JOHANNESBURG » Soccer players are such nice fellows, they’ll give opponents the shirts off their backs.
No, really. Watch the end of any World Cup match, and you’ll see players exchanging their sweaty, stinky, game-worn jerseys in a time-honored tradition, one of several that sets soccer apart from other sports.
"It’s a respect thing," former U.S. defender Marcelo Balboa said. "And, let’s be honest, it’s a cool thing, too."
At the World Cup — other games, too — schoolchildren hold the hands of the starters and escort them onto the field. The captains exchange pennants that include the teams’ names and the date of the game. And, of course, there’s the shirt exchange.
"Soccer is a game of theater and pageantry as much as any other sport. And ritual," U.S. defender-turned-ESPN commentator Alexi Lalas said.
According to FIFA, soccer’s first swap meet came in 1931, after France beat England for the first time. The French players were so elated with their 5-2 victory, they asked the English players if they could keep their jerseys as mementoes.
But it was Bobby Moore and Pele’s exchange at the 1970 World Cup that turned something quaint and quirky into the epitome of sportsmanship in soccer.
The matchup between the brilliant striker and the stingy defender was a highlight of Brazil’s 1-0 victory over England in the group stage. After the game, Pele approached Moore, and the rivals embraced and exchanged jerseys in what was seen as the ultimate show of respect.
"The coolest thing is the changing of the jerseys," U.S. captain Carlos Bocanegra said. "For me, that’s my favorite thing."
There’s no exact science to the swap. Because it’s done at the final whistle, players often just take the shirt of whoever is closest. When club teammates face each other, they might arrange a trade beforehand.
Players can amass quite the collection during their careers, and many say they hang on to every single shirt they collect. Balboa has a drawer filled with more than 100 shirts, and has framed some of his best gets — Pele and Carlos Valderrama, among them.
But not everyone hangs onto them. Former U.S. defender Lalas said he has given away the jerseys he collected over the years. "I was there. I have my memories in my head and my heart," Lalas said.