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Nike shouldn’t mess with England flag, UK PM says of new soccer kit

Racks of England’s new Nike designed football shirt, with the controversial St George’s cross, are displayed for sale in a central London store on March 22, 2024. 

Daniel Leal | Afp | Getty Images

LONDON — U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Friday said Nike was wrong to “mess with” the design of the flag on the England soccer team’s new shirt, as a controversy that began on social media broadened into the political sphere.

New kits created by the U.S. sportswear giant were unveiled Monday by England Football ahead of the EURO 2024 tournament this summer. They feature a small version of the St. George’s Cross — which appears on the England flag in red on a white background — on the collar in different shades including purple and blue.

The design was criticized by a large number of people on social media who said a national flag should not be altered, while others argued the debate was being overblown. Some said the new flag was “woke,” a disputed term generally meaning something associated with socially progressive values. The hashtag #BoycottNike was shared by a significant number of accounts on social media platform X.

Sunak on Friday said he “prefers the original,” the BBC reported.

“When it comes to our national flags, we shouldn’t mess with them because they’re a source of pride, identity, who we are, and they’re perfect as they are,” he said.

A flag waver waits with the England flag as the crowd turns on their phone torches during the UEFA EURO 2024 European qualifier match between England and Malta at Wembley Stadium on November 17, 2023 in London, United Kingdom.

Charlotte Wilson/offside | Offside | Getty Images

Nike said in a statement: “We have been a proud partner of the FA since 2012 and understand the significance and importance of the St. George’s Cross and it was never our intention to offend, given what it means to England fans.”

“Together with the FA, the intention was to celebrate the heroes of 1966 and their achievements. The trim on the cuffs takes its cues from the training gear worn by England’s 1966 heroes, with a gradient of blues and reds topped with purple. The same colours also feature an interpretation of the flag on the back of the collar.”

In its initial post on X, the company called the change to the St. George’s Cross a “playful update.”

U.K. opposition leader Keir Starmer also weighed into the debate this week, saying the flag “doesn’t need to be changed.”

Starmer told The Sun newspaper: “I think they should just reconsider this and change it back. I’m not even sure they can properly explain why they thought they needed to change it in the first place.”

The adult shirts will retail for between £84.99 ($107.23) and £124.99 on the Nike website.

It is far from the first consumer firm to face a social media backlash in recent years. Companies have been spooked by the intense and long-running boycott of Bud Light beer over the brand’s brief partnership with a transgender influencer, which impacted parent company AB InBev‘s 2023 results.

Nike reported quarterly results on Thursday, which showed better-than-expected growth in North America but a continued slowdown in China sales.

German rival Adidas faced a blow this week when the German Football Association announced it will switch supplier for the national team kit to Nike from 2027, saying it had offered a better deal.

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