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What to Wear to the Match: An exploration of Spanish supporter culture and wearing the kit, Part I

Is it really cool to wear your team’s shirt to a match? And what’s so unique about that phenomenon in Spain — particularly among Atlético supporters? Mikeie Reiland wanted to find out.

Paris Saint Germain v Club Atletico de Madrid - International Champions Cup 2018
Atleti’s new kit hangs in the dressing room in Singapore.
Photo by Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty Images for ICC

“We need to assimilate”

There were two ways to get to the Estadio Vicente Calderón by metro from the heart of Madrid. If you got off at Marqués de Vadillo — the closest stop, located just south of the river — you emerged from the underground onto a roundabout. Once you oriented yourself, you immediately saw the Calderón rise up in the distance. You couldn’t see inside the stadium, so you couldn’t see the weathered, rickety, red, white and blue seats. At this stage, the Calderón looked pretty unremarkable — just a massive, grey oval.

You followed the crowd on a winding path toward the stadium, down a dirt path of switchbacks along a grassy hill, walking along the banks of the barren Río Manzanares, passing a lone swing set that hung down by a couple thin cords from an overpass. Eventually, you turned a corner and walked out onto the circular road that surrounded the Calderón.

If you got off at Pirámides — the second-closest metro stop, just north of the river — you emerged from the underground onto a beautiful, tree-lined European street. You walked down a hill toward a doublewide merchandise tent, which guarded the entrance to the Glorieta de Pirámides roundabout. You turned right, following the sidewalk on that half of the roundabout and passing two or three consecutive “old man” bars, all dishing cañas of Mahou and showing the match. At this point, you saw the Calderón rise up in the distance.

Though they weren’t actually laid out this way, the roads to the stadium felt like spokes on a wheel, magnetically drawn to a central nexus — the Calderón, in this case. As you exited the roundabout, you joined one of those spoke roads. You passed an old elementary school and a dentistry practice that advertised itself as an official partner of Atlético Madrid (Clínica Dental ATM). Action shots of Saúl, Koke and Gabi hung on the glass walls at the dentist’s office. Eventually, you arrived at the center and joined the corresponding throng from Marqués de Vadillo on the aforementioned circular road

On either journey, it felt like you were part of a wave, everyone moving in the same direction. The wave grew in strength and numbers as you got closer to the target. Things crescendoed as you progressed. It felt like someone slowly, gradually turned your life’s volume knob to the right. As you got closer and closer to the stadium, people began to sing.

You realized that someone had painted your world red and white. Everyone around you was wearing red and white. Even in the old man bars, patrons wore red and white scarves over their cardigans, beer glasses and cigars in hand.

When I went to my first match at the Calderón in November 2015, my friend Spoos and I arrived wearing a green and black-patterned flannel and a grey Ultimate Frisbee jersey, respectively. As we walked around the road surrounding the Calderón, we felt like interlopers, uninvited guests intruding on a weird, really intense family reunion. People seemed to know each other, or at least know the same songs. And everyone wore the red and white.

“We need to assimilate,” Spoos said.

Fortunately, during the walk to Estadio Vicente Calderón from either metro stop, you pass about thirty different pop-up memorabilia stands selling bootleg red and white gear. We snagged a couple of generic Fernando Torres jerseys and we were good to go.

Later that season, I joined my friends Sam and Alex to watch Atlético knock out Barcelona in the Champions League quarterfinals. They each needed proper apparel for the match, so Sam bought a knockoff Koke jersey from El Rastro — Madrid’s massive street market — and Alex bought a scarf from a pop-up stand.

When Sam — a big Manchester United supporter — saw Alex’s purchase, he realized his mistake.

“I feel dumb now,” he said. “I should have gotten the scarf. Way more authentic.”

Plugged into English football, Sam felt particularly wary of “full-kit wanker” stigma, although just wearing a jersey does make one a full-kit wanker.

Club Atletico de Madrid v Real Sociedad de Futbol - La Liga Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images

However, as the walk to the Calderón demonstrated, football shirts are quite popular in Spain — at least among Atlético supporters. People proudly wear club jerseys, especially jerseys from seasons gone by. This is not always the case in England.

I wanted to investigate that particular rub through a simple pair of questions: What should we wear to a football match? And are Atlético supporters unique in what they wear?

Full-kit wankers and the Julgranssuporter

As Sam mentioned, English football supporters have takes about wearing football shirts to matches. “Full-kit wankers” — people who wear the club’s shirt, shorts and socks — are universally seen as onerous across Europe. In Sweden, hardcore supporters refer to people who wear a club’s shirt, hat and scarf as julgranssupporter: Christmas Tree Supporters. No one wants to be a full-kit wanker or a Christmas Tree Supporter. Or a full-suit wanker.

However, after tackling the low-hanging fruit, the jersey rules get a bit dicier. Some snobbier supporters look down on even wearing your club’s shirt to a match, never mind the shorts or the socks.

BBC Brit’s Football Ramble recently debated this very topic — whether a grown man or woman should wear a football shirt in public. They argued that wearing the kit counts as a faux pas for both practical and subjective reasons. For example, if you’re buying the authentic kit, you’re buying a shirt created specifically for professional athletes. You’re buying a thin, tight-fitting piece of performance fabric, which works if you’re a swole athlete with an eight-pack, but more revealing if you’re an average person with any bodily imperfections. The hosts even compared wearing a player’s jersey to cosplay, the conventions where anime superfans dress up like their favorite characters (not that there’s anything objectively wrong with that). They see adults wearing football shirts as a bit childish.

Several Reddit threads also debate this topic, providing guidelines that range from self-explanatory to macho. For example, in one thread —titled “Can someone explain why English/European supporters rarely wear jerseys/shirts to matches?” — the top response, with 141 upvotes, reads “Cause it’s normally cold as f***.”

In non-European, smaller GDP nations, football shirts are often a luxury, and fans don’t wear their club’s shirts because they’re valuable and they carry certain connotations — connotations that can get you decked.

One Racing Club supporter wrote that in Argentina, it’s rare to see anyone wearing their club’s shirt for two reasons: someone might try to beat you up and steal your shirt — since it’s expensive — and you can provoke hooligans from rival clubs. He mentioned he wore his club’s colors to a match once, but ran into some Independiente fans who chased him and his friend all the way to a nearby train station, right into the waiting arms of some police officers. And his brother once had a kit, but it got stolen. He chose not to replace it because it wasn’t worth the trouble it brought.

English hooligans also opt for camouflage, but for different reasons. Though they don’t wear their clubs’ jerseys, they mark themselves ready for battle by wearing the hooligan’s uniform — a Stone Island Jacket and a pair of Adidas Gazelles. British hooligans adopted Stoney jackets and Gazelles in the ‘80s to evade the attentions of both police and rival gangs.

As such, when you see an Englishman in that getup, he’s often a hooligan. You just don’t know which side he’s on.

Other rules seem less functional and more arbitrary. Some supporters argue you can wear your club’s shirt, but you can’t have a name on the back. This is seen as childish, a sign of a bit too much fanboying/fangirling. Others say that you can have a player’s jersey if they’re older than you.

(Sorry, USMNT fans — no Christian Pulisic jerseys for you.)

This rule also eliminates Saúl’s jersey for a large swath of adult colchoneros — which is unfortunate, since buying the 23-year-old’s number eight seems like the best long-term jersey investment that an Atlético supporter can make right now. By this rule, most supporters can’t buy Rodri’s number 14, either — he just turned 22.

In some Reddit threads, certain British supporters wrote about buying kits constantly but never wearing them. This decision makes no sense to jersey-loving Americans, as one United States-based user wrote “I have about 20 kits...and wear them all the time. You Brits are weird.” Another user wrote that he had about $250 of Tottenham Hotspur merchandise on his bedroom wall. He’d never worn any of it.

Not everyone can afford $250 worth of football merch. As such, certain supporters see themselves taking a stand against the consumerist nature of “modern football” by not wearing a kit to the match or by not shelling out for a new kit every year. There’s some validity to this argument. Kits are a cash cow for Premier League clubs in particular, and the league even tried to restrict clubs to changing their strips a maximum of once every two years. And every time I see one of those half-and-half scarves that commemorate individual matches — even just random LaLiga fixtures — I can’t help but think about what an overt cash grab they are. Half-and-half scarves embody “pics or it didn’t happen” in polyester form. They prove that you did, in fact, attend an individual match.

Some of that same animosity toward clubs rolling over their kits year after year exists in Spain, too. When Atleti revealed their baby blue 2018/19 away strip on Facebook, one of the top comments read “It seems like a RIP OFF to pay $85 for a jersey, especially an away kit.”

Nevertheless, the football shirt seems to occupy a different role among Spanish football supporters. Adult Spanish supporters — kids throughout western Europe live in football shirts — seem to wear their kits in public quite a bit more than their international peers. Perhaps the explanation is simple, as Barcelona’s climate allows for short sleeve jerseys much more so than Manchester’s.

That said, a cultural difference appears to exist as well. Most journalists have trouble articulating the exact reason. According to the Spanish Football Podcast’s Sid Lowe, this has all happened recently:

“Replica shirts being worn in Spain is a relatively new phenomenon...When I first came here, very few people bought shirts, relatively few people wore them to games, and you rarely saw them outside of games. And now you see them a lot. Loads. And it was genuinely something that Spanish football fans didn’t do. I think it’s a new thing.”

Ultimately, the most level-headed supporters — Spanish, English or otherwise — say if it makes you happy, you should wear it, especially if you don’t currently live in the home country of the team you support. You’re probably not going to get jumped by Real Madrid ultras if you wear Atleti’s new away strip in the United States, India or China, so you might as well enjoy the luxury if you can afford it.

And if you care about looking authentic, you can’t go wrong with a supporter’s scarf. Not a half-and-half match scarf, but a straightforward scarf that has the club’s name, colors and shield. The scarf is a go-to for hooligans, casual fans, and — as we’ll investigate later — fashionistas alike. When in doubt, wear the scarf.