Wednesday 28 January 2015

Chris O's Favourite 5... World Cup Shirt Number Fonts

Let's just put to one side the slight awkwardness of the title and instead spend a moment or two considering shirt numbers. First seen in 1924 and not used on a regular basis until around a decade later, these humble little digits have helped us to identify the players on the pitch with considerable ease. Without them, it would have been near impossible to distinguish one player from another unless, of course, they happened to be the proud owner of a regrettable Robbie Savage-style haircut.

Yet it's one thing to wear a number on the back of a shirt; doing so with boldness, flair and panache is another thing entirely. A distinctive typeface can make all the difference when setting your team apart from the rabble that it plays against week in, week out, and the best place to do so is on the global stage.

Where the World Cup is concerned, fixed squad numbering (where a player where's the same number throughout the tournament) didn't begin until 1954. The number styles seen on the backs of players' shirts was fairly rudimentary back then as you'd expect, and the emphasis was on clarity and readability rather than ostentatiousness. To that end, one or two countries were already cottoning on to the fact that the wearing of ridiculously large numbers made for sharpness and originality.

But which of the world's great football-playing nations have really nailed the art of wearing shirt numbers that are bold, distinctive and a little bit different from anything else? Here are my favourite 5, thanks for enquiring...

1. Argentina, 1978

In 1974, we all got our first sight of two classic shirt number fonts that were to dominate football for years. One of them we'll be coming to shortly; the other was a beautiful depiction of the numerical form using lines rather than solid shapes.

Shown here on the right, the 'lines' motif was seen predominantly on Adidas kits right through until Italia '90, and a few slight variations on the theme came about as a result.

One such tweaking of the original design is my first choice. Worn just once for Argentina's opening match of the 1978 World Cup against Hungary, these numbers were squarer than the arche-type (sorry), and you'll note the lines are both thicker and more spaced out too.

The result is a number font that ranks as the best that Argentina have ever worn, in my view. It's bold enough to be seen clearly on those classic sky blue and white stripes, it was modern enough to look contemporary 37 years ago and no-one else dared summon up the courage to wear them either.

In short, those numbers looked fantastic. Such a shame, then, that it was only the Argentinian goalkeeper Ubaldo Fillol that continued to wear his number 5 in that style through to the end of the 1978 World Cup. His team-mates, sadly, preferred the solid 'gridiron-style' font after the first match. Fools.

2. Various, 1974-1998

The other legendary shirt number font that made its debut in the 1974 World Cup was worn by the hosts and eventual champions West Germany, although it was seen on the shirts of many more teams for a further 24 years.

The '3D block' was a game-changer in the world of shirt number fonts. It became the most widely recognised of all number styles, and though it no longer graces the World Cup, you can still find it being worn somewhere on the planet today, such is its enduring appeal.

In the picture above, I've shown West Germany wearing their three-dimensional numbers during the 1978 World Cup, but frankly I could have chosen any number of other countries all doing the same. Whatever the colour combination and whatever the year, it always looked brilliantly current without quickly becoming outdated. A great example of when design takes a great leap forward.

3. Italy, 1978

Staying with 1978, how about this for a gorgeous twist on the common 'gridiron' font I mentioned earlier?

To this very day, teams still wear numbers that are familiar for having their corners cut off at 45 degree angles, but not many have their middles hollowed out. (That's the numbers, not the teams.) This font used exactly that approach to create another type of shirt number that no-one else wore during Argentina '78 and no-one's worn since in this exact form.

Heaven knows why not. It's crystal clear, beautifully proportioned and would work well in any era. Another overlooked classic.

4. South Korea, 1986

These days it's not uncommon to see any team in the World Cup wearing a shirt number font that you probably saw only yesterday while using Microsoft Word. And yes, it's all very nice that modern manufacturing techniques allow you to make use of that same font list when physically creating your shirt numbers, but they still require some effort if they're to look anything but 'off the shelf'.

South Korea's numbers from the 1986 World Cup prove a point. The typeface itself probably isn't a million miles away from a bold version of Times New Roman, but someone somewhere had the idea of cutting out the middle, much like Italy's numbers in 1978.

The effect is magnificent. The numbers are strong enough to be seen from far away, but the serifs and the cut-outs both give the numbers a unique look of their own.

Creativity and imagination: two words sadly lacking from many of today's football shirt numbers, but those canny South Koreans certainly knew how to craft a decent font with this lovely piece of digit-based delightfulness.

5. Netherlands, 2006

And so to my final choice which probably hasn't even remotely reached the furthest corners of your consciousness, so recently was it worn. That's probably because this 'digital' font was used by the Dutch national team not only in the 2006 World Cup but also four years later in South Africa.

Like the '3D blocks' mentioned earlier, this typeface straight out of Pong probably shouldn't work very well due to its futuristic appearance. It might look fine on a TV screen, but on the back of a shirt? Surely not...

Well actually, yes, it does - and how. Proving yet again that numbers don't have to have curves to be readable, this computer-style font never looked better than it did when in black on the back of those iconic orange shirts. There's nothing overly engineered about this font; only the merest hint of a 45-degree angle draws the eye away from the distinct verticals and horizontals. Simplicity is the key, much like the free-flowing football played by Cruyff and Co.

Having been discarded from a third consecutive World Cup last year, any hopes of seeing the Netherlands make this font a national footballing brand were dashed, and that's a shame. Those squared-off numbers could've become a legend for the future were it not for the marketing strategists at Nike who clearly felt they knew better.

Still, there we are. We live in a world where FIFA's four-yearly global championship is without fail a shop window for the kit designs of Adidas, Puma and Nike, and they tend to have one set font for all their teams, most of the time. Has the age of the creative opt-out passed us by? Let's hope not. Shirt numbers can be a work of art in their own right, if designed correctly, and no worse off for having a great deal of care and attention lavished over them.

-- Chris Oakley

Friday 23 January 2015

Billy Hamilton's Football Academy (1985)

Many have tried and failed to encapsulate the world of football in a board game. Whether it be the thrill of scoring goals in a big match or the mental discipline required to manage a great team, you can be sure it's been recreated at some point for the purpose of entertaining children and their families.

Among the lesser-known titles is Billy Hamilton's Football Academy, a game supposedly conceived by the erstwhile Oxford United, QPR and Northern Ireland striker. I want to believe this is true, and there's nothing to suggest it wasn't, save for a bit of tinkering by the board game manufacturers. I say this because Hamilton's express wish appears to be to detail every aspect of a player's career from being a humble apprentice through to winning the World Cup (potentially, at least).

Detail is very much the watchword in this game as can be seen on the board which is dazzling in all its colourful splendour. The playing area is circular and has concentric tracks flooded with illustrations and text that provide all the intrigue and fascination that make you want to play in the first place.

Between two and six people can take part, and the object is to travel around the board initially as a football trainee collecting Skill and Effort tokens by rolling a dice. The outer ring of the board is where the action takes place in this first part of three, and the messages found on many of the spaces show where Billy Hamilton's own experience comes into play. "You volunteer for extra training - Gain 2 Effort" and "Manager adds you to first team squad - Gain 2 Skill" give an insight into the continuing struggle to improve as a young player.

But there's also a notable mention of the more menial tasks that have to be done when you're setting out at the bottom rung of the football ladder. One space instructs you to "Sweep the terraces - grab a broom" whereas others speak of clearing snow, running a bath, cleaning boots or 'making a nice pot of tea for the pro's after training'. There's no denying Hamilton's intent to show the less glamorous side of being a footballer alongside the fame and adulation, and this adds to the charm of the game.

There's also the chance to gain or lose tokens by picking up a 50/50 card or a Linesman's Flag card. Once again, the devil's in the detail as you're told "You have put the wrong studs in the 1st Team's boots - Lose 2 Effort" or "Linesman flags as you control the ball with your hand - Lose 1 Effort". And you wondered why this game wasn't endorsed by Diego Maradona...

Three circuits of the outer section of the board have to be completed before moving onto the second part of the game, and if I'm honest, those three circuits get less interesting the longer they go on. Though the messages and the collecting of the tiny plastic tokens starts out as being quite enjoyable, it does get a little tedious towards the end. No matter, because the next bit of the game concentrates on being a fully qualified professional, but before that can be done, there's some mathematics to attend to.

To determine the position you're going to play in for the rest of your career, you first need to divide the number of blue Effort tokens you received by three, then add that number to the amount of red Skill tokens you've accumulated. If the total is 19 or below, your lot in life is to become a goalkeeper; 20 to 24 and you'll be a defender, 25 to 29 and you're a midfielder whereas 30 or more ensures your fate will sealed as a striker.

Being a striker undoubtedly gives you a strong chance of winning the game, because in Part 2, you travel around your positional track on the board taking instructions from whatever the rule book tells you. Suffice to say that the rule book has more favourable messages for the strikers than it does for the goalkeepers.

Goalies roll the dice and move around the ring of green shirts, while the defenders are on the orange ring, the midfielders are on the blue and the strikers are on the pink. When you land on a space, you use the relevant number to look up the accompanying message in the book. The optimal outcome is to collect one or more goal tokens in readiness for the final part of the game and many of the messages provide in this respect. "Save a penalty - gain 2 goals" or "Score with an overhead kick - gain 2 goals" could be the outcome, but you may just as likely be dealt a slice of life with the message "Visit a supporter in hospital" or "Interviewed on local radio" that carry no goal tokens. In this instance the game falls a little bit flat as by now you're purely focused on gaining goal tokens. Are you really bothered if you've 'entered a fun-run for charity' or 'visited a children's home'?

Any such interest in the minutiae of being a footballer starts to fall away quickly by the time you reach the final inner circle of the board, for it's here that you enter the 'International Stage'. An extra dice comes into play now as you attempt to traverse the last 18 spaces quicker than your opponents. The skill comes in 'pledging' the right number of goal tokens (those pleasing flat yellow plastic footballs) to ensure the right result on the dice. By adding your tokens to the number on the black dice, then subtracting the number on the white dice you end up with the number of spaces you move forward. If it's a minus number, you move backwards.

Any goal tokens you pledge go back to the bank, so it's vital to land on a space where you earn more tokens to keep you going. "You make your international debut - gain 2 goals" is the sort of thing you want to hear at this point, whereas "Go to tailors and measure up for a squad travelling suit" probably isn't.

Anyway, without really being fully aware, the final ring of yellow spaces is leading you to eventual glory as a World Cup Winner, but it's an anti-climactic finish that lacks all the triumphant messaging you want to see as you reach the peak of your footballing career. Not only that, but as I found in playing the game, you can easily run out of goal tokens before you even reach the end, thus highlighting an unfortunate shortcoming of the game.

When the end does come, however, you're left with conflicting feelings about the hour that's just passed. On the one hand, you have to admire the effort that's gone into the making of the game, from the delightful coloured football boots that act as playing pieces, right through to the real-world instructions on the board and the ease with which you can get started without reading copious notes that are hard to understand. Unfortunately the element of submersing yourself in the fantasy of being an actual footballer weakens as the game progresses. There's less need to chuckle at the wording as you realise it's all about gaining tokens and getting to the middle of the board first, which is a shame.

For all that, however, there's not a football board game in the world that's perfect and for that reason it has to rank among the better ones that are available. Well done, Mr Hamilton - you may not be a World Cup Winner, but you certainly gained 2 Effort where I'm concerned.

-- Chris Oakley

Friday 16 January 2015

The Worst of Collecting Panini

A few weeks ago, we gave you the first part of our double-header where we look at the ying and yang of collecting Panini stickers. Previously, we explored the delirium that could be gained from the opening of a simple packet or the sight of a shiny badge among its contents.

It wasn't always that good, though - far from it. Sometimes the act of collecting Panini stickers could make us disappointed, frustrated and downright angry. Well maybe not angry... considerably displeased, perhaps. So let's look at the downside of having an incontrovertible addiction to this self-adhesive sideline...

Misaligned multi-part pictures

Sometimes Panini could be their own worst enemy, but with the best of intentions. From very early on, the Italian company knew that it could make a big impression by combining multiple stickers together to make a bigger image. This was particularly useful for team pictures where lots of detail could be seen in a clearer way.

Unfortunately the stickers didn't always line up perfectly in the album, and this was never clearer than when Panini created four- or even nine-part pictures. Piecing together stickers to make a larger whole required spatial awareness and an attention to detail known only to the world’s finest forgers. Even when possessing such undoubted skills, however, the outcome could look, well… cubist.

If you were applying each of your stickers in, say, a clockwise pattern, you had half a chance of creating a seamless masterpiece. All that was required was a little overlapping here and there to account for any mis-cutting of edges on Panini’s part, and you were away and laughing. Unfortunately, it was often the case that the first two stickers you obtained were for the opposite corners of the big picture. This meant after sticking in the first corner, you couldn't tell for certain whether the opposite one was going to be in the right place, let alone correctly aligned. And don’t even think about using the outlines in your album as a guide - that would likely lead to misery and frustration.

If you knew that each of the individual puzzle pieces had been cut precisely along their horizontal and vertical axis, you’d have had far more confidence in placing your stickers where you thought they ought to go. Sadly, Panini’s cutting machines often had all the accuracy of a Daily Mail article with the word ‘foreign’ in it, thereby ensuring a world of pain and agony for those of us wanting to create the perfect composite display.

Bad cut 'n' paste jobs

Truth be told, Panini are by no means the worst offenders when it comes to bad Photoshoppery. Other unnamed sticker manufacturers *coughFKS* were making ham-fisted attempts at tweaking their pictures long before Photoshop was even invented - and making a worse job of it. The same can be said of Topps’ trading cards too.

The fact is that sometimes a new sticker collection goes into production just too late to allow for new photographs to be taken, so a last-minute artistic amendment is required to make a player picture look technically correct.

This is all well and good… if the doctoring is done respectfully and with a deftness of touch. Unfortunately Panini didn't always succeed in this respect, and the results tended to be, at best, confusing - at worst, an utter horror show!

This particular crime (and you’d be surprised just how prolific it was and still is) usually manifests itself in the phenomenon known as ‘random head on generic shirt / tracksuit.’

These are often done for a variety of reasons. As already mentioned, a player might be new to a club at time of printing so there is no official head shot of him in the correct shirt. Sometimes the team just doesn't have a collection of Panini-friendly head shots (this is especially common amongst international teams and usually affects smaller nations). More common, however, the Sweeney Todd-esque butchery occurs due to the dreaded licensing issue, which we’ll come to later.

When these cut 'n' paste jobs happen, a number of factors conspire to determine the quality of the outcome. How much time the artist had, the quality of the pictures available, but usually the overriding factor would appear to be how much of a toss the artist could give… often not much.

As an example, we present possibly the worst ever example...Robbie Fowler from France 98. Come on! At least paste the head behind the shell suit collar! Disgraceful!

Licensing Issues

We get it. In these days of image rights and tightly controlled cash cows, Panini will alas not be able to have free reign on everyone’s pictures. A common occurrence in early '90s video games, a lack of official license meant that non FIFA titles would often see the London Blues featuring Jean Frank O’Zola squaring up to the Northern Reds and their star man, Derek Canota, and we just accepted this. It even added to the feeling of rebellion if you preferred the non-officially endorsed games.

Yet for Panini this state of affairs has brought nothing but derision. Having looked back through the years, it’s clear that this used to affect a lot of international teams, but of course in the days before Google, our innocent eyes saw no wrong. Could we really be so sure that wasn't Saudi Arabia’s actual kit that season? Nowadays, it’s a lot harder to get away with, but what irks the most in recent times is that of the England team pages.

Since rival Merlin got their hands on the exclusive rights to the England team, we've been subjected to a parade of shame, with the famous Three Lions replaced by nothing more than a circle with a red cross in. Now maybe we could deal with this if it was the worst it ever got, but the horror continues.

For the Euro 2012 album, each team had not only their usual team array of player pics, but also an extra three stickers to showcase their stars ‘In Action,’ with photos of the stars from an actual match - albeit with the official Euro 2012 ball looking suspiciously photoshopped into most of them.

So what did England get? Well, not only were all the England players just a series of floating heads on a white t-shirt, the ‘action’ shots appeared to be the same floating heads, only this time floating in some kind of green cosmos! It’s almost reached the point where we’d rather England not qualify than suffer this endless humiliation!

Half-sized stickers for ‘smaller’ teams

It never meant much as a child, supporting an English club. Every year, Panini would release their much-awaited annual sticker collection - Football 78, 79, 80, and so on - and every year we would fill up our albums until we were exhausted of pocket money or enthusiasm. Yet one thing never seemed peculiar or just plain wrong to us: Why were the Scottish players always on half-sized stickers?

One answer may lie in the fact that as small children, we were somehow pleased with the fact that you appeared to be getting more for your money; two players for the price of one probably seemed very generous back in the day. Through adult eyes, the reality is all too stark, however. Where Panini were concerned, Scottish players weren't good enough to appear on a full-sized sticker of their own, so they’d have to budge up and allow a colleague to share the limelight.

This seems grossly unfair now. Granted, Scottish football didn't have top billing south of the border like English football did, but if you’re marketing your sticker collection to a British market, why not treat Scottish players with the same importance as the English ones?

Imagine the kerfuffle if Panini had applied the same sensibilities to some of the less successful English First Division clubs. Would Leicester City or Stoke City fans have been happy if their favourite players had been shrunk to half-sized representations of themselves? Probably not.

The argument could be extended to those countries making an all-too-rare appearance in one of Panini’s World Cup albums. No full-sized player stickers for South Korea or Algeria when we were kids, oh no.

Anyway, you get the idea. Equality was never one of Panini’s priorities for many years, but at least they corrected that in more recent times. Better late than never.

Elusive / Bountiful Stickers

Collecting Panini stickers is one of the most random things you can do in life. You could walk into any newsagents in the UK and ask for any packet of stickers from any box on any given day, and the stickers you’d find within your packet would have been placed there randomly by Panini on any given day too.

Yet if that’s all true, why did you always end up with eleven doubles of Southampton’s David Armstrong when you were still yet to catch your first glimpse of that Liverpool shiny badge after several weeks of collecting?

Such tales of inconsistency can be found buried deep in the psyche of a million and one former collectors and it’s no surprise that conspiracy theories have abounded for decades. Were certain stickers produced in smaller numbers to generate greater sales as kids tried desperately to get that elusive Leicester City goalie with the crap moustache?

In truth, it seems unlikely, but that does little to relieve the ongoing irritation of not finding those hard-to-find stickers… and the rapid accumulation of those you cared little for.

There wasn't much you could do with your swaps once you’d failed to exchange them with all your playground pals. One idea favoured by some was to use them as decoration for a school book. Let’s face it, football stickers were always going to be better than that piece of wallpaper your Mum gave you, to say nothing of that page from Razzle that your mate had nicked from his older brother’s secret magazine stash.

If done correctly, however, an exercise book covered with multiple versions of the same sticker could be as artistic as an Andy Warhol print (albeit without the rainbow colour palette).

The only downside was that you’d have to spend several terms avoiding the sight of Kenny Burns unless you had an alternative and, frankly, better looking player instead. (Sorry, Kenny…)

Nothing's ever perfect, so it seems, but what did you dislike about collecting Panini stickers? Was there something that always irritated you about the ripping, peeling and sticking that made the Panini legend what it is? If so, leave us a comment and let us know!

Tuesday 13 January 2015

England v Yugoslavia programme, 1986

England's exit from the 1986 World Cup may have been a little earlier than fans would have liked, but everything was going to be alright. Bobby Robson's side were now brimming with confidence and feeling assured that they had all the qualities needed to qualify for Euro 88.

Despite England's 1-0 friendly defeat to Sweden in their first match after Mexico 86, their campaign to reach the 1988 European Championship finals in West Germany had started well. A 3-0 Wembley win over Northern Ireland in October 1986 got things off to the perfect start, but now came Yugoslavia - something of an unknown quantity for Bobby Robson and most of England's fans.

Always the dark horses whenever an international competition came around, Yugoslavia were erratic in their consistency. They'd reached the finals of Euro 84 only to come bottom of their First Round group, and followed that by finishing fourth out of five teams in their qualifying group for World Cup '86.

They undoubtedly had some decent players, yet for some reason they couldn't be relied upon to gel together well when it was really necessary. This, plus the rising profile of Gary Lineker, however, would provide all the motivation England needed.

Lineker found himself on the front cover of the official programme, proudly showing off the Adidas Golden Shoe he received for scoring 30 Everton goals the previous season. Inside, Albert Sewell marked Lineker's entry into England's top 20 goalscorers chart and wondered if he might one day take top spot above Bobby Charlton. Ultimately, he'd fall one goal short of Charlton's 49, whereas both look like they'll soon be overtaken by Wayne Rooney who's currently on 46.

England's starting XI against Yugoslavia at Wembley saw only six players present that faced Argentina at the Azteca five months previously. Chris Woods replaced Peter Shilton in goal, while in midfield, Gary Mabbutt got his first call up in three years to replace Bryan Robson. It turned out to be a memorable night for the Tottenham stalwart as he opened the scoring with his one and only goal in an England shirt.

The other goal on the night came from Viv Anderson, himself a rarity on the England scoresheet. Having seen his appearances for the national team dwindle since the start of the 1980's, Anderson enjoyed a return to the side while Gary Stevens was unfit and scored his second and last international goal to complete the 2-0 win over Yugoslavia.

Bobby Robson spoke of the visitors' thorough preparations for the match and doubted whether the England camp knew just as much about the Yugoslavs. Also weighing on his mind was the paltry attendance for England's previous game against Northern Ireland. "I can't deny I was disappointed at the attendance" said Robson. "I don't consider 30,000 to be a big crowd for an England fixture at Wembley. But let me make it quite clear that I know we have no divine right to large crowds; we have to work to earn the support." No doubt he'd have been more pleased with the 60,000 that eventually turned up on the night for the Yugoslavia match.

Away from the match, the Under-21 squad was under the spotlight in Robert Steen's article 'Catch 22 For The U-21s.' England had done away with the Under-23 team in 1976 to allow greater development of players emerging from the Youth team setup, and the undoubted dividends of doing so were now been reaped. England had won the UEFA Under-21 tournament in 1982 and 1984 and were semi-finalists in 1978 and 1980. Now a new breed of players were hoping for an imminent breakthrough into the full England team under the guidance of Dave Sexton.

Among the squad of 18 named for England's first U21 qualifier of the 1986-88 campaign against Yugoslavia were some familiar names. Tony Dorigo of Aston Villa, Stuart Pearce, Des Walker and Nigel Clough of Nottingham Forest, Tony Adams and David Rocastle of Arsenal, plus Tim Flowers of Southampton in goal... A fine vintage of players, but they were to be the last group to make it to the semi-finals of the UEFA U-21 tournament until 2007 when the likes of James Milner, Anton Ferdinand and Ashley Young were the new names in the frame.

As far as the 1986-88 campaign was concerned, England fell at the final hurdle after a defeat to eventual winners France. Their side featured a couple of nobodies called Eric Cantona and Laurent Blanc, in case you were interested.

Finally, the official match programme gave a warm send-off to Vernon Edwards, the England team doctor who was a familiar sight when giving players urgent treatment on the pitch (and off it). Edwards had suffered a heart attack during the World Cup in Mexico and had reluctantly taken the decision to step down from his duties. Mel Henderson asked Edwards about his England memories and one particular tale stood out for sheer weirdness:

"Sir Alf Ramsey was in charge when Dr Edwards joined the England set-up and in 1971 they accompanied the youth squad to Czechoslovakia for the UEFA Championship more commonly known as the Little World Cup."

"He recalls: "We won the trophy but the trip was memorable from my point of view for an extraordinary incident that occurred when the entire goal rotted at ground level and collapsed on Trevor Francis."

"He received an horrendous injury and at first I feared he had fractured his leg. We seemed miles from civilisation and had a journey ahead of us to Prague for the next stage of the competition."

"I decided to apply a Plaster of Paris splint and had to do it in my bedroom. You can imagine the mess it made!"

Never mind that... since when did you hear the phrase "Match abandoned due to goalposts rotting at ground level'? What a weird football world we lived in back in 1986...

-- Chris Oakley