NEW YORK - As the 2018 FIFA World Cup continues its drama-filled march to the final game on July 15, one thing is sure: Sports merchandisers are already big winners. Untold millions of fans and fashionistas have been snapping up national team jerseys to show their support.
Adidas AG's chief executive has predicted the German company will outscore its 2014 sales for World Cup team jerseys, when it sold 8 million units, Bloomberg reports. Suggested retail prices start at $90 for adult sizes, but lower prices can be found online as teams get knocked out of competition in Russia.
Helping to propel sales are fans such as Alex Wong, a 29-year-old tech worker. A regular customer of the New York-based soccer retailer Upper 90, he's at its Manhattan store on Thursday afternoon after recently buying a $90 Russian team jersey there.
"I'm here at the store to have it customized," Wong tells VOA. For another $20, he's having forward Artem Dzyuba's surname added to the shirt. "He scored the equalizing goal at the game on Sunday," adds Wong, who was in Moscow to witness the 1-1 tie with Spain.
Wong, who's "supporting Russia as the host team," owns over 50 soccer shirts.
Soccer enthusiasts like him have plenty of options. Each of the 32 World Cup teams has a unique jersey, designed to be instantly recognizable for its colors and patterns, as well as for its wearer's comfort and ease.
"So it's a pretty magical world," says soccer fan bon vivant and fashion commentator Simon Doonan, sifting through some of Upper 90's World Cup jersey selections days earlier.
In his new book, "Soccer Style: The Magic and Madness," Doonan says that "the worlds of fashion and soccer would have made very strange bedfellows, but times have [definitely] changed."
In the past, fans might wear a team shirt even if it wasn't "particularly attractive," Doonan says. "Now guys wear their shirt, but they want it to look cool … and go out to some bar or night spot and feel like Mr. Fabulous."
This year's runaway hit is Nigeria's jersey, mainly lime green with a black-and-white wing motif on the sleeves.
"The Nigerian shirts are sold out around the world," snapped up within hours of their June 1 release, Doonan says, noting that 3 million had been pre-ordered from Nike.
"It became the cool thing that people had to have to wear with their street-style outfits. It was very flamboyant. Really fun. Daring. A lot of pattern, a lot of color. And it tweaked something in the global consciousness.
"I think there is global interest in all things African: African culture, African music, African style," the author added. "… These strong patterns and the bravado and boldness of it — that's Africa."
Doonan also praises Colombia's jersey.
"It has these daring kind of glam-rock David Bowie lightning bolts raging that are emerging from the armpits. And it's great. Nothing intimidates an opponent quite like saying, 'I have magical powers in my armpits.' This shirt is so successful on so many levels from a design point of view, and the recognition factor is off the charts."
He calls Brazil's jersey "a real classic." Above its crest are five stars: one for each time the country has brought home the World Cup, most recently in 2002.
The design "doesn't tend to vary hugely year to year, because they've got so much heritage to play with," Doonan says, citing the legendary Pelé as well as current forward Neymar and injured right back Dani Alves. Brazil "didn't win last time, so the pressure is on."
Every team has separate jerseys for "home," the primary look, and "away," for playing in a rival's stadium or, as in the World Cup, avoiding confusion with an opponent's jersey. Belgium's "away" jersey features an argyle pattern, while Croatia's has an elegantly muted checkerboard.
Reflection of diversity
Upper 90 carries jerseys for most of the 32 teams that made it to the playoffs in Russia. "The city matches the diversity of the type of jerseys and apparel that we carry," says Upper 90 founder and co-owner Douglas Gatanis.
Its top-selling jerseys are for Mexico and Colombia.
But Upper 90's Manhattan store manager, Robbie Baum, says he loves "the whole France collection. … The away shirt is probably my favorite — that white with the blue-and-red heathering in it. [Its] training top is really nice: that classic French mariner, white with blue stripes. Really, really clean. Beautiful shirt."
French jerseys are much harder to spot on the streets of Dakar, Senegal, says Abdourahmane Dia, a staff reporter with VOA's French to Africa Service.
"It looks like a lot of people don't want to be seen as supporting the French because they are the former colonizers," he says. "People identify more with the African teams."
When the national team was doing well in the early stages of competition, its red, green and gold colors were everywhere. But since Colombia knocked Senegal out of the competition with a 1-0 win last week, European team shirts have emerged.
"There are a lot of Real Madrids, as well, sometimes because they have a lot of fans here," Dia says. "Barcelona, Liverpool. Liverpool, mainly because of Sadio Mané, the star striker for that club and also leader of the Senegalese national team.
Soccer can be a rough sport, but for author Doonan, that's part of its mystery.
"You get these people together and they want to kill each other and win," he says. "But paradoxically, it is a unifying huge numbers of people to come together to watch the World Cup. So these things are going on at the same time. It's a sweet thing, because that's just life."
Carol Guensburg contributed to this report, which originated with VOA's English to Africa Division.