From one perspective the football boot is purely a tool, but the world’s most famous football boot has become a collectible fashion accessory, won design awards and paved the way for new technologies and textiles for the rest of the fashion world.
As treasure an item as the most lavish pair of ladies and gentleman’s shoes, and for some a valuable collectible or cherished memory. Everyone remembers their first pair of football boots. If the ladies have their favourite Jimmy Choo’s, the men have a vintage pair of 1984 Adidas Copa Mundials.
The beginning at the King’s request
The first were worn by Henry VIII in 1526 with “45 velvet pairs and 1 leather pair for football” requested so he could have a kickabout with his young nobles. However today’s boots are engineered in laboratories changing the heavy, hulking leathers to threadbare boots designed to be as light as those of an Olympic sprinter’s.
While Henry VIII’s boots are no longer in existence, the beginnings of widely used football boots can be traced back to the 1800’s. Football was gaining increasing popularity in Britain with matches between local factories and villages becoming a regular fixture.
Players wore steel-toed work boots to play. They were heavy, were made from thick hard leather and weighed up to 500 grams. Leather studs, which had to be rounded, were hammered into the bottom for stability.
Right up to the 1900’s, the development of the football boot was slow up the the Second World War. However, a number of football boot manufacturers began to appear including Gola, Valsport and Hummel.
One of the key pioneers of football boot design hails from Germany. Adi and Rudolf Dassler formed the Dassler Brothers Shoe Factory, and began producing football boots that has replaceable studs for customising the boots according to the weather, or the surface of the pitch.
In 1948, the Dassler Brothers show factory became the company Adidas. However following a number of squabbles, Adolf fell out with his brother, and the Puma company was born.
Puma produced the Puma Atom football boot, leading to interchangeable screw-in studs, the first of its kind, made of plastic or rubber in the 1950’s. A feud erupted between the two companies over who was first with the studs, with Puma to this day claiming ownership of the innovation.
Adidas kitted out the German national football team that won the World Cup in the 1954 final against Hungary, But Puma claimed to have produced the studs before then, as early as 1948, that that in 1953, the year before Germany won the World Cup, FC Kaiserslautern players were already wearing screw-in studs, with Pumas “Super Atom” boot.
By now football boots were being made with synthetic materials and leather to deliver lighter footwear, A design change meant boots no longer went up to the ankles, increasing freedom of movement.
The era of sponsorship: World Cup to Predator
The 1970’s saw football move to another financial strata, with a new age of sponsorship being ushered in. Brazilian icon Pele, winner of the FIFA World Cup in 1970, became synonymous with the Puma King football boot, as players were paid for wearing one brand. Adidas produced the Copa Mundial –made from kangaroo leather and built for speed. The simple design has become synonymous with football, becoming the symbol of football in the 70’s.
Not until the 1990’s did football boot innovation move in a new and uncharted direction using science and engineering. In 1994 Adidas released the Predator. It featured an upper where strips of rubber were placed to improve touch and ball control. It had a more flexible sole, and plastic blades on the sole to increase stability, though they have not replaced traditional studs.
Up to the 2000’s the big boot companies, particularly Nike invested a lot in research to develop smarter boots. Nike Air cushioning technology delivered increasing comfort with its Nike Air Zoom Total 90 boots using synthetic leathers to produce the lightest boots on the market. However, Adidas now claim that its new F50 adiZero Prime is the “lightest boot on the planet” at just 150 grams. “Football is faster than ever before and the need for speed has never been greater,” Adidas says.
Nike’s latest Mercurial boot uses pressure-activated technology that adjusts stud length depending on the surface, heel studs to deliver increased acceleration from a standing position, and graphics on the heel to increase visibility to the wearers teammates.
Adidas’ latest adiPower boots feature silicon rubber to increase spin on the ball, and control when striking. It also uses “Powerspine” technology to reduce energy lost when shooting by reducing the “kicking flex.”
Does the modern boot offer enough protection?
However, despite the new groundbreaking advances in engineering and design, modern boots have been accused of not offering footballers enough protection, with the quest for a new lighter boot being linked with a growing number of injuries.
An infamous metatarsal injury to England striker Wayne Rooney, suffered after an opposing player accidentally stood on his foot gave rise to further questions over the safety of today’s football boots.
Rooney himself defended the boots he was wearing at the time of injury. “Before we actually wear the boots they get tested out to make sure they’re suitable for playing in. The boots have been checked out and the boots are fine.”
Amanda Lau, podiatrist at Pure Sports Medicine believes criticism of today’s boots is an easy blame. “There are so many factors involved,” Lau told me.
“Their foot may be taking more of a load than necessary, their body may not be adapted to that specific movement. It could be trauma [such as] someone kicking them, it’s inevitable what’s going to happen regardless of the boot. I think it’s a very easy blame to put on the boot. Yes the boot will play a role in terms of avoiding things, but there’s so much more involved in the human body than just blaming the boot itself.
“Boots are getting lighter. They [the manufacturers] are trying to focus on the point to where they are getting players faster, but if I was to kit a player up in them it would be based on the condition and shape of foot.”
It begs the question. What next for football boot development? Football boots continue to be engineered with professional players, and marketing in mind, as the boot makers strive to deliver the next innovations claiming to improve their game, whilst making them commercially more appealing to a constantly growing football audience.
As the boots get lighter, the extrovert designs get more creative. Today, the millions of children and adults that idolise the modern footballer, also worship their heroes boots. The next generation will be faster, lighter and even more outlandish in design.
During the season just remember the tools of the football trade are far from just boots, they are highly tuned engineered stylings, and an expression of the footballer’s personality. Their journey has seen the football boot establish itself as a design icon. However the race for the next groundbreaking innovation in football engineering continues.