Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima’s destiny was written in the stars, or at least his shirts hinted at it.
Beginning his professional career at Cruzeiro, Ronaldo’s first kit had everything you want in a 90s shirt. Every inch of the deep blue number, made by Brazilian brand Finta, was covered in stars. The most notable constellation of all was the Cruzeiro crest itself, a gloriously minimal five-star arrangement.
How do you top that? With a sponsor for the ages.
Nothing says 90s more than a drinks sponsor. In today’s betting-saturated sponsor landscape, the likes of 7UP and Newcastle Brown Ale look positively other-worldly. Cruzeiro got to promote the biggest brand of them all, Coca-Cola.
Ronaldo quickly moved to Europe, joining PSV on the advice of his compatriot Romario. He then proceeded to pillage his way across the Netherlands, scoring 35 goals in 36 games across all competitions in his first season. His shirt that year was a classy adidas design, with the iconic red stripes of PSV trimmed with white pinstripes.
Interestingly, in Ronaldo’s second season, PSV switched over to Nike (a familiar move…), with the result surpassing its predecessor. There’s a lot to like about this shirt, starting with the old school Nike logo (with text and swoosh) and the PSV crest both placed bizarrely high on the shirt. Perhaps they were trying to get as close as they could to the collar, a marvellous chequered design in an area of the shirt often devoid of creativity.
There’s something charming about the rest of the shirt too. Thin white stripes rise up from the bottom only to be cut off by a white band with the Philips logo. It’s abrupt, and probably shouldn’t work, but it’s the sort of shirt which has aged really well thanks to these distinctive elements.
It was a real shame Ronaldo only played a handful of games in this 1995-96 kit, with injuries curtailing his second season in Eindhoven. This was a sadly familiar tale for the Brazilian, but despite this there were more shirt adventures to come…
It cost Barcelona just shy of $20m to prise Ronaldo away from PSV, and their investment paid off handsomely. Not only did Ronaldo continue his ludicrous scoring record, he did so in a way which separated himself from all those around him.
Barcelona shirts at the time were made by cult Italian kit makers Kappa, and their choice of uniform for Ronaldo was exactly what the doctor ordered.
The home shirt had all the traditional elements you’d expect from a Barca shirt, but the away was where the real excitement was found. Kappa’s first away shirt for the Blaugrana in 1992 featured a distinctive minty teal shade, but their 1996 away shirt took this as a base and then built on it in an unexpected way.
It was almost as if someone had seen the ‘92 shirt and decided to wallpaper over it. Best of all, this was done so hastily that the pieces didn’t quite line up. Instead, they interlocked in a way which looked haphazard, with cracks of red and blue appearing in the gaps.
Completing the look were subliminal Kappa and ‘Barca’ logos throughout the shirt. This design defied convention, even for the 90s, and it remains a personal favourite of mine for its sheer audacity alone.
Doing the shirt justice was, of course, Ronaldo, whose performances were showing no signs of letting up.
A sign of things to come
The year was 1998, and the world was expectant.
Going into France ‘98, Brazil had a lot of things going for them. The defending champions had undergone something of a renovation in the four years since their fourth world title, and the most exciting of these new players was Ronaldo.
With all that had gone before him, he was the poster boy of a Brazil side even at a time when other mercurial talents like Rivaldo and Roberto Carlos were beginning to make waves for the Seleção.
Not only was this a supremely gifted crop of Brazilian players, football was changing in other ways. TV viewership had reached record highs in 1994, and the growing globalisation and monetisation of the game was palpable.
From a shirt perspective, what would Nike dial up for Brazil in ‘98? The result was much more of a long-term investment rather than a high stakes gamble.
After the freedom of the early 90s, we saw natural swing back to more considered designs. Far from being a purely negative change, however, this was symptomatic of the fact shirts were fast becoming much more of financial concern.
For a shirt to be consumable by the wider public (and not only for fans of the team), it had to be as stylish off the pitch as it was on it. And Brazil’s 98 shirt was exactly that.
A simple green crew neck collar was balanced out perfectly with matching cuffs, whilst additional green trim on the shoulders added enough detailing to keep things interesting, without distracting too much.
This wasn’t going to turn heads as quickly as Cruzeiro’s ‘93 shirt, or Barca’s ‘96 away, but it looked equally superb with a pair of jeans as it did a pair of Mercurials.
It’s too simplistic to say that plain shirts sell better than crazier designs, but Nike understood one thing well: celebrity sells. The biggest traction in the commercial would be found through personalities, and Ronaldo was the personality in football. He was a marketable superstar at a time when more and more people were watching the game.
1998 taught us that the shirt industry was very much becoming exactly that – an industry.
Thankfully, this wasn’t the beginning of the end for shirts. Whilst things would never be the same again, there was still a lot to look forward to…
Shirt Tales will return soon with Chapter 4…