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Does Spain loss reveal thread of truth in 'Cursed Shirt' phenomenon?

By James McCarthy | China Daily | Updated: 2022-12-09 08:18
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Morocco's Achraf Hakimi celebrates after scoring the winning penalty during the penalty shootout as Morocco progress to the quarter finals at Education City Stadium, Al Rayyan, Qatar, December 6, 2022. [Photo/Agencies]

On Tuesday night, Morocco fans were rocking the Kasbah after their team vanquished 2010 champion Spain from the World Cup with an audacious Panenka penalty from Achraf Hakimi.

The Atlas Lions, then, will return home to Casablanca as heroes, regardless of what happens against Portugal, as they have managed to make history for their national team, going a step further than the class of 1986, and giving a historical enemy a bloody nose in the process.

But at what cost? What is likely to be the biggest fallout from this monumental upset? Well, the Spanish had been wearing their stunning light-blue second shirt for this fixture, its first appearance since it was unveiled by Adidas a few weeks prior to the tournament, and I found myself pondering "does this classify as a 'Cursed Shirt'?"

Sport is famously superstitious. Players have their rituals, particularly when they are on a winning streak, as do the fans. But, given the nature of the game, and the regularly changing strips, soccer has developed a unique phenomenon — the Cursed Shirt.

It can be traced as far back as 1950, and Brazil. In the run-up to that year's World Cup, which Brazil was set to host, the team wore an all-white strip to emulate Real Madrid. After losing its home final to continental rival Uruguay, the fans blamed the "unpatriotic" kit and FIFA itself described it as being "associated with mourning and grief". A national competition was held and the winner, incorporating the four colors of the nation's flag, made its debut in 1954 and, 17 World Cups on, is still favored by the Brazilians.

Perhaps one of the most famous examples of the Cursed Shirt is England's change of strip for the 1996 European Championship. After plowing its way, unbeaten, to the semifinals, England faced archenemy Germany for a place in the final, but the draw cast the host as the "away" team, meaning the Three Lions had to wear the now infamous all-gray strip. They went on to agonizingly lose a penalty shootout, in which current England boss Gareth Southgate missed a crucial spot-kick and was vilified for it in the English press, almost as much as the cursed gray shirt, which was soon discarded.

It seems that '96 was a vintage year for unlucky gray shirts in English football. Manchester United was at the height of the high-flying Alex Ferguson-era, when the team found itself trailing Southampton at halftime by three goals to nil. Fergie, livid, demanded the team ditch its gray away strip. His players emerged in the second half in blue and white and, while United managed to pull a goal back, and didn't concede again, it wasn't enough to save the game, or the shirt, from being chalked up as a lost cause.

Somber colors, it seems, are a no-no, then. Wales was the next international team to find this out in 2016, when it went on its surprise sprint to the semifinals of that year's European Championship. It lost two games in the whole competition, a group game against England and the semi against Portugal, wearing its now cursed "black and anthracite" second strip. While it looked cool, with its sublimated dark gray hoops and bright green trim, it is a shirt that will only ever be associated with disappointment and despair. It was worn one more time in a qualifying match for Russia 2018, which again Wales lost, forcing the team to play the remaining fixture that required a changed strip — against Moldova in 2017 — in a quickly adapted, off-the-shelf yellow Adidas training shirt. Wales went on to secure a 3-0 win and the group's top spot, albeit briefly.

An honorable mention must also be given to Cameroon, which in 2004 debuted a ridiculous all-in-one kit at the Africa Cup of Nations. After already falling foul of FIFA in the 2002 competition for wearing sleeveless shirts, Cameroon further stoked the governing body's ire with its skintight football onesie. After being told to change the kit after the group stage, Cameroon refused, wearing the onesie in the quarterfinal with Nigeria, which it subsequently lost.

FIFA, incensed by this flagrant disregard for its authority, issued Cameroon with a hefty fine (which kit manufacturer Puma paid) and docked the team six points from its subsequent World Cup and Africa Cup of Nations qualifying campaigns, respectively. Following a court case, FIFA reinstated the points, the onesie was consigned to the dustbin of history and no more was said about the football fashion faux pas.

Sadly, I fear that, now, Spain's beautiful baby blue second strip will — if you'll pardon the pun — follow suit.

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