Football’s memory keeper: the man with more than 5,000 shirts – The Guardian

Tee Rasheed
15 Min Read

Marcelo Ordás’s obsession started after he fainted at a World Cup and now his Madrid museum is a monument to game’s history
The best thing Marcelo Ordás ever did was pass out. The way he tells it, and he is some storyteller, for a moment he thought it was The End; instead, it was the start. “The genesis,” he calls it. That day in Turin, an Argentinian student who would briefly embark on a career as a diplomat was handed what he describes as his life’s mission to become a kind of footballing archaeologist, travelling the world to recover its most treasured relics; the “armour” with which its idols fought. Thirty-three years later, the result is the most significant collection of football shirts on earth, at last displayed in a Madrid museum.
He met everyone: Pelé, Maradona, Steve Hodge but in the beginning there was Claudio Caniggia. Ordás was 17 and was at the 1990 World Cup second-round clash between international football’s greatest rivals, a tale told of a suffering steadily building to the moment that changed his life: from Brazil tearing Argentina apart and their fans taunting him from the other side of the fence – “our pain was their entertainment” – to the realisation he could watch no more, sitting head in hands “waiting for them to score so we could all go home”. And the noise that made him look again.
“I heard something like an oh,” Ordás says. “Maradona had dribbled Alemão. That makes me lift my head. He goes past Dunga, and I’m squatting. He beats Ricardo Rocha, I’m standing. He passes to Caniggia, through against Taffarel. I look at the linesman. I feel like time has stopped. The stadium went silent. I was shouting: ‘Shoot! Shoot!’ but he dribbles. All I can see is the net moving, my dad running towards me. But I start climbing the fence, to say … well, everything really. ‘Hey, Marquinho, Serginho, Toquinho, Pitinho!’ All that came rushing out: the suffering, the anger. And then …” Ordás smiles, claps his hands. Loudly. “I faint.”
“My dad and a friend carried me to the stadium infirmary,” he continues. “I wake on a stretcher in a room that’s all white, a beautiful Italian woman with green eyes all in white, too. I think: ‘I died.’ I look at the clock: nine minutes after full time. ‘Please, signorina, tell me Argentina won.’ She held my arm. ‘Yes, ragazzo, Argentina won.’ I started to cry. The wife of the federation president came to see how I was – my dad knew people in the AFA [Argentinian Football Association] – and the ‘reward’ was that they took me into the dressing room.
“Maradona’s in a Brazil shirt, throwing drinks around. I hug him: ‘Gracias, Diego, gracias, Diego.’ Burruchaga, Goycochea, Olarticoechea, Ruggeri. I was overwhelmed. They take me to Caniggia. ‘This is Marcelito, who fainted when you scored.’ He asks me if I’m OK. I give him a big hug and I say something like: ‘This is from millions of Argentinians who you just made the happiest people in the universe.’ That must have touched him, because …”
Ordás takes out his phone, scrolling until he comes to a video, recorded not long ago. There’s Caniggia with the look of an ageing rock star – long blond hair, a face that’s lived-in, black leather jacket, great big shades – recalling the scene, how he handed his shirt to this boy. You cried? “I still do when I think about it.”
That shirt was the first in a collection of more than 5,000, an idea forming on the journey home, via a layover in London, where a friend of Ordás’s father called Mark took him round the city’s museums.
“London holds the relics of world civilisation; they’re the custodians of that history. I thought it was amazing. I loved the Roman walls and the Greek columns and the great works of art and literature, the bones of the dinosaurs. But where’s the testimony of the greatest passion humans created? It struck me as mad that the Van Gogh that was Maradona’s shirt from 86, the Picasso that was Charlton’s from 66 or Cruyff in 74, Meazza in 34, Beckenbauer … no one knew where they were. They were not shared, not exhibited. I wanted to find them.
“My Spanish grandfather told my mother: ‘Maybe this is Marcelo’s mission, to recover our history.’ I needed an idea, though. The AFA president sent me to see a friend. A lady called Norma answers the door and takes me into the living room. Sitting there with a cigarette and a coffee is Alfredo Di Stéfano. He says: ‘Nothing represents a team like the “armour”, the shirt.’ Di Stéfano became my godfather. He would phone players up: ‘A friend of mine is coming to visit you.’ I went to Europe, saw Cruyff and Charlton and Maradona. That was the journey of my life.
“I never did this as a hobby. I took it as research, an investigation. The collector’s DNA is obsessive, selfish, just him and his collection. I never considered myself a collector. I wanted their shirts to share, to tell a story.”
Listening to Ordás, you can see the easy charm and warmth that convinced them, an obsession that feels genuine. Yet make no mistake, there is an economic reality, too. After all, shirts cost; players want payment.
“Nowadays all of them,” Ordás says. He comes from what he calls an “upper class Buenos Aires family”, which allowed him to dedicate time to his mission. He explains the logistics of making his money last, and identifies the 2006 World Cup as the moment he could first generate money through exhibiting the collection to keep it going, accelerating everything.
“But,” he says, “at the start in the early 1990s, I was lucky – many legends gave without charging. You also find players, incredibly, who aren’t that attached to the shirts. A musician keeps playing – the Stones are 80 – but a player has to stop and some find that hard so they get rid, as if escaping the nostalgia, starting afresh. Besides, I understand those who charge. And if that fits in my budget, fine.”
What’s the most you have paid for a shirt? “€102,000. Giuseppe Meazza, 1934. At that World Cup they only had one shirt for the whole tournament.” There are other pieces – Ordás mentions the official paper banning Maradona from the 1994 World Cup – but it’s about the shirts, 650 of which are displayed in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol, including a shirt from every World Cup, European Championship and Copa América-winning team, every European Cup and Libertadores champion.
It’s been going on 33 years, an obsession that never ends because football never ends, Ordás says. He walks in excited because Sir Stanley Matthews’ shirt from the meeting with Brazil at Maracanã in 1950 has just arrived. He is carrying two other new additions: Ron Davies’ Wales shirt and Kevin De Bruyne’s Manchester City shirt. “Ferran Soriano just called to say he has Rodri’s Super Cup shirt,” he says. They’re in good company: Eusébio, Gerd Müller, Zico, Platini, Zidane, Hugo Sánchez, the Ronaldos. “Sometimes I walk round here when I’m alone at night: it’s the memory of all these years.”
Personal favourites include Sepp Maier’s goalkeeper top, which fastens between the legs like a baby grow. A Real Oviedo jersey – in red. And Néstor Clausen’s improvised Argentina shirt from the England game in 1986, a generic Le Coq Sportif shirt hurriedly bought in Mexico City with an outdated AFA logo stitched on the front, square American football-style numbers ironed on to the back, and sliced up with scissors, holes hacked out. The coach, Carlos Bilardo, insisted on the kits being “breathable” like the home shirt but the suppliers hadn’t made any, sending staff on a frantic mission against the clock.
“When they show Bilardo, he doesn’t like it,” Ordás says. “He screws it up and throws it on the floor. Just then, Maradona comes in. ‘Have you seen the shirt?!’ Maradona picks it off the floor, turns it round, sees the ‘Versace number’, and says: ‘We’ll kill the English with these.’ Because he likes it, Bilardo says OK, and that shirt becomes iconic.”
Is there one that has escaped you, a shirt you wished you had? There’s a long pause. “There is a shirt that at one point I said I would give up the whole collection for …” Maradona’s from the quarter-final in 86? “No. What I most dreamed of was a World Cup-winning Messi shirt, and that happened in Doha. Maradona’s shirt from the England game is probably the most symbolic but the most important is the one he wore in the final. Lothar Matthäus had it and every year I would call and ask. He always said no. Steve Hodge had the shirt Diego scored the two goals in. I offered him £400,000, the most I ever offered a person, but he didn’t want to. He said it was a sentimental thing … “A month later, he had put it up for auction.”
In April 2022, Maradona’s shirt went for £7.1m. Ordás laughs. “He has every right, eh. But he could have said: ‘Look, the truth is.’ I was there at Sotheby’s. About 30 of us [in a syndicate] bid for it; we were the only bid from Argentina. We’d put together a bit more than €4m. It sold for €8m. A Qatari businessman bought it: he had it on display in this dreadful place on a wooden mannequin; it was awful, horrible. I left Sotheby’s very sad. But football always gives you the chance for revenge.”
There’s a glint in the eye. “On the way out, I did an interview with the BBC about what Diego means for Argentina. I went back to the hotel, hurt. And that same day, I got a call from Lothar. He said: ‘I’ve just seen you on TV; your emotion made me emotional. I’ll be in Berlin next week, come and tell me why I should give you the most important shirt I swapped in my life. I went, fearing I would lose again but knowing this could be the best ‘revenge’. I explained again: everything I was trying to do. He didn’t say yes but didn’t say no.
“A couple of weeks later, he phoned: ‘I’m coming to Madrid, I’ll bring the shirt.’ But I didn’t know if he was actually going to give it to me and how. Loan it to me? Let me display it? Sell it? I had seen an interview in which he said he had turned down €8m. I thought: even if he says OK, he’s going to say, ‘But it’ll cost eight or 10’. Instead, he says: ‘I’m giving it to you.’
“At an event at the Argentinian embassy he hands it over. Marca asks why. And he says: ‘Because no one will look after it better or make more people enjoy it. And because money isn’t everything.’ There was applause, I hugged him, I got emotional. A supposedly cold German has given us the greatest message there is. He’s a divine person, wonderful.
“And …” Ordás says. And? “The other day, the son of the kitman from ‘86 called me. People know us now, come to us: it’s changed over all these years. Some players like the idea of being part of this, having their place among the best, and we also have the institutions supporting us: Fifa, Conmebol, La Liga. He says: ‘I’ve got Diego’s shirt from the first half.’ It’s not the shirt he scored in, but it is that game. I’m so excited.”
There’s a pause, a grin, and as Marcelo Ordás tells the tale, another adventure appearing before him, it’s easy to imagine this as the plot to a film. “I have just one issue,” he says. “He wants cash and I can’t travel with that much or send it, so I’m going round everyone I know: ‘Have you got an Argentinian account? Can you give me cash? Can we gather enough money, fill a suitcase and go and get another relic, another legend’s shirt?’”


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