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Tuesday, March 9, 2010
Updated: March 10, 10:48 AM ET
The worst World Cup jerseys of all time

By Roger Bennett
Special to ESPN.com

My first World Cup, the delirious spectacle of Argentina 1978, was played in the consumer dark ages. Sports manufacturers had yet to wise up to the fact that impressionable 7-year-olds like me would pay good coin to cloak ourselves in the garb of our idols. To diffuse my frustration, my mother purchased an orange nylon phys ed shirt, and used a sewing needle to emblazon the breast pocket with the words "Dutch Power" in crude, white cotton stitching. By the time my Dutch heroes had fallen in the finals, the shirt had shrunk to my midriff, and the stitching, long unpicked, had become frayed, fuzzy and illegible.

I was not alone, and once the apparel companies realized there were thousands of potential consumers like me, their polyester master works flooded sports stores worldwide. From this point on, the creation of every World Cup soccer shirt posed a peculiar design challenge: The jersey had to look sensational on the bodies of some of the most highly paid athletes in the world, fire up the imaginations of pre-teens and flatter the beer bellies of the legions of fans who wore them to cheer on the team from the stands.

On Monday, we saluted the designers who squared the circle and clad their teams in visual masterpieces. But today we will look at those who wilted under the pressure, defacing traditional designs by becoming infatuated with fleeting trends as opposed to classic style, replacing the inspired with the insipid, or confusing the gracious and the garish.

In these worst-case scenarios, the manufacturers now rely on the razzmatazz surrounding the shirts' launch, hoping few will notice the misconceived design. It is a sign of our age that the unveiling of new strips has become almost as hotly an anticipated event as the announcement of the World Cup squad itself. Umbro recently revealed England's World Cup alternate jersey via one such poorly thought-out concept. British indie rockers Kasabian were enlisted to debut the red away shirt during the encore of a concert, but the gig was in Paris ("away" from home), and the marketers had clearly not factored in the response of the Gallic audience. They received the dramatic unveiling with a bawdy crescendo of boos.

Before we take a walk down the catwalk of shame, I doff my cap to behemoth Nike for the interesting touch it has employed in the name of securing competitive advantage for the nine shirts it contributed to the World Cup this year (which include Brazil, the Netherlands and the United States). Each shirt contains recycled garbage in the form of eight plastic bottles. Nike estimates more than 13 million bottles have been recovered from landfills to accomplish this feat. An interesting flourish for lovers of subtext or for truth in advertising. Nike's shirts in this World Cup are, to borrow an English phrase, quite literally rubbish.

Here is a Hall of Horrors from the past 80 years of World Cup style featuring 10 designs which should have been left on the cuttings pile:

1. Bolivia 1930

Bolivia 1930

The first design is a finger in the eye for those who like to bemoan how simple the good old days were. Long before the dawn of television, agents or even highly choreographed goal celebrations, bad-taste shirts were a feature of the World Cup finals. Bolivia arrived without ever having won an international fixture and perhaps in an effort to curry favor, attempted to salute its hosts by wearing jerseys each bearing a single letter spelling out "VIVA URUGUAY." However, the team could not quite get its choreography together and, during the course of two appearances in which it leaked eight goals without finding the net once, really appeared more like an alphabet soup.

2. Germany 2010

Michael Ballack

Germany's 2010 away strip was recently unveiled to raised eyebrows in England. The English tabloid the Daily Star ran a series of sensational articles in which German captain Michael Ballack was juxtaposed with images of Adolf Hitler under the headline "Return of Ze Black Shirts." The German tabloid Bild countered by demanding an apology for the comparison, howling that the worst mass murderer in European history couldn't be connected with a professional footballer. The Star, another tabloid, countered, predicting that this shirt would kick up a "Reich Stink" and was a goose-step too far. The mainstream English media and the English populace in general, however, weren't as interested in engaging on the topic.

3. Spain 1994

Spain 1994

1994 was a terrible vintage for World Cup design -- a year of good shirts gone wild. The World Cup came to the United States, Jon Secada and Diana Ross played the opening ceremony, and the surrounding tournament went a little bit Vegas. Take the Spanish jersey, by way of example. Its classic red shirt, usually a simple but fearsome sight, was reimagined with unnecessarily festive piping and detail, transforming Red Fury into Red Gaudy. A fragile team, notoriously lacking in confidence, was cast adrift, forced to take the field in humiliating outfits more typically seen on the busboys at Senor Swankee's House of Tequila in Cancun.

4. Mexico 1998

In lists of this kind, eccentric Mexican goalkeeper Jorge Campos predictably crops up on account of his predilection for flamboyant, clown-like garb. Campos was a talented goalkeeper who apparently dedicated much of his career to creating a top 10 worst-shirt list single-handedly. But upon discovering he designed them all himself (citing surfing in Acapulco and horseback riding as his twin muses), I would argue he should receive a free pass. Without the psychedelic shirts, it is doubtful he would be remembered so fondly. One can only marvel at the way he cemented his legacy through couture. His 1998 outfield teammates deserve no such clemency. Their shirts bore a mournful Aztec design, foreshadowing the long faces the squad itself would be making after being dumped by Germany in the Round of 16.

5. England 1990

England 1990

England's Italia 90 design was soccer's equivalent of New Coke. The team's traditional white shirt was a classic formula unnecessarily perverted by the addition of garish alternating square rhombus shadow stripes. England's shell-shocked players were still glancing at their chests in disbelief minutes before kicking off their opening game.

6. Cameroon 2002

Cameroon

With style notes evidently cribbed from B.A. Baracus' "A-Team" wardrobe, Puma somehow persuaded the Indomitable Lions to go sleeveless. Cameroon first sported the figure-hugging shirt, designed to emphasize the bulging biceps of a team feared for its physical dimension, while recapturing the 2002 African Nations Cup. But FIFA stepped in to ban it three months before the World Cup finals, claiming, in the words of its adamant spokesman, "They are not shirts ... they are vests." Puma halfheartedly stitched on black sleeves and the unbalanced design reflected the way the team ultimately played in failing to emerge from the opening round.

7. Brazil 1994

Romario

This rule-shattering garment broke the long-standing edict that a team with a nasty jersey cannot lift the trophy. Even though Brazil wore it to win the World Cup, it did so with a functional, spirit-crushing style in which physicality trumped flair. This shirt symbolized the soulless nature of Brazil's achievement with its ill-advised, bombastic adornments sullying its iconic gold design, making Brazil look like just any other team.

8. South Korea 2002

Jin Cheul Choi

Holland dazzled the world by reaching the 1974 final in its "Brilliant Orange" shirt. South Korea upped the ante in 2002, reaching the semis in fluorescent orange. The jersey made the team resemble a bundle of Sanford Sharpie Accent Highlighter pens and triggered global grumbling among couch potatoes of the world who were forced to adjust the contrast on their television sets.

9. Germany 1994

Was it the shirt? Or was it the players who wore it? It is truly impossible to remember. This dull yet cloyingly consistent German squad featured Jurgen Klinsmann, who looked like Siegfried without Roy, and Rudi Voller, whose perm and moustache combo screamed porn star. The pixelated German flag splashed across the jersey and echoed along the left thigh resembled a Teutonic eagle, reflecting writer David Winner's quip that "In the narrative that is the World Cup, Germany plays the role of villain. ... A World Cup without Germany would be like Star Wars without Darth Vader."

10. France 1978

Dominique Rocheteau

On June 10, 1978, France met Hungary in the first round of the tournament. The two teams were horrified when it was discovered they had arrived armed only with their road uniforms, which were both white. To salvage the game, the French players were persuaded to don the shirts worn by local team Atletico Kimberley, which is why they strolled onto the pitch wearing this distinctly un-chic ensemble in which the curtains did not match the drapes: a green-and-white-striped creation coupled with their traditional blue shorts and red socks. The clash did not affect their play -- they went on to win 3-1 -- but it remains a rare example of a jersey misfire caused not by bad design, but by poor organization, and is a telling symbol of how small time the World Cup was just 30 years ago.

Roger Bennett is the co-author of the forthcoming "ESPN World Cup Companion," your guide to everything you need to know to enjoy the 2010 World Cup. E-mail him at sirfabiocapello@yahoo.com.