'Woke' conspiracy or culture war baiting? Behind the controversy of the new England football kit

Behind the controversy of the new England football kit
Behind the controversy of the new England football kit Copyright Nike
Copyright Nike
By David Mouriquand
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Nike's "playful" redesign of the St George's Cross on the new England kit has sparked a row – leading to a culture war that only shows a country needing to (finally) grow up.


England’s new football shirt is causing quite the stir – and not because of the extortionate price tag.

The controversy has led to the creation of a "Save St. George's Cross in English football" petition on Change.org (which at the time of writing has 46 391 signatures) and even prompted bi-partisan unity (gasp!), as the Conversative Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Labour leader Kier Starmer have both shared their displeasure at the new stylistic change.

So, what’s behind the hubbub exactly?

For the rollout in the run-up to the UEFA Euro in Germany (14 June – 14 July), Nike dared to change the colour of the St. George’s Cross on the shirt from the traditional red and white (double gasp!). The altered cross on the back of the shirt collar is now has purple, red and blue horizontal stripes.

“Well, what did the police say??” you may exclaim.

Not much, as all this change has done is sparked a frankly ridiculous and pointless culture war.

A “woke” conspiracy

Nike says it’s a “playful update” to the shirt and harks to the training kit England wore at the 1966 World Cup, the only major tournament won by the men’s team.

Still, the change caused uproar among some fans, who cried out that the new design is both disrespectful of national traditions and a “woke” conspiracy to virtue signal and promote progressive causes. Some have even called to boycott the sports manufacturer.

Former England goalkeeper Peter Shilton told BBC Radio 4's Today programme he does not agree with the changes, saying "I'm a traditionalist".

Shilton, who is the current record holder for most professional appearances, said the England football team represent the country, "and red white and blue are the colours that we have on our flag".

Politically, there’s also been some rare (if depressing, considering the debate du jour) unity across both aisles...

Rishi Sunak stated: “I prefer the original and my general view is that when it comes to our national flags, we shouldn’t mess with them because they are a source of pride, identity, who we are and they’re perfect as they are.”

Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer said in a post on X: "Fans should always come first, and it's clear that this is not what fans want. Our national heritage - including St George's Cross -brings us together. Toying with it is pointless and unnecessary.”

Keir Starmer said he believed the flag was a “unifier” and Nike needed to “reconsider” its decision to modify it.

“It doesn’t need to be changed,” he told the Sun newspaper. “We just need to be proud of it.”

Another Labour Party member Emily Thornberry said: “You wouldn't expect Nike to go off and have a look at the Welsh flag and decide to change the dragon to a pussycat. You wouldn’t expect the England flag to be changed like this.”

Much ado about nothing

Nike and the English Football Association have indicated they are not going to change tack.

“We have been a proud partner of the FA since 2012 and understand the significance and importance of the St. George’s Cross and it was never our intention to offend, given what it means to England fans,” Nike said in a statement.


Despite the criticism, the FA defended the design, saying it was “not the first time” different coloured St. George’s Cross-inspired designs have appeared on England shirts and it was “very proud” of the traditional cross.

“The new England 2024 home kit has a number of design elements which were meant as a tribute to the 1966 World Cup-winning team,” a spokesperson said. “The coloured trim on the cuffs is inspired by the training gear worn by England’s 1966 heroes, and the same colours also feature on the design on the back of the collar.”

Further reason came from England coach Gareth Southgate, who said the furore has “not been high on my list of priorities.”

“It’s a hard question to answer really because it is presumably some artistic take which I am not creative enough to understand,” Southgate said when asked about his thoughts on the new design.

Southgate added that, for him, it was more important that the symbol of the three lions stayed on the shirt than the St. George’s Cross.


“It’s our iconic symbol — it is what distinguishes us not only from football teams around the world but from England rugby and England cricket,” he said of the three lions.

Former England player John Barnes said he could not understand what all the fuss was about.

“It’s a much ado about nothing,” the 60-year-old former winger said.

Prior form and short memories

It’s not the first time a designer has played around with UK flags on sports uniforms and received backlash. There have been many shirts too where the cross has not featured at all.

For instance, in 2010, the home shirts featured small multi-coloured St George's cross pattern dotted on the shoulders.


Famed designer Peter Saville told the BBC it was to reflect a "colourful society” and said at the time he would have made the English flag 'in a million colours' if given the opportunity.

His 2011 away goalkeeper kit's pattern was made up almost entirely of interlocking crosses of different shades of green.

"Modern England, as part of the UK, is a very socially diverse and ethnically diverse community, so I thought we need to share this cross out more broadly across the community,” said Saville. "I not only wanted to see it in red and white but I wanted to see it in black, yellow, orange, blue, purple, green, pink - I wanted it to be something that a diverse cross section of people could identify with."

On the kits at the centre of the current row, Saville said: "It's interesting we're talking about it in 2024. I thought it was pretty topical 10 years ago, but maybe it's more so now."

Elsewhere, designer Stella McCartney’s uniforms for Team GB at the 2012 Olympics featured a blue and white Union Jack, instead of the traditional red, white, and blue interlaced crosses on the British flag.


Cost-of-living crisis, anyone?

Maybe, instead of focusing on a minor design alteration, more pressing issues are at hand.

Take the price tag of an “authentic” version of the shirts, which for adults will cost £124.99 (€145.80) and £119.99 (€140) for children. A "stadium" version is priced at £84.99 (€100) and £64.99 (€75) for children.

That’s quite an outlay at a time when household budgets have been stretched as a result of one of the most acute cost-of-living crises in decades.

To be fair, Starmer did state that the price of the shirt should also be reduced.

Maybe it’s time to stop focusing on beloved flags and put the “Britania rules the waves” bit to bed, to better realise the country is not now that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven, to quote Tennyson. Just a thought.


Or just focus on the football. 

England lost this weekend during an international friendly versus Brazil. The redesigned kit was worn for the first time at Wembley during the 0-1 loss. Pretty sure the revamped cross had nothing to do with that.

Additional sources • BBC, The Sun

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