Like the gladiators and medieval knights before them, footballers are larger than life characters and therefore should dress appropriately. While chainmail chic isn’t likely to make a comeback this season (linen is so much more breathable you know) footballers should understand that with great adulation and that £200,000 a week pay cheque comes the need to dress a bit differently from Paul eating a pie in row Z.
“Don’t confuse player style with what the fans are wearing in the stands,” says Simon Doonan, creative ambassador-at-large of New York City-based clothing store Barneys and author of Saturday Night Fever Pitch: The Magic and Madness of Football Style. “Players should always be over the top and outrageous, wearing head to foot designer looks. They wear them on the runway so why can’t a player wear them. It’s important to have those stand-outs for the culture of football.”
Doonan argues that footballers’ style can be whittled down into five tribes. You have the ‘label kings’ like Cristiano Ronaldo and Leo Messi, famed for his outrageous and ostentatious Dolce & Gabbana suits whenever another Ballon D’Or awards ceremony rears its head. There are the ‘good taste ambassadors’ such as former Liverpool and Real Madrid midfielder Xabi Alonso, who eschew the gaudy tailoring for a more muted look.
Then there are the ‘psychedelic ninjas’ such as Neymar, whose cartoonish style can sometimes border on the ludicrous, ‘hired assassins’ like Alex Oxlade Chamberlain who favour a gritty leather jacket and some rugged denim jeans and finally the ‘bohemian fauxhemian’ pack, led by gritty Everton left back Leighton Baines, whose mod-led style is more flouting bassist for Oasis than gritty Lancastrian raised on a diet of two-footed tackles and boggy Sunday league pitches.
“Just like the fashion pantheon, you need your Ralph Lauren so you can have your Comme Des Garcons. They’re juxtapositions that make the firmament.”
With that in mind, here are the 15 best-dressed footballers to have walked the hallowed turf.
The pillar on which all footballers’ style stands, George Best was the mercurial talent who started the tradition of Manchester United number 7’s becoming style icons back in the 1960s (a line that includes Eric Cantona, David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo).
“George Best took all the elements of rockstar style at the time and refined them,” says Doonan. “It was all turtlenecks and medallions and cuban heeled boots, but more in the way a hip Californian advertising executive might wear them, with a safari jacket over the top. It was the start of footballers navigating their anti-flamboyant working class roots with a desire to dress up and have fun in velvet jackets and massive collars.”
Best’s interest in fashion led him to launch a number of clothes boutiques in Manchester and was an early champion of Sir Paul Smith’s designs.
Taking the torch from Best was David Beckham who swept to fashion super stardom in the 1990s just as the footballer as an otherworldly source of worship and celebrity hit overdrive.
“Beckham was right there when fashion and celebrity culture was gaining steam, just as it kicked on when George Best was around in the 1960s,” Doonan points out. “Suddenly you had the Premier League and all the money that came with it, and right there in the middle you had this very good looking, accomplished player.”
Beckham’s style has matured with age. The cornrows, his and hers all-black leather Versace outfits with wife Victoria, and that sarong from the 1990s have been replaced by impeccable tailoring with subtle touches of flair and understated smart-casual looks invariably with a pair of distressed denim jeans.
“Beckham’s fashion trajectory is perfect,” says Doonan. “You’re meant to be playful when you’re younger and not worry about what people think. Then when you’re older, you want to be taken seriously. You’re opening a big football stadium in Miami, so you need to wear something that suits the occasion.”
Along with Beckham, French midfielder David Ginola dominated screens in British football’s new era of near constantly televised football matches. Galavanting around the pitch with his flowing long hair, deep tan and piercing blue eyes he looked like a Pre-Raphaelite playboy who would murder you in a duel and become step-daddy to your family of 15 children.
“Ginola was the first player to grab a L’Oreal ad,” says Doonan. “According to folklore, they took the contract away from Jennifer Aniston to give it to Ginola. He knows he is good looking. If you’re going spend every week charging around a field in front of 60,000 people you’re going to need that confidence. He’s not an avant-garde dresser but he knows his audience. A little bit of Bruno Cuccinelli, a little Zegna. Tailored suits with the dinky pocket square. He looks like he could be in McMafia.”
In the early 2000s a surge of “Euro-fabulous” managers brought some welcome continental style to British touchlines, led by the irrepressible Jose Mourinho and ending with the ever-stylish former Barcelona player and manager Pep Guardiola.
“English managers like Sam Allardyce and Alan Pardew do the Savile Row bank manager look which says, ‘I can be responsible for large sums of money and big decisions’,” explains Doonan. “It still has gravitas in England, that look, but Guardiola has a Prada store manager look or a very chic, high-end undertaker.
“What you’ve got there is a Italian version of English preppiness with the school uniform of those V-neck sweaters and a narrow tie. He’s wearing a few more blouson jackets lately and you don’t see the tie so often anymore, although I think if the team started doing badly the tie would come back very quickly.”
Manchester United playmaker Paul Pogba’s style traverses three tribes – the psychedelic ninjas, the hired assassins and the label kings. Pogba has now released two collections with sportswear giants Adidas, and sportswear meets streetwear reigns supreme in his look. That said, he favours more earthy neutral tones in his wardrobe than the colour riots of ninjas Dani Alves and Neymar, usually in a pair of slim fitting joggers as opposed to jeans with a snazzy bomber jacket up top.
And while the hair is constantly changing between various colours and emojis (what next? the aubergine?) Pogba knows how to match it with his outfit – take the gold flecks in his 2015 Ballon d’Or tuxedo matched by his bleach blonde dyed hair as a prime example.
“Pogba believes that personal style is about creative expression,” adds Doonan. “He was the first player I saw rocking the Givenchy Rotweiler T-shirt. He has fun with his style but he is still an elegant guy.”
When every part of your body right down to your knees has an 8-pack you’re going to want to wear clothes that show off your rippling figure to the full. Therefore the chances of catching mega ripped current world player of the year Cristiano Ronaldo in a baggy tee is about as rare as papping him munching down on a Big Mac.
The skinny jeans are almost permanently spray-on, but the natural punk stylings of the denim contrasts itself well to Ronaldo’s usually safer upper half. Up here he dresses in a series of lightweight jumpers, cool jackets cropped to just above the waist and plain tees hemmed around the mid bicep so we can all get on those gun show tickets.
The Spanish defender is now as much of the London menswear crew as those influencers who actually make it their job to be seen around town when fashion week rolls by. Whether he’s been shot street-style, arm-in-arm with Oliver Proudlock or alongside his front row partner in crime, Neymar, Bellerin is always adorned in some of the trendiest brands in the world, including his personal playmakers – Fear of God and Balenciaga.
Bellerin favours the less wearable oversized silhouette in his jackets whereas the jeans contrast with a slimmer fit and cropped just above the ankle, while he also enjoys accessorising with an arsenal of beanies or off white scarves to draw the attention of the street style snappers.
Arguably the greatest player of his generation, maybe of all time, Leo Messi’s style evolution is the most substantial on this list. When he arrived on the scene at Barcelona he was a gawky, long-haired lover from Rosario, Argentina, but over time the hair has been shorn and styled, with a befitting rugged beard to match. We don’t often get to see his clothing choices unless he is picking up yet another Ballon d’Or, but his tailoring flits between outlandish and expressive to demure but effortlessly classy.
“There was a period where he really dressed up for the Ballon d’Or,” notes Doonan. “He had the burgundy suit and the bright red one, which were both Dolce & Gabbana and worn with a bow tie. Unfortunately the two times he wore the most outrageous suit at the ceremony were the two times he lost to Ronaldo, so I was worried that he wouldn’t wear a fun suit after that. The spotted tuxedo was the one exception, he won that year. I loved that suit and went and priced it at Dolce & Gabbana. It was $10,000.”
Yes, the stratospheric pay packet on offer must have been tempting but you can’t help but think there was a reason beyond the football and money for Brazilian trickster Neymar to make the move to the fashion capital of the world last summer. Neymar is a rampant hypebeast, devouring Parisian brands like he does defenders on the pitch. “Neymar has his own look,” says Doonan. “It’s very unusual, almost like a Manga character.”
Two of his favourite brands are Louis Vuitton and Balmain, with the striker seen sporting a jacket from the latter brand at the Ligue 1 football awards. Black with a glitzy gold dragon trim emblazoned all over it, the look – a cross between a samurai’s dinner jacket and something Michael Jackson might dress up in – was peak Neymar. Gold is certainly his colour but for more dressed down affairs Neymar is more inclined to wear all-over denim, but with a loud bandana wrapped across his forehead because workwear is a little too workmanlike for this ethereal superstar.
Let’s be honest, it’s not for everyone, but there’s no-one quite like him, on the pitch or off it.
Through his career, Xabi Alonso was an elegant and safe pair of feet in the middle of the pitch for successful sides at Liverpool, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich. And just as the skills and tricks of a George Best or Neymar are echoed in their sartorial choices outside of the stadium, Alonso is the definition of a good taste ambassador, favouring well-cut and pristine grey suits or lounging cardigans over the streetwear of his younger peers. “He has been very vocal about his disinclination to wear jewellery and he only wears a watch,” says Doonan. Think of Alonso as the Johannes Huebl of footballers and you won’t be far off.
“He has the hired assassin look, but he also has a range too and probably thinks quite strategically about what to wear,” says Doonan of Liverpool and England midfielder Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. “He might have a big-boy meeting so he thinks that he should put on a jacket. To accomplish what he has accomplished at that age you have to be pretty put together.”
At 5ft 9in, Oxlade-Chamberlain opts for slim fitting jeans that work better at balancing out your upper half than skinnier options with a cushy sweat when off duty or a well fitted blazer when contract signing time in the boardroom rolls around. Roll necks also come into play in the colder months as do loafers on the Ox’s subs rotation bench.
“Footballers are the perfect sample size for clothes, and Henry is the best example,” says Doonan about well-proportioned former Arsenal goalscoring hero Thierry Henry. “He could have been a fit model. It’s not him to be an avant-garde straight off the catwalk dresser, but he is very suave and looks fab in a suit.”
Henry is a good taste ambassador as befits his current role as a pundit and assistant manager of the Belgium national side, with an army of natty suits to pick from to work into one of his myriad of TV appearances, ranging from jacket-trouser combos with a check in them, to slim fitting three pieces. Out of the box Henry is more of a casual dresser in a dressed down tee and denim trousers, but it’s his suit game that really warrants his inclusion on this list.
When you’re good mates with Arctic Monkeys frontman Alex Turner and Miles Kane from The Last Shadow Puppets then you’re bound to pick up some rock and roll stylings along the way. Think Liam Gallagher’s heavy duty parkas and oversized shades and you wouldn’t be too far away from Baines’s style.
“He has the classic mod look,” says Doonan about Baines. “But more like the 1990s revival, with Oasis and Britpop. I love his hair do, but its very hard to maintain. It works well for rockstars because they travel with hairdressers, so I can only imagine he has one at Goodison Park.”
Another one of the good taste ambassadors, former Italian international Andrea Pirlo was voted as having the best hair on the team when playing for New York City FC late in his career. When asked why he thought he had won, Pirlo, poe-faced as ever, replied that it was because it was his. “Long hair on the pitch is challenging,” says Donnan. “There’s a few people who have made it work and Pirlo is one of them.”
Away from the locks, Pirlo’s go-to outfit is distinctly Italian – luxurious shirt with sleeves rolled up the forearm, designer shades, chinos or a pair of dark wash denim, and some cushy loafers. He might throw a blazer on over the top, but its more likely to be a chunky knit cardigan, because looking made up and elegant when you’re from the country of sprezzatura is that easy.
“He’s a very accomplished player who has won just as much as Ronaldo and Messi,” says Doonan on former Barcelona man, Dani Alves, now playing for Paris Saint-Germain. “If you’re him and you have won what you have, then you can wear a Givenchy kilt. Who cares? Plus someone is making all these clothes so someone has to wear them.”
Just like his pal Neymar you can’t help but think Alves emigrated to France for the fashion (it can’t have been the level of competition on offer in the French league). Their styles are very similar, so underneath the extravagant blazers, you might see Alves dabbling in a wraparound karate-like tunic, or in more casual looks, a gleaming gold print bomber with drop crotch trousers. While we would not recommend you try this look at home in the world of football, a considerable amount of Dani Alves style bravado is needed to stand out from the label flashing, cash splashing pack.