The high tedium quotient of the average soccer game for most Americans affords motivation for the eye to wander–as mine is wandering right now– and take in the event’s vibrant surroundings, including the flags whose colors provide the teams with the design of their uniforms. But not many know the backgrounds of these banners. Here is a handful of examples.
— Brazil: few realize that that the flag of this historic world soccer power was borrowed from the label on a 1930’s lard pail, incorporating a yellow diamond, a blue planet, and myriad stars, on a background of a rich green not found in nature. Flashy but confusing — almost certainly a stopgap, while this historically unsettled nation grapples with its identity. Coffee more important than rubber? Bossa Nova bigger than both? Let’s figure out all this and more, the Brazilian flag is saying to itself, and then come up with a design that shows it to the world.
— Italy’s familiar green-white-red tricolor was designed in hopes of being mistaken for the even more familiar flag of richer, sexier France, tops worldwide in five-star Guide Michelin restaurants, host to the ultra-glamorous Cannes Film Festival, and otherwise always one-upping its Mediterranean neighbor. Italian military bands have occasionally been known to strike up “Le Marseillaise” at public events, for similar reasons. And France has filed an injunction to prevent Italy from changing the name of Leaning Tower of Pisa to the Leaning Tower of Eiffel. “A line must be drawn somewhere,” sniffs the head of the Acadamie des Souvenirs Francaise.
— South Korea: Are the interlocking red and blue teardrop shapes forming that ball at the center of South Korea’s flag celebrating the qualities of yin and yang, and are those Korean-language quotation marks at the four corners making an ironic comment? Or is the design meant to represent a Zen soccer ball vibrating in place? An expert on South Korean history and heraldry explains: “The whole thing is basically meaningless, actually. We just wanted to drive Kim Jong-il and those clowns up north bananas by coming up with something they think is a secret code that they can’t decipher. Plus, of course, it looks very good on the tail of an airliner.”
— Few people realize that the flag of Greece is patterned after a Ralph Lauren summer men’s shirt–crisp blue-and-white stripes with a white cross in the upper left hand corner taking the place of the polo rider. Take a good look at it now, while you can, because as one of the conditions for the bailout of the Greek economy, the European Union will require Greece to change the pattern to a pure white background on which a large amount of red ink has been splattered.
— World Cup contenders Slovakia, Serbia and Slovenia share identical flag designs of horizontal red-white-and-blue bands, distinguished from one another only by a tiny superimposed national escutcheon. History tells us that these striking look-alikes were the handiwork of a fast-talking traveling flag salesman who swept through the region after the Balkan wars and sold all three sovereign nations the same design. By the time the three nations compared flags and the scam was uncovered, he was long gone.
— To summarize: Of the 23 nations represented in World Cup competition, 12 fly flags consisting of simple vertical or horizontal bands of varying colors. Why the boring similarities? Research reveals that schoolchildren draw more flags than any other group in the population of a given nation, so the design must be geared to a child’s minimal graphic skills. And because the standard-issue schoolroom crayon box contains only red, yellow, blue, black and green, these – plus the white of a blank page — are the colors most often seen in national flags. And did you know that Uzbekistan’s flag used to be a lion’s head with the body of a sea turtle, because–
Wait! Things are getting exciting down on the field. A player appears to be coughing and yawning at the same time!
Bruce McCall is a New York artist and writer whose work frequently appears in the New Yorker and Vanity Fair.