World Cup uniforms originally played the simple role of separating one team from another. They are now among the most lucrative billboards in sports. The shirts, once cut from flannel in 1930, are now made of polyester, but they might as well be spun from gold. Adidas, tailor to a dozen teams battling it out in South Africa, expects to top a reported $1.8 billion in soccer sales courtesy of the tournament -- soccer's equivalent of turning water into wine.
The marriage of World Cup and commerce began in 1954 when West German Adi Dassler supplied his war-weakened homeland with a competitive edge: revolutionary screw-in studs which enabled players to adapt their boots to changing conditions midgame amidst the rain and mud of Switzerland. The Germans were victorious and adidas began the climb from fledgling sports manufacturer to global giant.
Nike leaped aggressively into the soccer fray in 1994 and since then, the two brands have used the World Cup as a fierce marketing battleground, a tournament within the tournament at which they carve up the powerhouse teams between them. Germany, France, Argentina and Spain are Team adidas. Brazil, Portugal, Holland, the United States and England (through vassal brand Umbro) are backed by Oregon's finest. Underdog Puma quietly snapped up almost every team in Africa, a slow and steady gambit set to pay off handsomely as the tournament heads toward the continent for the first time in June.
The intense competition between the big three apparel companies has fostered a frantic culture of creativity and reinvention in which soccer shirts have become a canvas and designs have the life expectancy of a fruit fly. Every uniform experiences an extreme makeover before any major tournament.
These chameleonic conditions make the challenge of judging which shirts are truly epic as subjective as deeming what makes great art. Legendary performance helps (see Brazil 1970) but is by no means critical. Indeed, the majority of the teams below fizzled in the early rounds (Zaire 1974). Some of the shirts are definitive old-school classics while others are bold, avant-garde reinventions that redefine the genre. What matters most is the first impression: the distinctive swagger they grant a team running out onto the field for its World Cup debut, back when everything still seems possible, and the storylines of success and failure are yet to unfold. To steal a quote from Roman bard Horace (65 BC to 8 BC), the great shirts are "poetry without words": images which burn onto your retina, remaining there long after the team itself has been eliminated.
1. Peru 1978
The stark slash slicing through the shirt was a simple yet strikingly effective piece of design. The team was appalling but if soccer were scored like figure skating, and points were factored in for style, Peru would, without a doubt, have instantly been hailed as world champion.
2. Zaire 1974
Once Zaire became the first sub-Saharan team ever to qualify for the tournament, President Mobutu seized the opportunity to use the World Cup as a global public relations coup. He rebranded the national team the Leopards (it had been known as the Lions) to reflect his trademark hat and demanded victory. While their record (three losses, 14 goals conceded, zero scored) could not match the inflated expectations of an entire continent, the Leopards' shirt design could. It was a three-part masterpiece of complementary design elements: an eye-catching logo in which a leopard is poised to attack an unsuspecting soccer ball; deceptively simple font work; and floppy, casual yellow collars. Adidas designers on top of their game.
3. Brazil 1970
Brazil's squad, loaded with the explosive firepower of Pele, Tostao, Gerson, Rivelino and Jairzinho, was one of the finest ever assembled. Its stylish, flamboyant soccer was the sport as if choreographed by Cirque du Soleil. This was the first World Cup to be broadcast in color, lending the television footage an evocative quality which captured the warmth of Brazil's classic golden shirts in all of their finery.
Despite fielding young striking phenomenon Hugo Sanchez, the Mexicans were dumped in the opening round, losing decisively to Tunisia, West Germany and Poland. What lingered about their appearance was the sassy selection of Bay Area jeans-and-casual-wear specialist Levi's, who delivered on its promise that "Quality Never Goes Out of Style" by inventing these snuggly verdant V-neck creations.
Johan Cruyff's magnificent Dutch side played "Total Football," a radically freethinking style of soccer that used perpetual movement and passing to confuse opponents. Trumped by West Germany in the final, the Dutch's brilliant orange shirt was the only thing that became a winner, enhancing the long hair and chilled-out vibe of the team. Cruyff was so indispensable, he had his own customized uniform. Because the Jedi-like maestro was sponsored by Puma and the jerseys were made by adidas, he received a tailor-made shirt with two stripes, instead of the trademarked three.
6. Denmark 1986
They are red, they are white, they are Danish Dynamite! So sang the fans of this deliciously attacking squad resplendent with mullet-wearing players. When it was unveiled, their jersey, a delicate half-shirt made by Danish outfitters Hummel, was as coveted as the attacking verve of creative forces Michael Laudrup and Preben Elkjaer. It ultimately became a stylish harbinger of their tournament fate, its unbalanced symmetry hinting that soccer is a game of two halves, of both attack and defense. Denmark crushed all comers in the first round, emerging as many critics' choice to win it all. A 5-1 mauling at the hands of Spain was a reality check. An offense with no defense will get you only as far as the second round.
Long before Norway charmed the pants off the world with its fashion-forward curling attire, Croatia rocked the look in the '90s with this controversial but audacious shirt, a singular style perfected here in 2006.
8. United States 1994
The host USA squad was desperate to avoid the humiliation of becoming the first home team unable to safely navigate the opening round. The genius of its uniform designs have rarely received true credit. The designers used humor to defuse the pressure of the situation. The curving lines of the home kit project a plucky, fun-loving confidence. The away kit elevated stonewashed denim by dragging it onto the sports field, suggesting a spirited inventiveness that many feared the team lacked. How good did these designs look? Even Alexi Lalas' ginger beard looked cool when he pulled them on.
If the Cold War had been decided "Project Runway"-style by Tim Gunn, we would all be living under Communism. At a World Cup played amidst global ideological turmoil, it was only fitting that East Germany would be drawn against West in the group stages. East Germany won the match, against all odds, 1-0. It also won the style war. Stout, utilitarian font coats the breast, drawing the eye to the idealism of the logo. Together they project an air of menace sufficient to unnerve their more materialistic brothers from the West.
10. Argentina 1986 away kit
The white and sky blue stripes of Argentina's home jersey are a design classic. But in 1986, when Diego Maradona skipped through virtually the entire English team to prod home one of the greatest goals the tournament has ever witnessed, he was wearing this V-neck, all-blue away shirt which resembled the sports-casual look of medical scrubs. As he lacerated the English defense, the jersey appeared to coolly gloat, "I can just roll out of bed in my pajamas and still crush you."
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 email@example.com.