Poor Tim Howard. Widely agreed to be one of the smartest and nicest men in football, the Everton goalkeeper found himself in the eye of a laugh storm this week when kit designer Le Coq Sportif unveiled its new design for the Merseyside club's new goalkeeper jersey. A camouflage-style monster that, at best, will allow Howard to disguise himself after a gaffe.
Howard's kit and a naff new England goalkeeper number were the trigger for numerous galleries of crap kits in the nation's sports pages. If nothing else, they proved that the Nineties were a standout era for grim strips.
But as these new releases from the sportswear giants prove, football kits don't have to be grim.
Their most common wearers – sweaty men with lager bellies – ensure that it's culturally acceptable for them to be worn only by under-15s and five-a-side players. But every year, there are enough nice strips to counteract the garish ones, and you don't even have to have the body of Xabi Alonso to pull them off.
As these new kits for the 2011/12 season emerge – to the sound of the chopping-up of credit cards by parents nationwide – they prove that new football kits can be beautiful. All right, often a lot of them aren't. And having the name of a foreign airline or online casino (or in the case of FC Getafe, a giant Burger King logo) doesn't help in the sartorial stakes. But there's something pleasing about wearing a football shirt as a man-child. Especially if it's your own team's colours.
As a Manchester City fan, I've had the choice of some of the nicest shirts in football for the past few seasons. We've had some monstrosities in the past – a black and neon away shirt from 1998/99 springs to mind – but since switching manufacturers two seasons ago, City strips have regularly been voted the Premier League's most stylish. An added bonus was that last year's third strip even had a tiny, badge-sized sponsor's logo.
If your team has gone down the Everton route, at least you can make the pseudo-classy decision to buy abroad – like most Premier League managers. Whether it's continental clubs or international sides. France's new Breton-striped away kit is both gorgeous and on-trend ("timeless", the fashion desk assure me). And Puma's strips for African nations – from Cameroon's vest to the Ivory Coast's bright orange – are often a delight. International kits have the added bonus of not making you look like a walking billboard for Walkers Crisps or Wonga.com.
The lack of a sponsor was always a reason why cultured fans bought Barcelona's unsponsorable jersey – but a recent deal with the Qatar Foundation has put paid to that tradition. (A current sponsor-free shirt of note is newly relegated Birmingham City's – get them before a local car dealership brands its name on Barry Ferguson's chest.)
Another rule of thumb for cultured shirt buying is: the more obscure, the better. As nice as some of the kits here are, you're more likely to get a nod from a fellow jersey aesthete with a Kaiser Chiefs top than with a Real Madrid one.
With clubs now relaunching many or all of their kits on a yearly basis, rather than have a two-year life cycle, a number of fansites (such as Football Shirt Culture) have sprung up trying to chronicle the releases of new ones – whether it's via all-singing, player-led launches or a leaked cameraphone shot from a Chinese factory, or whether it's designs for Oldham Athletic or Atletico Madrid, they post pictures to be chewed over by kit-addict friends. It's not quite The Sartorialist, but it's something to keep us going as we count down to the new season.
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