The first round of the 2017 African Cup of Nations (AFCON) in Gabon, Africa’s premier football competition, is nearly over. The knockout round starts later this week. This is the 60th anniversary of the tournament. Algeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire (the defending champions), Morocco, and Senegal are all among the contenders for the title. Sadio Mané’s Senegal have been the form team so far, while Algeria has failed to impress despite some individual magic from Riyad Mahrez, and hosts Gabon and their star forward Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang have already been eliminated. Although much of the attention of African football fans has been focused on the tournament, spare a thought for some of the teams on the continent that didn’t make it.
The Australia based apparel company, AMS Clothing, is the official apparel supplier to a number of less established national football teams throughout Africa. Unfortunately, none of the teams that AMS supplies made it to the AFCON this year, although Ethiopia did come close. A number of the AMS teams couldn’t even participate in qualifying matches as they aren’t members of FIFA or CAF. Yet this is part of what makes the AMS brand so distinctive and interesting, that it is focuses on less high profile national football teams, regardless of whether they are recognized by FIFA or not. It also provides the opportunity for them to benefit commercially from the sale of shirts.
As in 2015, Africa is a Country is holding another AFCON-themed competition and AMS has again very kindly agreed to provide prizes from their amazing collection of football strips. To have a chance of winning an AMS jersey, simply tag @futbolsacountry and @africasacountry on Twitter with a link to a video of your favorite AFCON goal from a previous tournament and a few words on why you love it, using the hashtag #MyAFCONGoal. Two winners will be selected by our panel. In the event that the same video is submitted by more than one person, we will go with the first person who submitted that video. The winner will be announced on Twitter on the morning of the final.
We spoke to AMS founder Luke Westcott in the lead up to the 2015 AFCON. I spoke to Westcott again this year, delving deeper into the company’s mission, his all time favorite African football strips, producing strips for nations that aren’t recognized by FIFA, having teams and fans vote on shirt designs, and AMS’s plans to expand into Oceania.
Firstly, can you tell me about how AMS got started and its mission? Who was behind it? Was there an explicit politics from the start or did it evolve over time?
AMS stands for African Manufacturing Solutions. I developed a business plan in my final year of high school in Melbourne, Australia in 2012. The AMS plan was created in my own time, not as part of any school class, it was just something that I was interested in pursuing once I finished high school. It involved capturing the massive potential of the manufacturing industry in two African countries, Nigeria and Ethiopia. The plan was a bit too ambitious for a teenager to implement, but I was fascinated with the possibility that Africa, specifically Nigeria and Ethiopia, could one day become the world’s manufacturing hubs.
In addition to my interest in business in Africa, from a young age I also had an obsession with football shirts. I had been collecting them for as long as I could remember. I’ve always preferred the African strips, and my four favorite African jerseys of all time are: First, the Nigeria Adidas 1994 Home Kit, the first time that African patterns were used on a design from what I can remember, and it was executed in a perfectly 90’s type of way. Second, is the Botswana All Kasi 2011/2012. The Zebra print on this one has made it a favorite amongst all collectors. Then there’s the Uganda Hummel 2000/01 Home Kit; the designer cranes on the front make it a true work of art. Finally, South Africa’s Kappa 1998 Home Kit. I am putting this in the “so bad it is good” category.
This eventually led to me selling football shirts online to supplement the purchasing of shirts for my own collection. I soon realized that the shirts of obscure national football team were highly collectable so I focused on sourcing and selling these shirts. Eventually it got to a point where I simply couldn’t source some of the shirts that customers were constantly asking for as these shirts were never made available for purchase.
Then in 2014 when I was 19 years old, I had the idea to create my own brand and supply these smaller national teams myself with attractive and symbolic designs. I founded AMS Clothing along with my friend Angelo Garcia. Our initial goal was to supply the national teams of South Sudan, Eritrea and Somalia.
The vibrant design aesthetic of AMS stands out as many other football jerseys have become increasingly bland and unadventurous. Is this deliberate on the part of AMS to offer something different? Can you talk about what informs the design process and choices?
When I was younger I would spend most of my school holidays designing football shirts for fun, so once I actually starting doing this as a business I already had the design skills to create the shirts myself. Being a collector, I knew that the more interesting and unique the shirt was, the more people would want it.
Most of our competition don’t bother to create customized designs for the smaller national teams, and would simply supply them with blank teamwear uniforms with their logo added on. We saw this as an opportunity to set ourselves apart from these other brands, and most importantly provide a uniform that the national team players would be proud of wearing.
With each team, I will usually create about 5 different designs and sent them through to the respective national football federations. They will then respond with their ideas until we have a design we can agree upon. In some cases, we will have the national team players themselves have some input, and the new South Sudan uniforms that we introduced in 2015 were chosen after a vote by the entire national team squad.
A lot has been written about football as an important expression of nationalism and nationhood. The historian Eric Hobsbawm famously wrote: “The imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of eleven named people.” More countries are acknowledged by FIFA than the UN: There are 211 FIFA member associations versus 193 UN member states.
It is truly amazing to see the effect that football can have on a nation, whether that nation is internationally recognized or not. The platform and funding that FIFA provides to each member association has been crucial in the development of the game in some of the world’s smaller countries. There is definitely a way to go before FIFA becomes truly effective in implementing their development goals, however FIFA new president, Gianni Infantino, has certainly stepped up in terms of financial accountability for each association in his short time in office.
That FIFA allows smaller nations that may not be UN member states to gain formal acceptance into FIFA is fantastic as it allows these nations to be represented on the international stage. Most of the non-UN members that are FIFA members are smaller island nations like American Samoa, Montserrat and Tahiti, so I don’t think in these cases that FIFA are doing anything politically controversial by allowing their nations to gain membership. Other more politically contentious nations such as Kosovo and Palestine may have some groups opposed to their acceptance into FIFA. Nevertheless, I feel that FIFA’s process for member acceptance is solid and that the effects of the entry into FIFA for these nations has been overwhelmingly positive.
In addition to producing jerseys for a number of FIFA members across Africa, AMS has also recently started producing jerseys for national teams such as Darfur United, Western Sahara, and Zanzibar that aren’t recognized by FIFA. Is this part of deliberate effort to reflect and promote more diverse concepts of nationhood?
There are several different reasons as to why we have targeted some non-FIFA national teams. Firstly, we support the participation of these teams in international competitions and believe this is a fantastic opportunity for these places to be represented globally.
Also, there is a fairly strong commercial opportunity in the distribution of national team jerseys both internationally and within the domestic markets of these regions. There are many international football fans who love to wear the jerseys of these obscure teams, and in the case of Zanzibar, there are massive retail opportunities for the sale of their national team jerseys in the local market.
When we partner with a non-FIFA national team we are not looking to support any political movement, it is simply hoping that these unrecognized nations can be wearing AMS uniforms when they are representing their region on the world stage.
The national teams mentioned above—Darfur United, Western Sahara, and Zanzibar—are all members of the Confederation of Independent Football Associations (ConIFA), a federation of football associations outside of FIFA. Can you talk more about your relationship with ConIFA?
The work that ConIFA are doing is truly amazing, and to see some of the world’s unrecognized nations coming together on the world stage is incredible. We don’t have a formal relationship with ConIFA, but definitely support what they are representing.
I think ConIFA has massive growth potential, and after seeing what they achieved at the recent World Football Cup in Abkhazia there is certainly a place for them in the world of football. Hopefully ConIFA will be able to expand their resources to a level where they can provide funding and development for each of their member associations, and I am sure they will be soon able to achieve this as the popularity of their competitions increases.
The goal of AMS is to supply uniforms to the African members of ConIFA, and allow these national teams to capitalize on the popularity of their brand amongst each nation’s diaspora communities.
Can you tell me about the thinking behind the prototype jerseys, which include jerseys for Abyei, Biafra, Cabinda, and Puntland? Does it matter whether the claims of a group, say Biafra, are realizable?
The prototype jerseys were created and made available for purchase after we had a heap of requests from various groups who saw the designs we were making for other national teams. Even though these nations do not have any formal national teams at this stage, it is certainly possible for them to be set up in the future. I think each of the prototype teams would be eligible to join ConIFA if they were able to create a functioning national football association, and we would certainly be there to supply uniforms if that happens.
In 2016 there was a public online poll to choose the design for the new Western Sahara national team strip. Can you tell me more about this process, including how it came about, the reaction, and whether AMS plans to try it again in the future?
This was the idea of the Western Sahara FA after we had sent them through a number of design proposals. In this case, they decided that the design should be chosen by the people, and it was great to see the feedback from the fans.
We are definitely open to having a similar process for future designs, it just depends on the will of each FA to involve their fans in this process. I really like the idea of the national team players having a direct input as well.
Have you received any pushback or criticism for your work, given that some of it can be seen as effectively assisting nations in their efforts to attain international recognition? For example, the reaction of Morocco and its allies when you made a Western Sahara strip.
Actually, until we announced the partnership with the Western Sahara FA we hadn’t received any criticism at all regarding the other national teams we have supplied.
Once we made the partnership with Western Sahara public, there was quite a high amount of negative, and downright hateful responses from groups opposed to Western Sahara having a national football team.
It is not our position to have any involvement in this political debate, we really just want to support football and allow Western Sahara to be represented by their national team. Most of the negative comments seemed to revolve around the belief that we were part of some global conspiracy to support the independence movement, which is just ridiculous.
It is hard to imagine companies such as Adidas or Nike becoming involved with teams outside of FIFA as AMS has done. Does the size and regional focus of AMS give it more flexibility in this regard?
I would be very doubtful of the major sportswear brands supporting non-FIFA teams simply because of their business models. Adidas and Nike will only directly support a national team if they believe there is considerable commercial potential, and it is unlikely they would offer support unless they believed they would be able to reach their minimum order quantities by supplying these teams.
As AMS is a small brand that can work with small order quantities it makes it much easier for us to work with teams of a lesser commercial potential. Our target markets are completely different to those of these major sportswear brands, so I don’t really view them as competition. In some cases, we have competed with mid-tier brands such as Joma and Errea for deals, so it is more these companies that we view as our competition.
What does 2017 and beyond hold for AMS?
The aim is to continue to expand our sponsorship portfolio, and we are close to confirming deals with 2-3 more national teams in the coming months. We also hope to successfully enter the domestic markets of Ethiopia and Tanzania, which is a major aim of the brand. Unlike the major sportswear brands, we are able to lower our prices to meet the demands of less developed markets, and these 2 countries in particular would be ideal for market entry if we can create effective distribution channels.
Long term goals are a bit more difficult to define. As there haven’t really been any other sportswear brands that have focused on Africa, it is hard to us to compare ourselves to any competition. There are plenty of opportunities in Africa, but doing business there certainly has its challenges. For now, we will mostly be working in East Africa and then expand to other regions of the continent once we have developed our business model a bit further. Also, we intend to shift the majority of production to Africa within the next 2 years or so, with Ethiopia being the most likely option of manufacturing operations.
Despite the name and focus on Africa, are they are any plans to expand beyond the continent in future? I notice that there are design proposals on your website for the Palestinian national team.
We are actually about to launch a brand that has a focus on the Oceania region called Palm Tree Sports. This has been in the works for a while now, and we have just finalized an agency arrangement to be based in Samoa, which should see us supplying a number of national teams as well as local clubs in the region. Similar to Africa, there are no sportswear brands in the region that are specifically focused on supporting football in Oceania, so it presents an exciting opportunity. We will probably be working with both FIFA and ConIFA teams, and there are many nations in Oceania that would be eligible to join ConIFA.
The Middle East in another region that we would love to expand into, but at the moment we don’t have any specific plans for this. Maybe once we have got everything set up in Oceania we might look at this as an option.
*The conversation was edited for clarity.