Sportsmen or super-heroes? The semiotics of the new England kit

19 May 2016 | By Sign Salad

Sport is often described as being a ‘metaphor’ – for war, for self-expression, tribalism and community, or national identity, among a host of others. The launch of the new England football kit was greeted with the customary fanfare, the freshness of the kit implying the fresh new start for the team in the pursuit of its elusive first trophy since 1966.

Inevitably though, the kit and the photos that accompanied its launch signal much more than just 21st century footballing fashion, but are an encoded metaphor for the identity of contemporary footballers.

The kit and its launch photos are striking for three key reasons: they are more figure-hugging than any previous England kit, they employ torso detailing, and the photography is clearly evoking a trope from broader popular culture, beyond sport itself.

The figure-hugging fit codes the kit as fitness equipment beyond just football. Like the neoprene or lycra tops worn by Olympians, these England kits signify the advanced athleticism of the footballers, who don’t just kick a ball around, but exhibit optimum levels of strength, personal discipline and fitness to achieve their international-quality performance.

But there is also an aesthetic ideal at stake here. In clinging to their highly muscled and ‘ripped’ bodies, the shirts transform them into objects of sculpted male ‘perfection’ as envisaged by the ancient Greeks, who chiseled visions of idealized masculinity and Olympian prowess in marble. Thus Rooney, Sterling et al. are not only footballers in these shirts, they become treasured statues to last the ages; timeless tributes to English brawn.
The angular detailing etched into the torso area is a visual nod to traditions of body armour and protective covering. The metaphor of football as war by other means reified in sewn textile. No longer English footballers, but warriors protecting the integrity of the nation; its values, history, heritage, moral fabric, and essential everyday culture.

But it is the press photo that allows these footballers to transcend the everyday and construct an idealised role beyond mere sporting performance. Their staggered positions, defiantly folded arms and sternly-focused stares, combined with an elevated point of view forcing the viewer to look up at the players, mirrors the visualisations of super-heroes represented in posters for numerous Hollywood movies.

x-men-days-of-future-past-poster

Thus footballers are transformed from ball-kickers into paragons of salvatory virtue, overcoming an enemy with unnatural strength, superhuman intellectual strategy, and unearthly mystical powers.

Crucially, like super-heroes themselves, these ordinary employees of regional football clubs, are invested with a grand moral heroism when they don the national kit.  We expect more than goals from them, but acts of courage and sacrifice in the pursuit of victory.

Maybe it is because the new kits code our footballers as super-heroes, not mere mortals, that they can demand to be paid such astronomical sums.  Wouldn’t you pay Superman handsomely for saving the world? So in a similar way, shouldn’t we pay Rooney well for restoring English national pride?

Of course, our super-heroes are typically riddled with character flaws and existential anxiety (the sociopathic Batman, the alienated Superman), alongside their sporting prowess; a combination of which is, perhaps, a very appropriate characterization of contemporary footballers. We’ll see if they can channel both elements to their benefit in their pursuit of glory at the European Championships this summer. Maybe all that’s missing is the cape…

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