In 2014, Fifa, the governing body of world football, passed a new rule that banned players from displaying messages of any kind on any part of their kit. With one line of legislation, the undershirt celebration was consigned to history. A new book, I Belong To Jesus, by Craig Oldham and Rick Banks has catalogued some of the most significant and controversial of the designs that conveyed messages of devotion, protest, antagonism or humour to supporters. “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,” say the authors in the introduction. “Without them, the game isn’t simply rid of a singular message; it’s denied the affection of a shared memory.” We caught up with Craig and Rick to find out more about the publication.
What inspired the book and how did your collaboration come about?
Craig Oldham: We got together for a beer and started talking about the Fifa ruling, banning messages of any kind on undergarments or any part of player’s kit. And then talked about how that’d make a great idea for a book, because so many examples instantly came to mind. It’s not just shirts featured in the book… items such as masks, shinpads, even tattoos are an extension of the players’ creative expression included within. It really went from there… sharing links, articles, Google-image links etc. That was 2014!
Rick Banks: It took around two years to produce the book. We had to fit it around our commercial jobs. Because of this, new celebrations kept popping up and getting added into the book. For example Zlatan’s celebration for the World Food Programme was a great addition. I wonder how much he got fined for doing something for charity and a great cause? I think our procrastination actually helped the book.
What was the process of gathering the images and stories?
Craig: The process wasn’t exactly a ‘process’ to be honest, it was much more organic. It started with a bit of inbox-tennis and email-chaining between us, and then Rick had the foresight to starting pulling all the pieces together into almost contact sheet form.
With all forms of curation, especially those of different material and content, you naturally have favourites, or there are ones more famous than others, so these stories were much easier to start looking into. I’m particularly thinking of Balotelli’s “Why Always Me?” and Robbie Fowler’s “DoCKers” – not to mention the eponymous “I Belong To Jesus” by Kaká – which were easier starting points.
But they’re not all religious. That’s actually the smallest chapter in the book. The bigger challenges came in making sure we had our research correctly – not to mention our translations.
In one instance, in Italy, 2009 a Sampdoria player, Angelo Palombo, revealed a shirt after a match which read “Forza Chiara La Samp Tifa Per Te!” (For Chiara, La Samp [Sampdoria’s nickname] is rooting for you!) This was for a local Sampdoria supporter Chiara Bonomo who had suffered a medullary ischemic reflex that year leaving her tetraplegic. Campaigning for disabled rights the club supported Chiara (as did her local community, who replicated Palombo’s graphic in their local bars and restaurants) through her recovery. To this day Chiara still wears her strip with Palombo on the reverse. It’s such a great story, but getting all of that from Italian news reports and websites was a challenge. We roped in Italian friends as translators, I even pulled aside an Italian exchange student, Elena, to help translate when I was running a workshop at Falmouth University. Those were challenges!
Rick: The Sampdoria story proved to be really tricky as there was also a domestic abuse story involving another woman called Chiara who Sampdoria supported. So being really thorough with the research was the hardest part.
Laurence Griffiths: Robbie Fowler (1997)
Nick Potts: Gary Cahill (2012)
The only typeface that recurs throughout the book is the one that appeared on Kaká’s shirt and provided the title. Why place the focus on this shirt in particular?
Craig: There’s a few reasons that Kaká’s shirt held so much relevance and reverence for us when doing the book. The emotional response was so iconic for our generation. The 2007 final against Liverpool and him dropping to his knees and whipping off the strip at the final whistle, being one of the best players in the world at that time and his choice of wording and design – it just all added up.
But there’s a subversive idea at play in using it as a title for the book. As we viewed the ruling as a further sterilisation of the game and the emotions that run through it, we saw it as another claiming of ownership of players by governing bodies and clubs. They now effectively police all personality and communication of players, controlling all their correspondence from live, in-the-flesh interviews for press and TV right through to their social media accounts. Kaká’s iconic and brazen communique telling everyone who he believed he “belonged” to is more a provocation of that ruling. It’s a subtle riposte to ask the question of ownership – just exactly who does this form of creative expression belong to?
Rick: I agree, I think Kaká’s celebration was so iconic and many undershirts are famous for their religious connotations. I also loved how the blocky lettering referenced old school 90s shirt lettering, so digitalising it was a no brainer.
Craig: And I have to own up to this, to be honest I think it sounds funny.
"Kaká’s iconic and brazen communique telling everyone who he believed he ‘belonged’ to is more a provocation of that ruling. It’s a subtle riposte to ask the question of ownership – just exactly who does this form of creative expression belong to?"Craig Oldham
When you began to gather the images and stories for the publication, how did you organise the chapters and thematically group the messages written on shirts?
Craig: The themes and chapters emerged by accident to be honest. We set out initially just to find the best and most interesting stories, it was only when we started to curate, looking to weave a narrative through the shirts, that we played with their running order and pace of the book. Some were obviously linked, others had links that were less obvious but linked nonetheless. And other times we thought it would be interesting to place those in contrast alongside each other to see how the tensions worked. These naturally emerged as chapters: Folklore, Religion, Politics, Personal.
Rick: We initially had more chapters like Feuds, Dissent, Records, Family but we decided to simplify it and go with four chapters.
Where did you seek inspiration for the physical design of the publication?
Craig: It was an early, kinda giddy idea to bind on the short edge. As designers you’ve got to consider every opportunity to support your idea while tempering it to make sure it doesn’t get over-cooked. The binding, and exposing the spine for functional purposes (allowing it to lie flat), as well as showing the stitching were all to echo the physicality of the shirt reveal – i.e. the players lifting the shirts and the materialistic nature etc. They’re subtle things, and in-and-of-themselves small ideas, but the culmination of these little details, we feel, adds to something greater than it would be if we dismissed them.
Rick: Someone on Twitter thought the book referenced a referee’s note book too. This wasn’t intentional but I’ll go with it!
In the introduction of the book you speak of collective memory and connective euphoria – what has been lost since the legislation was introduced by Fifa?
Craig: So many things I feel. I remember Kenny Dalglish once talking about the vogue of players not celebrating when they scored against former clubs, and his response, for me, although it was said for a different reason, is relevant to I Belong To Jesus. He said “If you can’t celebrate a goal, what’s left? It’s the most natural thing to show your emotion when scoring – and not doing so is a trend I don’t like.”
It’s quite easy to moan about players getting huge pay packets, appearing aloof and divorced towards the people that support them and pay hard-earned money to watch them. But you can’t forget they are just young men and women who are operating under different – and to me and you, alien – circumstances, having a lot of themselves tempered and controlled. But that aside, I want to see emotion from them. Whether that emotion comes from them putting in an absolute shift on the pitch (the one thing no player will ever be demonised or criticised for) or through showing how much that goal they scored for their’s and your team mattered to them, maybe even more by using it to tell us something too… through a message under their shirt.
So as we’ve said in the book, it’s not simply stopped players saying things they shouldn’t, it’s denied everyone of a player being able to show their emotion beyond the natural response to a goal.
I also think it’s denied football of another gloriously visual ritual… up there with the homemade banners, flags, placards and stickers. Those are some things I doubt Fifa will ever be able to eradicate though.
Were there any stories that you were unable to print, or find out the origin of?
Craig: Ivan Zamorano. Rick and I loved Zamorano as a player, especially when he played with the Brazilian Ronaldo for Inter Milan in the 90s (and there’s a story in the book about his shirt number: 1 + 8), and we had a celebration of his. During the Copa America in 1999, representing Chile, he was their top scorer in a tournament and they progressed to the semi-finals. Each time he scored he revealed the image of a young girl on his undershirt. We tried, and tried, and tried, to find out why. As well as who the girl was, as it wasn’t his daughter. We couldn’t find anything, anywhere and so it had to be dropped. To this day I’m gutted about that.
Rick: Ivan, if you’re reading this — get in touch!
Do you have any particular favourites from the shirts printed? Which ones and why?
Craig: I have so many. I really love the tapestry that Sebastiån Abreu creates using his father’s old shirt from his playing days, sewing new images, badges, numbers and the likes onto it. And typically, for me, I’m very interested when footballers wade-in to politics – so Fowler’s “DoCKers”.
Rick: I love the fact Fowler must have got a graphic designer involved to create the pastiche design. It’s been thought about. The message had humour, design and was socially relevant. That’s what made it so iconic.
Craig: For me, a lot of the ones I love are the scrawled, marker pen renders. I think Wayne Rooney’s “Once A Blue Always A Blue” is a prime example of how these creative messages become much bigger than the moments that created them. His statement lives with him still. When he signed for Manchester United it came back to haunt him, as Evertonians parodied and revised it; they even daubed it onto the walls of Goodison to express the treachery they felt he’d committed.
But I also like their collectivity. All of them together as a visual record. These celebrations, for me, are a collective statement to show that perhaps there’s still a human dimension to these rich, young, aliens as we like to think of them.
Rick: For nostalgic reasons I’d go with Fowler’s “DoCKers” and Wright’s “Just done it”. As a kid growing up in the 90s, I remember them so vividly. I also love the modern ones; Balotelli’s “Why Always Me”, and as I’ve mentioned before Zlatan’s “United Nations” stand out. I also get shivers watching Billy Sharp’s wordy and emotional message.