A question of sportswear

For an armchair spectator, it’s hard not to engage in a little fantasy football of the personal kind. With the right diet, trainer and, perhaps most importantly, the right kit, could we all achieve greatness? At least relatively speaking?

We’re often told that the indomitable Corinthian spirit lives in the heart and the will – but if its proven possessors and their marketing departments are to be believed, some of it can be communicated through trousers. As a cider-drinking couch potato who gets breathless on a Boris bike and whose tennis racket is so out of use that the wood has warped, I reckoned myself the ideal test subject. When I get on a cross trainer, I actually get cross. So here’s the question: could wearing the pants of David Beckham or the trackie bottoms of Björn Borg really make me thinner, leaner, faster and more determined?

“Eighty-five per cent of habitual wearers of sportswear are morbidly obese,” my brother announced when I told him of my experiment, sourcing his claim somewhat unconvincingly to the New Scientist. Indeed, it’s unclear how much of this gear is actually intended to be used for the playing of sport and how much is meant to be a style statement.

Certainly there are mixed messages involved. Consider Bradley Wiggins’ branded kit for Fred Perry. Are we talking tennis, cycling or Northern Soul revival nights at the pub? The label itself doesn’t give us much help, announcing – like a robot that has just about digested the relevant Wikipedia entries – that “the cycling shirt remains a classic retro sports fashion crossover style and given Wiggins’ own modernist credentials, the range references this unique link between sport and subculture”. Huh. This translates as some well-made, Aertex-style collared T-shirts (£90) with retro metal zips at the neck (the authentic 1970s sort that feel cold and nip your skin), and stripes at the neck and cuffs.

David Beckham models his own range

Also mining the fiercely retro scratchy metal zip seam is the Björn Borg range. Remember him? He’s still alive, according to Wikipedia, and selling a whole mess o’ clothing, though the one thing I’d hoped for – a fat, mullet-restraining towelling sweatband – wasn’t present among the samples. Climb into his gear and it’s the 1980s all over again.

His trad black-and-white tracksuit (jacket £80/joggers £70) is the old-school kind made of thick cotton with zip pockets (keep these done up or all your change will fall down the side of the sofa as soon as you sit down) and a giant shoelace to cinch in the waist. They’re versatile: comfy for a casual game of tennis and ideal, too, for sitting on the sofa eating crisps. Borg trainers (£80) are pared-down old-school cool: probably more for the street than the court if you’re a serious player (they’ve got about as much bounce in them as Green Flash). They have flat green soles, white uppers and fat white laces – a double-stripe of white-on-white and a discreet autograph under the ankle. Made in Vietnam and best viewed through sunglasses. I didn’t get the chance to try out the underwear but the former tennis star flogs a lot of that too. In fact, the website invites you to “get ready for unforgettable nights with our special party pants”, so I pass on the invitation.

Björn Borg, left, in 1981

Meanwhile, Nike, as if glowering at Borg across the white tape and the generations, offers a range of Roger Federer stuff. The two least perturbable men in tennis history – one a diehard baseliner; the other the owner of probably the most rounded game in history – and here are their T-shirts! I put a V-necked Federer T (£25; his clothes are even blander than his interviews, I’m afraid – except the grey and pink polyester polo shirt, £48, which is candidly hideous) over a Borg T-shirt (£30), just to see the clash. Apart from the faint desire to stand in no-man’s land playing a one-and-a-half-handed backhand, however, all I got was sweaty.

Did I mention Rio Ferdinand has his own shoes too? I tried a soft black leather number, apparently called a “Rory fashion trainer” (£120). Essentially what you’d get if a brogue got a soft upper, a stiff rubber sole and a small metal plate (suitable, you’d think, for the door of a tiny doctor’s surgery) on the outside upper announcing “Five by Rio Ferdinand”. Fine for a nightclub, but I wouldn’t try it for football.

Sam Leith wears tracksuit, Björn Borg; trainers, Kobe Bryant Collection for Nike

Then there’s Kobe “Black Mamba” Bryant’s range of gear, also for Nike. I confess, I don’t play much basketball, and I can’t imagine all that much basketball will get played in the UK in this stuff. But it’s definitely sportswear. There’s a comfy pair of lightweight trainers (£110) in an electric blue-and-purple material that looks like the carpet from the lobby of a Premier Inn, and a pair of knee-length basketball shorts (£33) in muted tones. The shorts were flappy, and lightweight enough not to impede my legs as I pounded manfully through the park, and the trainers had a real bounce in the heels. Warming down, I donned a black-and-grey hoodie (£55) with shiny snakeskin-effect detailing on the arms in which, apparently, I resemble a turtle, according to a “friend” (real friends don’t call other friends turtles). Wearing this stuff, I have never felt more white. Others – younger, cooler, blacker – may carry it off better.

Surprisingly, the standout gear, as far as I was concerned, was H&M’s line of David Beckham-branded togs (from £7.99). The pants we all know about – nicely elasticated boxer briefs suitable, as the TV adverts suggest, for pelting through a series of Beverly Hills back gardens with nothing else on. Dandy. But there’s also a really nice and understated cotton-elastane three-button grandad shirt (£19.99) and a moss-coloured vest in stretchy ribbed cotton (£9.99): long, flaring slightly at the bottom and snug around the pecs. When you first put it on, and it gives your moobs a squeeze – I fancy that it lifts and separates – you get the pleasantly homoerotic sense that Beckham himself may be clasping you from behind.

Leith wears vest, David Beckham Bodywear for H&M; shorts and trainers, Kobe Bryant Collection for Nike

As far as style went, after a fortnight of my forsaking the usual Doc Martens, collared shirts and cardigans for hoodies, tracksuits and trainers, my wife astonished me by saying she (somewhat) approved of the transformation: “Amazing how different you look when you wear different clothes.” Better? “Kinda.” She actually liked the look. My mum, less so.

It was, anyway, just so attired – vest and pants of Beckham, trainers of Borg, cycling shirt of Wiggo and hoodie of Black Mamba – and feeling super-confident that I challenged my brother (who has thrashed me since he was 14) to a set of tennis. “Can’t,” he said apologetically, gesturing down at his faded jeans and leather street shoes. “Haven’t got the right gear.”







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