Suspending Animosity: The Football Shirt Swap

It’s the little things.

 I’ve been fully enamoured with the concept of the shirt swap since I first saw it in action. Mind you, I’m an American and a latecomer to world football, and we don’t have anything like this in American sports. I’ve never seen a baseball pitcher record the last strike of the last out of a playoff game and then trot to home plate, unbutton his shirt and give it to the batter. Or a hockey player tear off his helmet, throw his gloves to the ground… and strip off his sweater to hand it to the man who’d been trying to strangle him in a mid-game fight.

I first saw the shirt swap in the 2006 World Cup and was awed by this strange and wonderful ritual. In a game of grueling intensity, with outcome and advancement hinging on tight scorelines and endless pressure, I loved seeing players end the battle with this good-natured exchange. A show of mutual respect. A momento from the contest. A tangeable reminder that your rival was also your peer. It was saying, I just spent 90 minutes plotting your undoing, but now that it’s over: let’s be friends. A peace offering.

Imagine if this could translate to life’s other battles… Soldiers trading fatigues after a skirmish… Polititians exchanging dress-shirts after a debate… Barristers swapping wigs in the high court… Two drunks in a bar trading beer-soaked t-shirts after fisticuffs… Two sumo wrestlers exchanging… um… okay, you get the idea. (I did see a joke video once of two women tennis players trading shirts after a match. Granted, this might be enough to get me to actually watch tennis… woah now… I sound like I’ve been brainwashed by Sepp Blatter… ignore this bit.)

In any team sport, it is too easy to project our feelings as supporters onto the players. Though these athletes are paid professionals, we want them all to feel our same deep love and loyalty for the team, and, subsequently, we want them to take on the disdain, scorn and outright animosity we often feel toward the opposition.

In light of this unspoken assumption, those little moments of outright sportsmanship feel all the more refreshing. They allow us to suspend our animosity for a brief time and accept our enemy as a human being. From helping the victim back to his feet after a rough tackle to kicking the ball back to the other team after an injury stoppage, these moments of decency are a sweet pause: a reminder to supporters and players alike that we are all the same beneath our colors and loyalties and that, even in the heat of fierce rivalry, our basic decency needn’t completely evaporate. Supporters project this sentiment themselves when they applaud opposition players after a good performance or welcome home an old hero who now plays for the other side.

These moments are not specific to football, but because of the fierce, heightened tension that pervades football matches and the supporting culture, these instances of spiritual generosity provide a stark contrast and have a way of knocking me over.

Pele and Bobby Moore are credited with first bringing the shirt swap to widespread attention in the 1970 World Cup, I wonder how that scene struck people who had never seen it before… two living legends transcending the match context to greet each other as contemporaries. Though that was the instance that brought shirt-swapping to the broader culture, the phenomenon dates back to at least 1931, according to, when the French team asked for the English team’s shirts after a win. Now, an embedded tradition, we perhaps take the exchange for granted. But it remains a beautiful ritual. The epitome of what we mean when we talk about true class.

When I saw the Seattle Sounders exchange shirts with the Chelsea players after losing 2-0 on Saturday, my joke to a co-worker was: Well, that’s the high point of Seattle’s day… Of course, I know this isn’t true. Hosting Chelsea must have been a pure thrill for the fledgling MLS side from start to finish. The same as when a lower-league English side gets to face a Premier League giant in the FA Cup. Even in loss, the experience is momentous. But the shirt swap was the culmination of that feeling. Here is a symbol that on the day, some of the greatest players in the world were your peers. In a sense, when the players strip off their name and number and colors, they are briefly shedding their identity. For this moment, I’m not Frank Lampard, I’m not Cristiano Ronaldo, I’m not Pele… I’m not a Blue, a Red, English, Brazilian, American… no: I’m just like you. A man playing the game he loves.

It’s the little things.

What can I say? I’m a sucker for simplicity.

19 thoughts on “Suspending Animosity: The Football Shirt Swap”

  1. Great piece Ethan. It’s something I took for granted but never realized it didn’t happen in other sports.

    Wasn’t there a game last season or the season before where the manager told his players not to swap jerseys because he was incensed by how the other team had played rough? I can’t remember which game it was, but it sticks out in my mind.

    The Gaffer

  2. Great piece, Ethan. Really, really enjoyed it. I read somewhere that Arshavin doesn’t partake in swapping shirts. He attempted to once with Cristiano after Portugal/Russia match because his wife had asked him to trade shirts with Ronaldo! Anyway, very well written. These non-biased pieces appeal to everyone. Good job!

  3. Nice read. And a great tradition. While hockey players don’t swap gear, they do have the tradition at the end of a playoff series of lining up and giving mutual congratulations/hand-shakes. I do agree, sportsmanship is unfortunately a rarity in too many sports, and many professional leagues could learn a thing or two from this footy ritual…

  4. Great article! I have always wondered how the shirt swaps are worked out. At one point does a player agree to swap with another? I have noticed scenes after a number of matches where one player attempts to trade with another only to be told that a prior arrangement has been made with another player. Do players ever agree to a trade pre-match or early in the game only to receive a better offer later?

  5. We have always had the handshakes at the end of the game and the shirt swap became a natural extension of it, though in most cases isn’t it just a case of souvenir hunting?? Where players of a lesser side seeks out the shirt of the best player in the oppositon so they can frame it and put on their wall at home?
    Keen collectors will hunt down the player whose shirt they want before the game and agree to a swap. I imagine that is what happened with Seattle on Saturday, it is not every day they can get hold of the shirts of Lampard, Terry etc… so they will have been keen to get in there first.

  6. Hockey does the same thing, basically, with the handshake line at the end of each playoff series. It’s a unique proceeding that’s just as special as swapping shirts at the end of a game, and frankly, I’m getting tired of seeing the swapping of shirts in almost every game I watch. It’s becoming too watered down, to be honest. Save it for the truly meaningful games, not an international friendly or something of that sort.

  7. Ronaldinho used to swap his shirt at half time in Champions League games for Barcelona and also at the end, but with different players.

  8. Very well said Ethan.
    I have a question. Why do some players now, when asked to swap shirts by their opposing player, point to the dressing room and, I assume, suggest that they swap shirts in the dressing room. Is this protocol madness. Doesn’t the FA, EUFA and FIFA realise that the best PR for the game is to let kids see players swap shirts. Does anyone know the logic here?

    For those of you who love the great Bobby Moore here’s a 10 minute tribute to him.
    Meanwhile I chose the Moore Pele moment as one of 4 sportsmanship moments for the cover of my sportsmanship book alongside Nelson Mandela and two Americans, Lance Armstrong & Joey Cheek .

  9. Every time I see a shirt swap, I wonder if the shirts get washed. Is a match-worn jersey more valuable if it still smells like a sweaty Frank Lampard? I also wonder if players have a closet full of opposing jerseys at home, and if some get displayed like scalps. The whole tradition is similar to the banner swap between captains at the start of big matches – who’s hanging up all those banners?

  10. I also wonder if players have a closet full of opposing jerseys at home, and if some get displayed like scalps.I’m getting tired of seeing the swapping of shirts in almost every game I watch. It’s becoming too watered down, to be honest.

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