One of the most regularly heard opinions on international football shirts is that they are blessed by the lack of a sponsor. In fact, the reverse is also true, in that club shirts - see the coming season’s Ipswich Town shirts - are often regarded as ruined by the sponsor’s branding. This received wisdom has is merits, but doesn’t provide the whole story.
Indeed, many club shirts are enhanced by their sponsor. But that’s steady ground. Club shirts, for the last three or four decades at least, are meant to have a sponsor’s logo plastered across the front. But how about international shirts?
Ireland. Always Ireland. Whenever someone brings up sponsorship of international football shirts, the subject gravitates to Ireland. Ireland and Opel. Ireland and Eircom. Ireland and Three (3). And with good reason. The Republic of Ireland are the notable international team who both traditionally have retailed, and, in 2018, still retail their shirts with a club-style torso sponsor.
And, it is true, Ireland player shirts are sought after for their lack of that branding. They’re hard to find, and a premium is paid. So is that the final word on international football shirt sponsorship?
Frankly, no. You’d pay a lot for an unsponsored Ireland shirt you say? Just imagine what I’d pay for a Danish Dynamite 1986 Denmark shirt with the Carlsberg logo sponsor in navy - seriously, it exists, or once did, and was worn by the whole squad prior to Mexico ’86. So that’s one of the most iconic shirt sponsors ever - worn famously, and at the time exceptionally, by Wimbledon when they defeated Liverpool in the 1988 FA Cup Final, before appearing on Liverpool shirts for 18 years, with the associated success of that period - mounted onto one of the greatest football shirts ever - seriously, one of The 50 Greatest Football Shirts Ever - with the added romance and aptness of the brand’s Danish heritage.
Any others? Well, Brazil shirts secretly had a sponsorship logo on the sleeve, on the chest, on the crest, on the sleeve and on the crest, on and off for years - have a thumb through John Devlin's True Colours International Football Kits: An Illustrated History for more info. Not quite the same, but it happened, and let’s not forget Germany training in match shirts with various extents of branding - Mercedes-Benz logos are cool.
Denmark's neighbours, Sweden, have worn sponsorship in matches, either of the non-full international variety, or clandestinely (read: unashamedly). So it goes on. Not to the extent of rugby, say, but it has happened.
But the potential hasn’t been truly realised. Tokyo Sexwale - if ever a man’s name needed to appear in stylised form as a sponsor on a football shirt… - was keen for international teams to carry main sponsors if he had become Fifa President. He didn’t.
So will we ever see it (again)? Trim colours in the corporate palette of the company paying for the rectangular canvas, as is often the case with change kits? Well, Denmark having secret green Third kits is thought to be a nod to Carlsberg, so why not go the step further? A Mars-sponsored England change kit in black, red and gold? France in the corporate colours of Carrefour, which are, um, blue, white and red? That may be a bad example, but perhaps sponsors can be chosen that will tie in too. Compromise and the optimum finished article should always be the order of the day.