At the time of writing, Argentina have just won the football (or soccer, if you must) World Cup for the third time. With wins in 1978 and 1986, the team in the iconic blue and white kit have gone on to become the fourth most successful country in World Cup history. Only Italy, Germany and the mighty Brazil have won more tournaments.
The Argentina kit, with its vertical blue and white stripes, is certainly unusual and striking. As it happens, the history of the kit is tied inextricably to Argentina’s growth as a country, its colonial roots and its history as a Spanish territory, literally the “land of silver” producing enormous wealth for the Spanish.
So how did Lionel Messi, perhaps the greatest footballer of his generation, and his teammates come to wear such a distinctive kit?
A Tangled History
Nobody is going to see this coming, but to trace the roots of the kit we have to go right back to the Great Schism of 1054 AD where doctrinal disagreements split the Christian church in two. Henceforth there would be two Christian churches, based in Rome and Byzantium.
Blue as a color at this time, and indeed for much of history, held a strange place in humanity’s imaginings. An intangible color, many early civilizations dismissed it entirely, Homer for instance referring to the sea as “wine-dark” rather than ascribing it a hue.
The problem was in the dyes. Blue as a color was unavailable for textiles for many centuries, and only with the advent of lapis lazuli as an ingredient could materials be colored blue for the first time.
Lapis only came from the west, with mines in what is now Afghanistan, and was more expensive than gold. Blue was a rare color, seen as special, and soon the eastern orthodox church in Byzantium began to associate blue with holiness.
Ever wondered why the Virgin Mary is often shown with a blue shawl. This can also be traced back to the church, who for centuries even before the Great Schism had been portraying her in this rarest of fabric colors, known as “ultramarine” because its rarity meant it only came from “over the sea”.
Fast forward to the 1900s, and the king of Spain, Charles III. When a new heir to the throne is born it is generally a cause for national celebration, and so it was with Charles and his son. The king’s son, the future Charles IV, had been praying for an heir for years, specifically to the Virgin Mary in her blue robes.
Well, when Charles III’s grandson was finally born the king chose to celebrate by creating a new order of nobility, called the Order of Charles III (kings are sometimes known to be self-absorbed) with its colors being associated with the Virgin Mary: a blue and white sash and a cross. Created in 1771, it is to this day the second highest honor a Spanish civilian can receive.
Flash forward again 30 years, and Napoleon was carving up Europe in his name through a decade of war. Spain had fallen early and its king, Ferdinand VII (that same grandson of Charles III) had been deposed to make way for Napoleon’s brother.
Argentina was still loyal to Spain at this time, although not for long, and its flag was chosen at this time in support of the deposed king Ferdinand. Manual Belgrano, Argentina’s hero of independence, then co-opted the flag and used it in battle at Salta where it flew above a decisive victory against the Royalists.
There is a certain irony in the Argentinian freedom fighters using the colors of the king they were fighting against, but with Napoleon’s involvement this could be neatly sidestepped. However, with Argentina winning independence in 1816 the flag was officially adopted as Argentina’s national colors, and from there they made their way to the football team.
Argentina have been wearing the same colors since 1908. All thanks to the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Virgin Mary, Napoleon and Manual Belgrano.
Top Image: The Argentina kit can trace its roots to Byzantium and the Virgin Mary. Source: Agencia de Noticias ANDES / CC BY-SA 2.0.
By Joseph Green