YouTube preserves many wonderful treasures from the past, rarely more golden than when Eric Cantona bestrode the earth. And in almost all the epic goals that decorate this five-minute compilation, Eric is wearing a long-sleeved shirt.
At some point in the intervening quarter-century long sleeves, along with the Anglo-Italian League and black football boots, have disappeared from the game (though not racism, homophobia and intolerance of all kinds). And yet football is a winter sport, surely ill-suited to what is in effect a T-shirt (albeit with miraculous wicking properties). Have footballers become more hardy and virile?
‘No’ is the short answer. On the contrary, it can only be a matter of time before players take the field in overcoats. Sir Stanley Matthews would not have rolled his socks over his knees. He would not have worn cycling shorts except perhaps on a bicycle. If he ever played in gloves it would surely only have been as an emergency goalkeeper in the days before substitutes. As for tights, in Sir Stan’s day running around kept you adequately warm.
‘No’ is also the longer answer. Short-sleeved shirts enable players to get away with a bit of layering. Beneath the maillot du jour, the colour, design and detail of which will vary according to venue, occasion and time of year, players wear long-sleeved undergarments. This untidy habit is only slightly mitigated by the regulatory insistence that the visible long sleeves should match the colour of the outer short sleeves. Such under-sleeves do not, of course, bear any stripes or other patterning. They do not have a noticeable cuff. They aren’t always a particularly good colour match. They can, however, bear a logo or message to be revealed when a goal is scored. No doubt footballers think they are ‘edgy’.
Can clubs not afford two sets of shirts, then? Again, ‘No’ is the obvious answer. Clubs produce new strips at the drop of a hat and customise them to commemorate special events. In former times a player would have been offered a choice of short or long-sleeved shirt. His selection would then have been drawn from a hamper containing 20 freshly-laundered shirts: one short, one long-sleeved for each of the 10 outfield players. (According to legend Arsenal was an exception: there, the captain decided what sleeves the whole team would wear.)
Does any of this matter? Once again, no. But you can’t help feeling that it’s all part of football’s determination to milk as much revenue as it can from fans, perhaps in this case by getting them to buy twice as many shirts as they need.