NEW YORK — Whether you call it soccer or football, as they do in England and most of the world, the sport is big business. The World Cup, the match series that holds the same importance as the Super Bowl or the World Series, is played every four years and is arguably the most popular worldwide sporting event, drawing billions of fans on television. Naturally, game-worn jerseys from soccer’s top stars are always in demand.
The World Cup debuted in 1930, organized by the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), and was first won by Uruguay. To date, Brazil has won the most World Cup tournaments with five victories to its credit, followed by Germany and Italy at four wins each. The next edition will kick off in November 2022 in Qatar.
Soccer jerseys in the early days of the sport were often forgettable. As time passed and the sport gained in popularity, jersey designs became more colorful to help fans distinguish their players and teams on the field. Originally cut from flannel, modern jerseys are polyester and usually made by Adidas or Nike in what has become a business worth millions. Brazil’s players wore white shirts and shorts until a 1950s redesign yielded the team’s now-iconic yellow and green jerseys, inspired by the colors of the country’s flag. The 1970 World Cup was the first to be broadcast in color on television, and Team Brazil’s members looked memorably smart in uniforms of gold trimmed in green.
Given Brazil’s dominance in soccer, it’s little surprise that the sport’s undisputed king is Edson Arantes do Nascimento. Better known as Pele, he started playing professionally in his native Brazil at age 15. As a ponta de lanca (spearhead), his job resembled that of the attacking midfielders of today: to go forward to make plays, and also to retreat to help make plays. Before retiring in 1977, he scored a total of 1,279 goals in 1,363 games, a feat that earned him a Guinness World Record. A Pele jersey worn in a March 1972 match, offered with a pair of match-worn boots, brought $8,119 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2019 at Graham Budd Auctions Ltd.
Carlos Alberto Torres played alongside Pele and served as team captain for Brazil in the 1970 World Cup in Mexico. A match-worn jersey from that tournament, signed by both Pele and Torres, sold for $8,000 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2020 at Julien’s Auctions. A talented defender, Torres scored Brazil’s fourth goal from a flanking position off a pass from Pele in the finals of that World Cup against Italy. Fans and experts the world over consider the goal one of the greatest moments in sport.
Brazil has produced more than its share of star footballers, including Ronaldo (b. 1976-), not to be confused with Portuguese footballer Cristiano Ronaldo (b. 1985-). Like Pele and Torres, Ronaldo racked up accolades and awards during his career. Nicknamed “O Fenomeno (“The Phenomenon”), at 17, he was the youngest player on the Brazilian team that won the 1994 FIFA World Cup. During the 98 matches he played for his national team, he scored 62 goals and was its third-highest goal-scorer. A match-worn and signed jersey he donned for the 2002 World Cup quarter final against England brought $7,000 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2020 at Julien’s Auctions. Ronaldo scored eight goals in that World Cup with two in the finals match that saw Brazil beat Germany.
Argentina’s Diego Maradona is also widely regarded as one of the best football players ever. He shared the FIFA Player of the 20th Century award with Pele, a special honor created in 2000 to recognize them both. Like Pele, Maradona also held the classic number 10 position of attacking midfielder. He was noted not only for his ball control and dribbling skills but his leadership on the field. A jersey he wore for the Boca Juniors during the Metropolitan Tournament in 1981 realized $12,500 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2020 at Julien’s Auctions.
First among the contemporary footballers who attract a passionate fan base is Lionel Messi. One of his signed blue-and-white Argentina jerseys sold for $1,187 plus the buyer’s premium at Canuck Auctions in September 2020. Messi is renowned for his goal-scoring abilities as well as his creative plays, and holds the title of Argentina’s leading goal scorer.
Game-worn jerseys from all major sports have won followings among collectors, and soccer is no exception. The sport’s truly global nature ensures that the market for authentic vintage soccer jerseys, particularly those worn by legendary players during key matches, will command ever-escalating sums at auction.