash capitals. They won too.


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