JOHANNESBURG – Some of these soccer players are such nice fellows, they’ll give you the shirts right off their backs.
No, really. Watch the end of any World Cup match, and you’ll see players exchanging their sweaty, stinky, game-worn jerseys in a time-honored tradition, one of several that set soccer apart from other sports.
“It’s a respect thing,” former U.S. defender Marcelo Balboa said. “And, let’s be honest, it’s a cool thing, too.”
Baseball has its seventh-inning stretch, basketball the pregame handshakes and American football players march out to midfield for a coin toss. Hockey has the post-playoff series handshake line. But none can top soccer’s little touches.
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At the World Cup – other games, too – schoolchildren hold the hands of the starters and escort them onto the field. The captains exchange fancy, colorful pennants that include the teams’ names and the date of the game. And, of course, there’s the shirt exchange.
“Soccer is a game of theater and pageantry as much as any other sport. And ritual,” U.S. defender-turned-ESPN commentator Alexi Lalas said.
According to FIFA, soccer’s first swap meet came in 1931, after France beat England for the first time. The French players were so elated with their 5-2 victory, they asked the English players if they could keep their jerseys as mementos. Trading jerseys continued here and there for the next few decades.
But it was Bobby Moore and Pelé’s exchange at the 1970 World Cup that turned something quaint and quirky into a spectacle that now epitomizes sportsmanship in soccer.
Pelé and Moore were and still are considered two of the game’s greatest players, and the matchup between the brilliant striker and the stingy defender was a highlight of Brazil’s 1-0 victory over England in the group stage.
After the game, Pelé approached Moore, and the rivals embraced and exchanged jerseys in what was seen as the ultimate show of respect.
Since then, players have been seeking each other out after games to trade shirts.
“The coolest thing is the changing of the jerseys,” U.S. captain Carlos Bocanegra said. “For me, that’s my favorite thing.”
There’s no exact science to the swap. Because it’s done at the final whistle, players often just take the shirt of whoever is closest. When club teammates face each other, they might arrange a trade beforehand.
When it’s a big-name player, however, all bets are off. Players are fans, too. Of course they’re going to try and get their mitts on a Kaka or Lionel Messi jersey if it’s up for grabs.
“When we started, it was fun to figure out whose jersey you were going to get,” Balboa said. “As we got stronger and people got to know us, it was fun to watch people coming up and asking for your jersey.”
North Korea’s stay at the World Cup may have been a short one, but Jong Tae Se made sure he picked up some nifty souvenirs. North Korea’s leading scorer snagged shirts from both Robinho and Kaka after his team’s loss to Brazil.
Jong also tried to pick up Didier Drogba’s jersey. But the Ivory Coast striker, a huge fan favorite at this first World Cup in Africa, tossed his jersey into the screaming crowd, instead.
Players can amass quite the collection during their careers, and many say they hang on to every single shirt they collect.
Balboa has a drawer filled with more than 100 shirts, and has framed some of his best gets – Pelé and Carlos Valderrama, among them. England’s Michael Owen displays his in a “lad’s room” at his house.
“I have a collection in my closet at home,” Bocanegra said. “After I’m done playing, I’m sure I’ll pick a few out and frame them and put them on a wall.”
But not everyone hangs onto them. Lalas said he’s given away the jerseys he collected over the years.
“I was there. I have my memories in my head and my heart,” Lalas said. “And I thought someone else might appreciate it more.”
Like one of those kids who clutch the players’ hands as they walk onto the field, perhaps.
More than 1,400 children from across the globe were chosen to walk with the players at this World Cup. Aged 6 to 10, the kids are often more overwhelmed at the idea of getting up close and personal with their idols than they are about walking in step in front of the world.
“I wasn’t nervous, I was just excited to be holding the hand of one of the best players in the world,” Rameez Mahomed told The Times of London after being paired with Fernando Torres for Spain’s game against Honduras on June 21. “And not only the best, but my favorite as well.”
It’s not just the little people that get a kick out of the child’s play, though. Robinho’s big worry before Brazil’s first game at the World Cup was about the kids, that they wouldn’t be warm enough on a bone-chillingly cold night. Luis Fabiano looked downright touched when a small boy bear-hugged him.
“I love that,” Lalas said. “Ultimately, this is a game. All these men you see walking out started out as little kids. It’s a wonderful image.”
AP Sports Columnist John Leicester and AP Sports Writers Tales Azzoni, Mike Corder and Paul Logothetis contributed to this report.