As tough as it may be, the time has come to admit to ourselves that no team looked better in 2021 than Italy.
The warning signs were there from the opening night of Euro 2020 when the Italian’s all-white minimalist kit simply glowed under the Friday night lights in Rome.
Roberto Mancini’s men dominated their group, looking fluid up front and resolutely strong at the back on their way to 3 straight wins over Turkey, Switzerland and Wales.
We all know what happened next.
Italy swept through the knock-out stages to the final where they beat England on penalties to take their second European Championships crown.
Italy wore three separate combinations of kit through the tournament, with the Azzurri pairing a darker set of peacoat blue shorts with their customary home shirts for the latter stages, including that famous win over the Three Lions under the Wembley arch.
However, it is the glowing white away strip from the tournament’s opening night and the quarter-final victory over Belgium that may live longest in our memories.
Creating more conversation and controversy than VAR or the presence of that remote control car, this radical departure replaced the popular, patterned away shirt from the Azzurri’s “Renaissance” trilogy of beautiful jerseys and was part of Puma’s “Only See Great” campaign for the summer of 2021.
Much-criticised and mistaken for training shirts on release, the collection was meant to push football fashion in a new direction with the unconventional placement of badge, branding and the introduction of team names to the front of the shirt.
There’s no two ways about it.
Italy’s away shirt succeeded where Puma’s other offerings failed.
Since that now iconic Nigeria shirt from 2018, the trend for football shirts has been for ever more loud and expressive patterns, so Puma deserve some credit for being brave enough to buck that trend.
Whilst Italy’s clean, white shirts were a hit, the same can’t be said for all of Puma’s summer collection, which saw similarly stripped-back shirts presented to Austria, Switzerland and Czech Republic for the European Championships.
Meanwhile, Uruguay were the recipients of an away shirt for the Copa América that refused to place their badge at the centre of the design.
By the time Puma unveiled versions for their stable of top tier European clubs as a collection of 3rd shirts, there was open hostility from fans towards a brand clearly dicking about with football shirt tradition.
Italy’s new away shirt was easily the best of the collection which just makes us wonder whether Italians can somehow carry-off fashionable things better than the rest of us?
Items of clothing you’d look a fool in, like those player-issue Armani suits, are suddenly elevated when accompanied by silverware as an accessory.
It’s just not fair and there comes a time when you have to realise that whatever you think you know about fashion is wrong and that Italians can pretty much wear what they want and still make it look stunning.
It may also be true that Italian footballing authorities held Puma to a higher standard than Austria or Uruguay, refusing to allow their badge of honour to be placed anywhere but the very centre of the shirt.
Of course football shirts aren’t designed with middle-aged men in mind and history may be kinder on the design team responsible when more of the “where’s the badge gone” shirts stick around long enough to be associated with success on the pitch.
Covid-19’s interruption to the football calendar upset the cycle of kit releases so much that many of the excellent “Crafted by Culture” kits that Puma had originally conceived for Euro 2020 did not really see their moment in the sun.
Perhaps if these shirts had been launched after the tournament, the world would have been a little more receptive to this new vision for football fashion?
As it turns out, Puma have conceded that they may have got things wrong and in our view, Puma’s 2021-22 collection would have been a whole lot more successful if they’d followed this Italian model.
In years to come, this Italy away shirt will be one of the most memorable and admired shirts of the early 2020s.
It’s just that we might not all agree on it yet.