Since the explosion of the vintage football shirt scene over the last decade, there are certain shirts that have emerged as holy grails: the Arsenal “bruised banana shirt” of 1991-93, the away shirt USA wore at their World Cup in 1994, the home shirt in which the Netherlands won Euro 88, West Germany’s home entry for Italia 90, and pretty much any Napoli shirt from the Diego Maradona era.
And then there is the Fiorentina 1997-98 away shirt with Super Mario on the front. Over recent years, this shirt has attained almost mythical status within the community of collectors. Pictures of the shirt, complete with the face of that iconic Italian plumber just below the Nintendo logo, have been circulating around the nether regions of the internet for years.
It became the textile version of the Yeti. The legend went that 300 of them were produced at the time, but it seemed as if no one had actually seen or owned one. Nevertheless, people were adamant the shirts existed. The fable simply continued to grow. The shirt was also legitimised by FourFourTwo magazine, who placed it 23rd in their 50 Greatest Shirts of All Time list last year.
One day, this most Holy Grail of shirts would surely turn up for sale. And then, it did.
The website cultkits.co.uk announced via social media that it had tracked down one of the rarest football shirts ever produced and would be selling it at 8pm on Saturday 5 September. Cue mass hysteria from the football shirt community. I had no intention of buying the shirt but intrigue won the day and I logged on to their website to see what price the shirt would command. Or rather, I tried to. The site crashed under the sheer volume of people waiting to get a glimpse.
It later emerged that someone had nabbed the shirt for £500 milliseconds after it went online. That person turned out to be Ellis Platten, a YouTuber from Norwich. Platten recorded the process of buying the shirt for the purpose of his channel AwayDays and can be seen ecstatically high-fiving his girlfriend as the order is completed in real time. However, was it really authentic?
If 300 of these shirts exist, why had so few of them emerged for sale over the years? Was it part of a Nintendo promotion in Italy for the Gameboy, as many believed? If it were a promotional tie-in with Nintendo, who were at the peak of their gaming popularity at the time, surely there would’ve been a glitzy press conference? There is no photographic evidence of Gabriel Batistuta, Manuel Rui Costa or any other Fiorentina player wearing it.
Doubts about the origins of the shirt were raised on Twitter. If it was an official product, why would Fiorentina choose their away shirt when they have one of the most iconic home shirts in the game? And why does Mario have a yellow face on the shirt?
Ellis began to ask questions. “Twitter threads began to pop up and I also noticed the shirt was ‘made in Mexico’, which was a red flag for me personally,” he says. “Why would a promotional shirt only ever released in Italy be made in Mexico? No one could really provide anything other than a link to an article about a Gameboy promotion with Fiorentina.” Unable to receive any official confirmation over the shirt’s authenticity, he reluctantly returned the shirt to Cult Kits.
Further pictures surfaced of Fiorentina shirts with Mario’s face imprinted: the 1997-98 home and the 1998-99 away (this time with a white face). As the evidence was being collated by various members of the Twittersphere, it seemed highly plausible that this was in fact someone going rogue; an individual simply buying authentic Fiorentina shirts, printing Mario’s face and subsequently selling them.
I spoke to Doug Bierton, the co-founder of Classic Football Shirts and as good an authority on classic shirts as you are likely to find, for his opinion. “I wish I knew the answer definitively but I’m not convinced anybody does,” said Bierton. “You’d think there would be more of them around if they were fake. We’ve got a training shirt with Mario on it, properly printed within the material. The shirt looks legitimate, although the label has been cut out of the collar, which always raises questions. We’ve never had one of the away shirts, so I’ve never had one in my hands to properly assess it.”
Bierton’s instincts tell him the shirt probably isn’t authentic: “Without evidence of the shirt emanating from a Nintendo promotion – perhaps for the Japanese market, or some other unknown event – it’s likely someone printing Mario on authentic Fiorentina shirts. I would love to be proved wrong, however.”
I approached Cult Kits in early November, who were hesitant to speak and – moreover – didn’t seem to know the origin of their shirt. “I do want to make it clear that the authenticity of the shirt was never disputed. It’s the Super Mario graphic that’s a bit of a mystery to everyone,” was the only piece of information they would provide.
Still seeking an official confirmation from those who produced the original shirt, I fired off emails to both Nintendo and Fiorentina. Communicating with Nintendo went nowhere, as I was bounced around from one department to the next. Fiorentina – to my surprise – replied within 24 hours with a very succinct message. “This shirt is fake,” said the club.
So, that seemed to have put the mystery to bed, once and for all. The shirt isn’t authentic, or rather, the unscrupulous addition of Mario isn’t. Case closed.
Or so I thought.
In an ever-evolving story, I touched base once again with Bierton after seeing his highly informative post on Instagram about the history of the Fiorentina/Nintendo collaboration. He had unearthed footage of Fiorentina training in the summer of 1997 in which newly appointed coach Alberto Malesani, Rui Costa, Edmundo, Andrei Kanchelskis and various other members of the squad are wearing La Viola apparel containing the Mario graphic.
He did not find any footage of the Mario away shirt but what Bierton uncovered has given him fresh hope the shirts are genuine. “The discovery has got me questioning once again the possibility whether there could be authentic home and away shirts with Mario imprinted out there,” he says. “They never wore the shirts in a match, 100%, but with no proof it looks set to remain one of football shirts’ great mysteries.”
I went back to Cult Kits to find out how they came into possession of the shirt. “The shirts were definitely made in Mexico. Fila had a factory in Mexico that produced a lot of Fiorentina shirts. There’s definitely a Mexican connection with the shirt. Whether it was made for a specific event that tied-in with Nintendo, I don’t know. We have a supplier in Mexico who just picks up vintage shirts from around Mexico and South America, and we’ve been dealing with him for years. He’s only ever picked up a couple of them over that time – three in total, one of which we still have.”
Do they believe the shirt is genuine? “We think there has to be some logic behind it. If it was just something that someone was bootlegging in Mexico, there would be a lot more of them, you’d imagine. We’d like to think it was done for an event, whether it was an official event or not, that’s a different question. Our supplier in Mexico is trying to track down information. It may be a sports shop owner running an unofficial promotion in Mexico, that would be our instinct.”
Will this stop people from buying it? Cult Kits instantly resold the shirt Ellis returned at the original price of £500. “There were more people still willing to buy the shirt after he returned it. Different value to different people,” they said. “It’s kind of like records – some bootlegs are worth more than the originals. It’s the mystery that makes the shirt valuable. I almost don’t want to find out, in a way, that it was maybe made in a small shop in Mexico. As it’s the intrigue that adds value to the shirt.”
In the end, it’s up to the buyer to decide. Owning one still makes for interesting talk among shirt aficionados, as long as prospective buyers realise they are paying an exorbitant price for what seems to be an unlicensed product. On an aesthetic basis, the shirt is worthy of its much-vaunted status. But does it warrant its £500 price tag? Will we ever get to the bottom of the issue? One thing is certain: Cult Kits won’t sell the shirt again. “It’s really been more hassle than it’s worth,” they say. “If we are ever offered the shirt again, we’ll keep it in our personal collection.”
The shirt that keeps on giving. A week after this article appeared in The Guardian, I received an email from David Bini.
Bini is the president of the official Fiorentina museo in Florence. He also helped create the club’s official Hall of Fame and is a certified expert in Fiorentina and Italian football memorabilia. He’d read the article on The Guardian and wanted to offer information on the shirt.
“The situation is very clear for us and is really not a mystery,” he says. Bini states that when I’d originally contacted Fiorentina about the shirt in October, they in turn reached out to the Fiorentina museo to seek his opinion.
“There is no possibility that the shirt was authorised by Fiorentina or Fila to go on sale,” says Bini. “The original replica shirts were produced in Italy, and not made in huge quantities, as this was in the era before online shopping and most Fiorentina fans at that time resided in Italy.
“This is simply a case of someone in Mexico, or another country, putting the image of Super Mario on a replica shirt to create a rare item and therefore to make more money,” Bini continued. “It was never offered to the club as a prototype. Neither us at the museum or the club had ever seen the shirt with Mario before now.”
“That is the story, there is no mystery. It’s a fake shirt,” Bini affirms.
This time, case undoubtedly closed.