Remember the soccer team that went viral after they released a tuxedo-themed kit? Perhaps you saw the stir caused by a muscular uniform that made the players look like figures in a medical school textbook? Or even the club that fielded a team of players all dressed as The Hulk? Well, behind some of football’s most infamous, bold and eye-catching outfits is a former player turned visionary kit designer.
His name is Juan Francisco Martin Fresneda, 49, a TV executive in Castilla y Leon, Spain, who dreamed up Cultural Leonesa’s jersey that looks like a dinner jacket and bow-tie and Palencia’s “skinless” human torso strip. Astorga’s design that looked like Dr Bruce Banner post-transformation and Zamora’s depiction of the human circulatory system are also of his creation. When they were released, the kits swept across social media and provided much-needed financial boosts for clubs well below Spain’s glamorous elite.
Martin is no stranger to the struggles of semi-professional teams. He played for several clubs in Spain’s lower leagues such as his hometown side Gimnastica Segoviana, Melilla, Lorca and Murcia, even making it as high as the third-tier Segunda Division B. His breakthrough into the world of kit design came in 2014 when he was consulted by Cultural Leonesa, who were close to financial ruin and desperate for funding ideas.
“The designs of the kits were born out of necessity,” Martin told ESPN. “Necessity is the mother of invention. I was the director of Leon TV in 2014 and Cultural was living a dramatic moment, they had big debts and were close to dissolving. I was collaborating with their board as a consultant.”
Martin’s background in marketing helped him come up with the out-of-the-box idea of the tuxedo jersey. The kit was an undisputed success, garnering the sort of worldwide attention that is rarely afforded to Spain’s lower leagues, and from there other clubs came to him looking for advice.
“When someone is involved in the world of creativity, there is no limit, but you don’t have to force it either,” he says. “I have a couple of ideas but I have to wait for someone to understand and want them. We are in a project to go into basketball and there are other couple of things that I’m working on. I am convinced that in the near future all clubs — including Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich — are going to have to create an original third kit to sell because we are in the world of survival. Football shirts are a way of telling stories.
“There are three types of shirts: the ones that are beautiful, made by Nike and Adidas; the ones that looks for publicity, like the one from Guijuelo [a Spanish club who gained fame for their jersey that appeared to be covered in ham]; and the ones that play with the emotions, which are the ones that I propose. I have the idea of the emotional shirt that I would design for Madrid and Barca and I am sure that it would sell millions of kits. It does not have to do with colours, but with emotions. I can’t give clues because otherwise they would copy them from me … Look, the Atletico Madrid fans are going to buy the Atletico shirt regardless of the design. But if you manage to make a shirt that tells stories … and perhaps have an emotional tie to the club, the sales would multiply by 10.”
Martin’s relationship with football is born from personal tragedy, and his involvement in the game is a way for him to give something back.
“My life is a little bit like those you can see in the movies,” he says. “When I was 17, my family died in a traffic accident and I was left alone with my father. It was a dramatic situation and football helped me a lot, it gave me the family that I did not have, a reason for life. I understood football as a school of values and I got into the world of football as a coach and also I was on the board of my hometown club, Gimnastica Segoviana.”
Here is the story of Martin’s unique kit designs, in his own words.
Cultural Leonesa (2014-15)
Motto: “Cultural, the most elegant football team”
Background: “They had big debts and were close to dissolution. I was collaborating with their board as a consultant. It was the club’s 90th anniversary and one night in our WhatsApp group I said I had half an idea which could change their fortunes. I asked: ‘What do you think if Cultural come out wearing a tuxedo for their 90th birthday?’ There were jokes, many did not see it as a good idea. I talked with Hummel [Cultural’s kit manufacturer at the time] and at first they had doubts, but they offered me an idea. They showed me a design and to be honest it was very ugly. I didn’t like it, but the idea worked. We made some minor changes. The idea was to adapt a black shirt and with a kind of sticker to make it look like a tuxedo. The final design wasn’t much prettier, but it got the effect that I was looking for.”
Impact: “Within 24 hours there was an absolute avalanche of news all over the world. News on five continents. We went from having meetings about how to combat the debts to seeing which of the nine board members would be free to speak with Japanese or German TV. We sold between 4,000 and 5,000 of the kits. The problem was nobody anticipated such a success and Hummel was not prepared to meet the need. We could not supply all the requests. Remember, Cultural were in the third division and in a normal season only the 20 or 30 biggest fans used to buy the shirt.
“In 2014, we created this shirt and Qatari group Aspire bought the club the following year [when the club released updated home and away editions of their tuxedo kits]. And before them, other people came with an interest in sponsoring the club.”
“There was some criticism — there were people who said that the club lost their identity with that shirt. There was a moment when Cultural played against Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey [they lost 13-2 on aggregate]. I told them ‘if you go out with the tuxedo shirt at the Bernabeu, with half the planet watching the game, you would sell 50,000 kits.’ But the club prioritised their identity, and played with the original shirt.”
CD Palencia (2015-16)
Motto: “Leave the skin”
Background: “A colleague who I played with at Lorca called me and told me that Palencia had serious financial issues. They were leading the [fourth-tier Tercera Division] table but feared that they could not play the promotion playoff phase of the season because the players were not being paid.
“When I played there was a motto in the world of football, ‘we have left our skin on the pitch’ [a popular Spanish phrase meaning ‘to give your all’], so the idea of muscles came up. It was difficult because the players did not believe. They were owed two months’ salary, they were two months away from playing the promotion playoffs and demanded money or threatened to go on strike.
“I got one of the shirts sponsors, Ingenova, to invest some money after seeing the success of the Cultural Tuxedo kit. I told them that if they backed this idea, it will go out all over the world. They gave a loan to the club for all the money that was owed so that they could continue.”
Impact: “We put on a great event to present the kit — with the tuxedo we made a pathetic presentation, it was just a news conference. I learned from that, and with Palencia we made a spectacular presentation. By 12:15 p.m. we were trending, journalists from all over the world were calling, there were hundreds of requests. Kappa had made a prediction they’d sell 200 shirts and in just one hour they were all sold. Palencia were promoted to the Segunda Division B.”
Atletico Astorga (2017-18)
Motto: “The Incredible Astorga”
Background: “I wanted to make a second version of Palencia’s muscle kit. I thought about something stronger, like The Hulk. I thought of teams in the area that played in green and I remembered Astorga. I met with the club president and made her a proposal. She told me it was interesting, but we needed to create a brand as we did with the others. So we came up with ‘The Incredible Astorga,’ referring to The Hulk.
“I emphasised to them the most important aspect was the unveiling, and we made a spectacular presentation at the Gaudi Palace. The presentation was better than the shirt! The shirt is arguably the weakest of the four in terms of identity, but the presentation was spectacular, with the players appearing by breaking through a wall.”
Impact: “We started to have requests from Japan, China … the big TV stations engulfed the small city of Astorga. It was impressive. Astorga played the promotion playoffs, but did not go up because they lost their final game.”
Zamora CF (2018-19)
Motto: “Blood, sweat and tears”
Background: “Zamora were in a drastic situation. They owed in the region of €700,000 and were in the third division. I knew some people who were willing to invest in a football club. They looked at Zamora and I told them a very nice kit would attract attention. I told them the kit would be called ‘Blood, Sweat and Tears.’ It is based on the heart of Zamora and the route that the blood makes around the body. I gave them a presentation and they liked it.
Impact: “It was a tremendous success. The best two [kits] in terms of impact were Cultural’s tuxedo and the Zamora kit. Personally, I think this is the nicest. Zamora did not go up in the 2018-19 season but they managed to get some stability and were promoted to the Segunda Division B the following campaign.
“Somehow, all four clubs improved the following years. Cultural were in the third division and they were promoted twice and even played in the Segunda Division, Astorga played the playoffs and Palencia and Zamora were promoted.”