A Look Back at the Age-Old Soccer Tribute Taking Over the NFL

The New York Times recently profiled an age-old soccer tradition making its way into the NFL: the shirt swap. It’s the “ultimate show of respect,” a transaction “freighted with meaning.” Apparently, the ritual has become a conventional and even customary part of football post games, in the same way that it’s been a time-honored practice in fútbol for decades.

For NFL stars like Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., jerseys are material objects that hold deep sentimental significance. “You watch any of the gladiator or Spartan movies [and] on the field of battle is their helmet or whatever they were wearing – they won or lost in it. The jerseys are kind of like our armor. It’s something to be remembered forever.” This is so much the case that these dudes go out of their way to text each other weeks in advance to set up trades (kind of like my sisters when they want to swap shirts). Everyone abides by an unspoken code, too; these jerseys are not to be sold. Rather, they should be air-dried and framed or hung as mementos for all to see.

It goes without question that we’ve all seen our fair share of absurd trades – whether they take place in the tunnel at halftime (Balotelli and Pepe – I’ll never quite understand that one), or on the pitch before time runs out (à la Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Neymar). But where did it all begin?

In fútbol, the practice is said to date back to 1931, when France beat England for the very first time by a score of 5-2.

For us, two other instances come to mind, both of which helped to solidify the importance of the jersey swap as an often momentous exchange in the world of fútbol. The first went down 1966; England had just defeated Argentina 1-0 to advance to the World Cup semifinals. As George Cohen approached Alberto González to trade shirts after a hard-fought battle (“hard-fought” perhaps putting it lightly here), England manager Alf Ramsey ran towards him to prevent the transaction from taking place. This iconic picture was the result:

Cohen himself reflected on the incident for a piece celebrating British sporting history for The Guardian: “I remember it really well. When the famous picture at full time was taken I was about to change shirts with this guy. Alf saw what was happening and he rushed over. He said: ‘You’re not changing shirts with him.’ Or words to that effect. By which time the sleeve of the shirt must have been about three feet long. He was incensed by the way they played.”

In a much more positive encounter, Pelé and Bobby Moore exchanged jerseys after Brazil’s 1-0 victory over England in the 1970 World Cup in Mexico. The two are credited for having popularized the ritual, and everything about this trade screams class and respect.

Upon the final whistle, Pelé embraced and swapped shirts with his esteemed opponent. Both men had produced fantastic moments over the course of the match, with Moore denying Jairzinho (the eventual goalscorer) with a stellar tackle, and they reciprocally recognized each other’s brilliance on the pitch.

“He was my friend as well as the greatest defender I ever played against,” said Pelé. “The shirt he won against me in that 1970 match is my prized possession.”

(h/t The New York Times)