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Apr 5, 2013

Seeing red

A fortnight ago, we talked about colours, or at least I did. (See: "Colour schemes", March 23.) It was partly prompted by Vincent Tan's decision to rebrand, as they call it in the biz, Cardiff City and change from blue to red. In that context, I quoted what Tan, a Malaysian businessman, had told the BBC in February: "You look at Man United and Liverpool and they are red - they are much more successful and have a bigger fan base than Chelsea or Manchester City."

After the column was published, a reader pointed out that each and every Dutch championship-winning side since 1964 has sported red. Granted, there have been only five of them - Feyenoord, Ajax, PSV, AZ and Twente. But still. The last club to win the Eredivisie in non-red were the blue boys of AFC Door Wilskracht Sterk, who later became FC Amsterdam. (You've got to love those Dutch club names. This one translated as "strong through willpower".)

As Tan said, the situation in England is similar. The three most successful sides in terms of titles won are all associated with the colour red: United, Liverpool and Arsenal. In (West) Germany, the record champions for many decades were Nuremberg, who traditionally play in a dark red, until they were overtaken in 1987 by Bayern, known as the Reds. And don't the record champions also wear red in countries like Portugal (Benfica) and Greece (Olympiakos)? Wait a minute, maybe there's something to all this after all...

If these examples suggest (and it's an "if" we'll return to) that teams in red have more success, there are two possible explanations. One is that the colour itself has a particular effect on the people who wear it or on their opponents. The other is that there are simply more teams that play in red than in any other colour.

Of course certain colours have certain effects, that much should be self-evident. It's the reason why Jürgen Klinsmann introduced - or more precisely: revived - red away shirts for the Germany team in August 2004. The then-national coach, who presented the new shirts together with a psychologist, said the colour signified "aggressiveness, passion and positive energy".

Nine months later, in May 2005, a report in "Nature" magazine by Durham University academics supported him. It said that wearing a red kit increases your chances of winning in combat sports. Russell Hill and Robert Barton had analysed a handful of Olympic disciplines in which athletes are always assigned either blue or red, for instance boxing. "Whether red suppresses the testosterone of the opponent or boosts the testosterone of the individual wearing red, we don't know at the moment," Barton told the BBC. "My hunch is that there is a bit of both going on."

Two years later, Hill and Barton teamed up with two biologists from Plymouth to investigate the situation in English football. Unsurprisingly, they found that "red shirt colour is associated with long-term success" and used this result - rather boldly, one has to say - to claim that "the 'red advantage' applies across a range of sports". However, they still hadn't found an explanation for it.

"Visibility", the paper said, could play a role, or maybe "psychological and/or hormonal responses" (for instance, red could signal dominance).

In the summer of 2008, sports psychologists from Münster University published a study which basically confirmed the Durham findings - but with a subtle twist. The Münster scientists conducted an experiment with Taekwondo fighters and found that the athletes in red won more often simply because referees tended to favour them! Now, here's food for many Manchester United and Bayern Munich conspiracy theories.

If science says red is superior, maybe Tan has a valid point and more clubs should consider a change? After all, it's not verboten. United originally played in green and gold and only went red in 1902, while Bayern's colours were white and blue until 1906. In those early days, though, it is likely neither team made the switch after having consulted a group of sports psychologists. (As an aside, it's a little known fact that 1860 Munich's club colours are also green and gold! White and blue are merely the colours of the parent club's football division.)

The other explanation - that simply the majority of teams wear red - is difficult to investigate, as there are way too many football clubs (more than 25,000 in Germany alone) to check them all. My gut feeling, however, is that red and blue are just about equally popular.

What you can examine, though, are closed leagues, with no promotion or relegation. A study by The Sports Design Blog in 2001 found that "red is the most common colour in MLB and the NBA, while navy blue is the most common in the NFL". Being a baseball buff, this made me wonder. Because of the five most successful teams in terms of World Series appearances - the Yankees, the Giants, the Cardinals, the Dodgers and the A's - only one wears red!

The case for red is only marginally better in the NBA, where merely three of the top seven teams as regards finals appearances (Lakers, Celtics, 76ers, Knicks, Pistons, Bulls and Warriors) have been known to don that colour. And that despite the fact there's a majority of teams in red in both sports!

Having mentioned the green Boston Celtics, who have won almost three times as many NBA titles as the red Bulls, how about the other Celts, from Glasgow? Neither they nor their fiercest rivals wear red, yet you can't say it's hurt them. The Old Firm, sporting Celtic's green and Rangers' blue, has won 97 Scottish league championships - the rest of the country 15. And merely ten of those 15 titles went to teams in red or reddish/maroon colours (Third Lanark, Hearts and Aberdeen). Which means in Scotland, red has fallen behind 102-10.

So maybe that colour isn't quite as powerful and successful as people from Durham, Netherlands or Malaysia are inclined to believe? For instance, I wonder how the French feel about this entire colour theory, considering their three most successful clubs are St. Etienne (green and white), Marseille (blue and white) and Nantes (yellow and green). In Italy, Milan are the only of the big clubs that sports some red but you could argue that, if you allow me a pun, it isn't really their primary colour. Over in Spain, meanwhile, the record champions wear all-white which, if you're partial to hair-splitting, isn't even a colour at all.

The situation is similar in South America. In Brazil, the most successful club (Santos) is associated with black and white; number two (Palmeiras) with green and white. With Corinthians and Vasco da Gama also playing in black and white, that leaves only three famous teams (São Paulo, Flamengo, Fluminense) to use a bit of red. And in Argentina, the colour is even less successful, it seems, as only one of the four most trophy-laden teams - River Plate, Boca Juniors, Independiente and Racing Club - has a smattering. (Namely River Plate's famous thin red strip that goes from the left shoulder to the right hip.)

I'm the first to admit that my brief survey is totally random and not half as scientific as watching a bunch of boxers and Taekwondo fighters or poring over Football League results. But how about this?

There have been 19 World Cups and only two of them were won by teams associated with the shirt colour red. The first was England in 1966. The second was Spain in 2010. And they wore blue in the final against Netherlands.

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