How Denmark’s 1986 World Cup Shirt Became the World’s Best

1986 was a prolific year for pop-culture: The Oprah Winfrey show aired on national tv, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns hit the newsstands, and Denmark launched the most futuristic kit in the world.
How Denmark's 1986 World Cup Shirt became the World's Best
Meet the best football shirt in the world. Art by Revant Dasgupta.

1986 was a peculiarly prolific year for pop-culture: The Oprah Winfrey show aired on national tv, Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns hit the newstands, Pet Shop Boys’ Let’s Make Lots of Money made platinum, Tupac Shakur played Mouse King in The Nutcracker, Studio Ghibli’s Luputa: Castle in the Sky revolutionised anime, G.I. Joe put the articulation back into action figures; and the World Cup in Mexico was about to debut the Mexican wave and some of the most outrageously optimistic sportswear in history.

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The Ugly Duckling

Flash, click, whirr, flash, click, whirr, flash, click, whirr. We zoom in on the astonishment hanging from faces of many who eventually lower their cameras in the Dansk Boldspil-Union conference room. Many of those wielding notepads and ball-point pens open and close their mouths like a goldfish – their minds crowded with questions that they are yet to find the words to.

Most of the Danish photojournalists have never clicked their cameras as frantically in their lives –  nothing too exciting ever happens in Denmark. On the left there was an audible intake of breath, on the right the floor unsuccessfully cushioned the fall of a cup. The tea lady would have been furrowing at the mess if she wasn’t squinting at the messrs in front of her. Danish internationals Morten Olsen, Per Frimann and Frank Arnesen stood awkwardly, feeling the weight of a hundred pairs of eyes. Beside them, Hummel’s kit-themed-cardigan-wearing managing director stood in solidarity and with enthusiasm, unveiling Denmark’s new uniforms for World Cup 1986.

The shirt flaunted distinctly panelled halves of shadow stripes against red pinstripes, with thin-blue finish for effect, and red chevrons stitched into white sleeves. This was a time when block-coloured panels were only about to enter the beehive consciousness of the fashion-savvy. It was one of the very first in the line of the modern sublimation technology, that added to the sci-fi lustre. Marty McFly and Doc from Back to the Future could have crashed through the wall and tumbled out of the DeLorean DMC-12 wearing that shirt and it wouldn’t have looked out of place.

It was not met without wagging fingers, though. Some called it kitchen wipes. Others said that all it was lacking was an accompanying pram and a rattler. While most without an imagination for critique called it a disgrace, it was a shirt David Bowie would be proud of.

At the forefront of this boisterous blasphemy was the brand ‘Hummel’ (Danish for a bumblebee). They have a history of putting bees in the bonnets of many fashion-hating conservatives, who see jerseys as regimental uniforms. Hummels saw the shirts they made in the 1980s as statement of the privilege to pursue perfection in the art of whatever-that-you-do. The result was a marketing masterclass with domestic sales exceeding 1 million.

The Team, The Tinderbox

Three phones rang and picked up from the receiver in urgent unison. “Scheiße!” shouted a fuming Franz Beckenbauer; “Mierda,” whispered a morose Borras; “We’ll have them!” enthused Jock Stein. The managers of Germany, Uruguay and Scotland were expecting one of Morocco, Algeria, South Korea and Canada as the customary step ladder to advance from Group E of the 1986 World Cup. Instead, they were informed that they had been handed Denmark in the draw – relative newcomers and the most exciting football team in the world. Mierda, indeed.

Not since Hans Christian Andersen’s stories has Denmark produced something out of nothing that has embedded itself in western consciousness as the apotheosis of everything that is good, bright and beautiful in the world. The aptly-named Danish Dynamite teams and their jerseys of 1984-1992 came a close second.

In Jan Molby (Liverpool), Michael Laudrup (Juventus), Soren Lerby (Bayern Munich), Morten Olsen (Anderlecht), Per Frimann (Anderlecht), Henrik Andersen (Anderlecht), Frank Arnesen (PSV Eindhoven), Denmark had a squad brimming with the confidence of champions from five of the best leagues in Europe. The irrepressible Elkjær Larsen and co were hitting their prime. Such was the quality, that the fresh-faced, Peter Schmeichel, 1992 European Championship Player of the Tournament, Brian Laudrup; Flemming Povlsen, Danish 1st Division Revelation of the Year, couldn’t get a look-in.

All this talent culminated into Denmark finishing top of the most entertaining World Cup “Group of Death” till date. They escaped Uruguay’s scythes at ankle height (6-1), Germany’s tripwires (2-0), and the insufferable boulder-down-an-inclined-plane ego of Scotland (1-0) in Mexico (Mehiko) with panache that may make the flashiest tomb raiders fan themselves.

Later, the blow-dart-minimalism of a seasoned Spain knocked them out in the knockout stages. But by then, the bright kit was burned into the back of the eyelids of public consciousness. Close your eyes and you’d see jinking Michael Laudrup nutmegging your boss or professor, your landlord, your ex, your neighbour’s dog.

The starkly contrasting halves of the shirt had balance; as was the case in the Denmark ‘86 team, which had individuals parts that worked for the whole. Competitors for the same positions used to share rooms, jokes and smokes. Loud-mouths like Elkjaer got along well with serial pranksters like Jan Molby. And everyone, everyone loved the simple, country-boy goalkeeper, Allan Simonsen – so much so that they wrote and sang “A Song for Allan” in a garden on national TV. This was done just to wish him a speedy recovery and as a reminder that they had him in their thoughts. ‘Frankie boy’ Frank Arnesen, a former choir-boy, led the vocals. It was a team of best friends and this song made Denmark want to hug their TV sets.

The cheesy-but-lovable song-making didn’t stop there. This time lead by pop-singer Dodo and with the team as backing vocals, “Re-Sepp-Ten”, a song dedicated to their manager, Sepp, sold more than 120,000 copies even after the Danes were eliminated from the World Cup. The most popular song in Danish billboard history is still heard in sporting fixtures even today. (Maria Charlotte) Dodo, until then, a relative unknown, turned into a national heartthrob overnight.

Radio stations and newspapers all across Denmark encouraged fans to add to the lyrics. This saw national celebrities like comedian Friis-Mikkelsen join in the hysteria by pitching in with their two Krones. Noticeably, like many others, Fris-Mikkelsen’s lines had a Hans Christian Andersen theme to it – a fairy tale unfurling in front of their very eyes. Before long, the national team was invited to the Royal Palace by Queen Margrethe. The same kits, tracksuits and boots were gifted to the princes.

This was the kind of togetherness that only weeks before had made Yugoslavia’s battle-hardened manager Todor Veselinović admit himself to a hospital after an anxiety-inducing 5-0 defeat to Denmark. The understanding between the class of 86 was punctuated by the move that led up to Laudrup’s lay-off for Elkjaer’s wholesome finish that made it 4-0.

Such a happy marriage of the team and their threads was unseen before Brazil 1970 and was unseen since Germany 1990. The kits were an extension of their national identity, style, affability but also all-round innovation.

Weeks leading up to the World Cup, Denmark’s manager Sepp drop-and-give-me-fifty Piontek, inspired by race-walking, hoiked oxygen tanks up players’ backs and hiked them up Mexican hills at a time when acclimatisation exercises and high-altitude suits looked like concepts out of Star Trek. The country of Mexico sprawls itself at 7400 feet above sea level and the thinness of air was a cause of concern for athletes, and Sepp, who had an insight into speed-running, was cognizant of that fact.

On the pitch, in the searing temperatures, Denmark were aided by their kit. At the launch, the lightness of the shirt was likened to those used by Olympians and impressed shirt-model Frank Arnesen, who thumbed the edges of his shirt and saw it sling back into shape.

The sheer audacity of the design at the time notably inspired Danish footballer Klaus Berggreen to launch his own clothing line “Viro” many years down the future, because why not. The shirts were so ahead of their time that Hummel worried if the details would be visible in games on old clunky cathode-ray televisions. Hummel and the Danish Football Association almost had a trial-friendly arranged. FIFA said no to the match, but asked Hummel to do away with the matching shorts which extended into the shirt design, as it was a bit too much.

Inspired by such tropospheric thought processes, the Scandinavian Airline (SAS) procured double-decker tour buses in Los Angeles (near Mexico) and painted them with the colours of the kit. Danish football fans (nicknamed the Roligans) enthused by the lack of the self-seriousness of the national team and the kit, arrived in numbers caring more for the experience than the results. The Denmark ‘86 team helped a lot of seafaring Danes overcome their fear of flying.

Where ever the Roliganexpressen went, outbreaks of reefer parties, sunlit laughter, beer-shortage and barbeques ensued. Broadcasters everywhere ran slices-of-life features and snippets documenting their cheery, red-faced affront to the everyday ordinary. On match-days, Mexican police would escort them to the stadium. The world was falling in love with the shirt and the Roligans.

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Srijandeep Das

Managing Editor, journalist, writer. Wants to be the very best like no one ever was.