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Mar 23, 2013

Colour schemes

A few days ago, the new issue of When Saturday Comes landed on my figurative doorstep. There's a piece in it about how Cardiff City's new owner Vincent Tan has distributed free red scarves among the club's fans in order to drum up support for his most controversial innovation - changing the club's colours. Out went blue, in came what Tan has called "the colour of joy", red.

Author Scott Johnson says that "the rebrand has been met with little resistance" and that it's "likely to accelerate if promotion is secured". That's because the changing of colours has coincided with a run of excellent results and performances. Success, it seems, is dearer to the fans' hearts than tradition.

That got me thinking about colours. For instance, I wondered if what happened in Cardiff would be possible in Germany. On the one hand, there have been a few cases where teams suddenly sported some very strange colours. In 1998, Karlsruhe - who traditonally play in blue and white - presented a remodeled crest that incorporated yellow and red. Soon the team also ran out in a new kit, despite the vast majority of fans hating the change.

The marketing men hit upon the idea because yellow and red are the colours of Baden, a former Grand Duchy and now one half of a federal state, and the plan was to promote the club as representing not just a city but a region. Well, it didn't help that the team dropped from the Bundesliga to the third division after the change was made.

Generally speaking, though, messing with colours is difficult in Germany simply because they often form a part of the club's official name. You may be familiar with quite a few teams called Rot-Weiss, red and white, for example from Essen, Oberhausen or Erfurt. More common, though, is Blau-Weiss, blue and white, which is a moniker used by more than 120 clubs.

I'm not aware of a country where this custom is as widespread as it is over here. Yes, there was Blauw-Wit Amsterdam, a club that merged with two others in 1972 to form FC Amsterdam, but I can't think of any other Dutch clubs named after colours. Similarly, there's only one Austrian team that comes to mind - Schwarz-Weiss (black and white) Bregenz, who won promotion to the Austrian top flight in 1999 but went bankrupt six years later.

The fact that we regularly name our clubs after their official colours tells you that this isn't a matter we take lightly. And yet there are some confusing cases. Hannover 96, for instance, list black, white and green as their official club colours. But the team normally play in red and are actually referred to as the Reds by their fans.

The precise reason is lost in the mists of time, the most convincing theory says that the local football authorities decreed around 1900 that each club from the city had to play in a different colour. Since green was already used by a club which is today called Hannoverscher SC and blue had been reserved for BV Hannovera 1898, Hannover 96 were ordered to don Vincent Tan's colour of joy - and simply continued doing so to this day.

There is a similar story with regard to HSV, Hamburger SV. The club's official colours are blue, white and black. Yet the team is known to all and sundry as the Rothosen, red shorts. This goes back to the summer of 1919, when three Hamburg clubs merged to form HSV. It was decided to make the colours of the oldest forerunner club (SC Germania, formed in 1887) the official colours of the new club. However, in order to underline the fact that the new club considered itself a team for the entire city, the founding fathers chose to actually play in a kit showing Hamburg's colours - red and white.

This matter of club versus city colours prompted an interesting story in February. When Bayern Munich hosted Borussia Dortmund in the DFB-Pokal, Bayern fans in the south curve suddenly displayed black and yellow and a banner that read "The colours of the most awesome city". Then they switched to red and white and a new banner which declared "The colours of the most awesome club".

It was a clever take on the fact that Bayern's colours are red and white while Munich's colours are black and yellow - and that it's exactly the other way round with Borussia and Dortmund. It may have been a tad too subtle, because many people were plainly bewildered when black and yellow came up in the Bayern stand and only applauded once they saw the familiar red and white.

The fact that Bayern, Germany's record champions, normally wear red will please Vincent Tan. It's his colour of choice not just because it stands for joy. Another reason he wanted Cardiff City to change is that he has a theory about colours and silverware. "You look at Man United and Liverpool and they are red," he told the BBC last month. "They are much more successful and have a bigger fan base than Chelsea or Manchester City."

His reasoning is not as unusual as you may think. The all-conquering Real Madrid side of the 1950s left such a lasting impression in their all-white kit that quite a few people copied them. The most famous example is probably Don Revie, who prescribed a lilywhite look for Leeds United in 1961, a decision which, in the words of writers Rob Bagchi and Paul Rogerson, "effectively jettisoned 40 years of United's history".

It is less known outside of Germany that pretty much the same happened over here - twice. Until Hennes Weisweiler took over Borussia Mönchengladbach in May 1964, the club had sported an all-black kit while their official colours are white, black and green. Weisweiler's wife Lilo, goes the story, hated that proto-gothic look and asked her husband to do something about it. The coach trusted his wife's instincts and decided to have his team play in all-white, the look that would later become iconic and define the club's greatest years.

However, as nice as the story is, there could be another explanation for this particular colour change. Weisweiler became famous as the man who built the great Gladbach team, but he was a Cologne boy through and through (they even named the club mascot after him).

Cologne's club colours are red and white and until the 1960s, red was the dominant element. Sometimes the team even played in all-red, usually the shirt was red, the shorts white. Cologne used this traditional look as late as the 1960 championship final, but in the following summer they began sporting Real's all-white more and more often, probably on the advice of their ambitious president Franz Kremer. By the time the Bundesliga was introduced, in 1963, it had become Cologne's standard kit and was one reason the team would earn the nickname "the German Real Madrid".

Who knows, Weisweiler might have figured that what worked for his old club might just do the trick for his new one. And it did, to the point where both clubs now consider the Real style their own classic look. When Gladbach travelled to Highbury for a UEFA Cup game against Arsenal in September 1996, many people were surprised to see the team run out in an all-black kit, unaware that this wasn't a novelty but in fact a retro look.

But of course none of these German colour makeovers can be even remotely compared to an outside investor coming in and telling a team that has been known as the Bluebirds and played in blue since around 1910 to change into red. For the time being that's impossible over here because we have this rule that prevents outside investors from obtaining a position where they can make decisions like that. I'd feel blue without it.

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