How Adidas, on the verge of collapse, changed football forever

How Adidas, on the verge of collapse, changed football forever

At the very last second, the ball whipped inside the whitewashed wooden stanchion, pinging across the goal into the far side netting with a satisfying ripple. It was a stunning strike from 30 yards that used every inch of space afforded to the goalscorer, but as he wheeled away in delight, the first thought that struck my mind was not about the finesse and technique of the shot. “That was the boots.”

Matt had recently bought a pair of Adidas Predator Precision boots, and the effect in that moment was spectacular. Positioned directly behind him as I was when he took that swerving shot, the mind-boggling bend on the ball has stuck in my mind ever since, and the grip of the rubber surface either side of the laces certainly played a huge part in that. The setting may not have been the pristine surroundings of the San Siro or the Bernabéu – far from it – but they encapsulated the sheer joy of owning the best boots in the business.

In fact, the mud patch that masqueraded as a football pitch was probably more suited to the sport played over a century ago when heavy-duty hobnail boots – despite probably being considered too cumbersome for the military today – were a necessity. Advances in the design of footwear would obviously have come about at some point (could you imagine Cristiano Ronaldo in army issues?) but that shouldn’t take away from the innovation of the iconic boot series.

Many young footballers growing up in the early 1990s were not exactly spoilt for choice when looking for boots with a difference. This was still a time when the leather was black, the studs were round and image rights was a thing yet to enter the common sporting vocabulary. Enduring, classic design was valued above technological advancement – but it was the latter that effectively resurrected global giants Adidas.

Craig Johnston had spent three years of his life and almost £250,000 of his personal money pursuing a deal to develop and sell his prototype of a revolutionary boot when he nervously knocked on the boardroom door at Bayern Munich in 1990. Over 100 designs had been tested, not to mention countless patents acquired around the world, but all had been rejected by Puma, Nike, Reebok and Adidas; this last appeal was a daring throw of the dice.

Three of the most legendary figures in German football – Paul Breitner, Karl-Heinz Rumminegge and Franz Beckenbauer – greeted the former Liverpool midfielder, who interrupted their meeting by asking them to kick a ball about in the December snow.

Amazingly, they agreed. After half an hour of gaining a feel for the trial boots, all of which was captured on camera by Johnston, there was finally hope. With the valuable footage of the Bayern legends endorsing his product, the South African-born Australian raced up the motorway to face the executives who had laughed in his face months earlier with renewed vigour.

Adidas were trading as insolvent at the time – unable to pay debts, they had sold the company for $1 to French tycoon and Olympique Marseille president Bernard Tapie who agreed to cover over €200 million in debts. Within five years, the company had gone public and raised $1.3 billion – in no small part due to the phenomenal success of the Predator.

Way before their boom in the 1990s, Adidas had long been a major part of the football landscape. During the interwar period, Adolf and Rudi Dassler had developed a number of sports shoes that gained reasonable success; Lina Radke won the 800m gold in Amsterdam in 1928, just four years after the Gebrüder Dassler Schuhfabrik had been set up by the brothers, and Jesse Owens wore their running shoes on his feet as he claimed his historic haul of four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. It was the Miracle of Bern in 1954, however, that really shot the company to prominence.

When the Mighty Magyars took to the field in the World Cup final, West Germany were not the indomitable force they became decades later. In fact, there was little to suggest anything or anyone could stop the juggernaut that had humiliated England the year before at Wembley, but a number of factors coincided to throw them of their lauded best. Their hotel was in the centre of Solothurn, which celebrated a local fair until the early hours the night before the final, which must have disrupted the players’ rest somewhat.

Perhaps more importantly, torrential rain had created a quagmire that in theory would greatly hinder the fluid movement of their key players. This was still a time when many believed that a solid, sturdy boot was best for players, but the traction of the undersole was perhaps underappreciated by many. Contemporary boots on sale in England covered over the ankle bone and weighed close to half a kilo (and significantly more in heavy rain).

The German team came equipped with a secret weapon. They wore boots made by Adidas that featured removable studs that could be changed to suit conditions, not to mention weighing less than half of most rival football footwear, and as a result were able to adapt to the pitch conditions more comfortably.

The professional Hungarians raced into a 2-0 lead within eight minutes but failed to hold out as their opponents netted the winner five minutes from time. The reverence surrounding the miraculous victory against professional opponents is still felt today, and right at the centre of it was Adidas.

While those boots themselves didn’t become a classic in their own right, they were a commercial success despite retailing at roughly twice the value of competing products. It wasn’t just in the boggy conditions of Switzerland that Adidas showed the forethought to design a shoe specifically for extreme conditions, though. Ahead of the 1982 World Cup in Spain, where many pitches were due to be baked hard in the blazing sun, the legendary Copa Mundial boot was produced.

Unlike the Miracle of Bern boots, these were not designed for the exclusive benefit of one team. A new type of material – kangaroo leather – that breathed better and was more flexible, along with a new type of moulded rubber studs that gave a more comfortable feel on firmer surfaces, could be of benefit to millions. A softer feel made players of any ability get a more delicate sense of touch, and quickly their legend was sealed. To this day, they are the best-selling football individual boot of all-time, alongside the Predator range.

The fallout between the Dassler brothers is well documented, even if the precise cause is not so clear. Before the Second World War, their business had exploded to the point where they were producing over 200,000 pairs of shoes a year, but by the end of the war, they were determined to go their separate ways. 

In 1947 Rudolf founded Puma while two years later Adolf created Adidas, both in the small Bavarian town of Herzogenaurach, where the headquarters of both companies remain to this day. Whatever the disagreement, it was serious enough for them to not speak to each other until shortly before Rudi was on his deathbed in 1974.

In preparation for the 1962 World Cup in Chile, Adi Dassler was fitting out the West German national team with boots when he noticed the dreadfully unsuitable training kit the squad were wearing. Tracksuits were too baggy to be practical, and he reportedly asked the supplier to produce some tighter-fitting trousers with his company’s three-stripe insignia down the side. Bayern Munich were the first team to adopt the new outfits, and although the branding became a trademark issue – leading to the trefoil logo that still adorns the classic Adidas ranges today – a new avenue was formed.

Franz Beckenbauer, who would indirectly go on to help save the company 25 years later, had a hand in designing a tracksuit in 1967 as the first official apparel range. Ironically, it was Johan Cruyff – sponsored by rivals Puma – who gave the clothing line a boost by refusing to wear three stripes on his kit ahead of the 1974 World Cup.

Adidas supplied the Netherlands, but loyal to his personal backers, he drew attention to the unmistakable branding of his country’s sponsors by demanding to have just two stripes down his arms. In future years, global stars from all walks of life such as fashion designer Stella McCartney and pop star Katy Perry would lend their name and image to the Adidas brand, but in the 1970s it was footballers themselves who did that job.

The 1970 World Cup was due to be the first edition of football’s flagship tournament to be broadcast in colour across the world, and Adidas didn’t miss the opportunity. Up until then, the match balls had been one colour and had been on an individual tender offered by each host nation. Slazenger, more famous nowadays for making tennis gear, were the ball suppliers at the previous tournament in England, while in Chile the balls were so poorly made that the locally-made ones were swapped for various European brands halfway through the tournament.

In Mexico, however, came the first official agreement with FIFA itself to supply the match balls as Adidas produced the Telstar. The simple black pentagon and white hexagon design is one of the most enduring images in the sport; even though new footballs bear little visual resemblance, the standard icon of the 1970 ball is still used everywhere as an instantly recognisable image.

The association with FIFA was one that would define modern football irrevocably. Horst Dassler, son of founder Adolf, developed a strong relationship with the world governing body whereby Adidas paid handsomely to become official sponsors and suppliers of equipment. It was an opportunity that secured the status of the company as a world leader, and gave an exclusive platform to showcase their products.

João Havelange was appointed as president of FIFA in 1974, replacing the traditionalist Sir Stanley Rous, and immediately set about expanding the influence of football as a vehicle for development around the globe. Within his era as the organisation’s head, the number of participants in the World Cup doubled, the range of age-specific tournaments was expanded, meaning more exposure for Adidas. Under Havelange’s leadership and ambition, the financial clout of Adidas and other sponsors was used to create an eye-watering global business of marketing that simply hadn’t existed before.

Ever since Nike exploded onto the football scene in 1994 by sponsoring the Brazilian national team, there has been a competition to claim the biggest teams and most prestigious events between the American and German sportswear groups.

The 1998 World Cup was billed as a Nike vs. Adidas tournament, with hosts France claiming the grandest stage of all emblazoned with the three stripes. David Beckham became arguably the most marketable player in modern football history through a career-long partnership with Adidas that really took off that summer. His trademark precision at set pieces married perfectly with the concept of the Predator boot, leaving millions of children the world over trying to emulate his mastery of the ball.

After signing an extension to their sponsorship deal with FIFA three years ago to take their partnership to 2030 and signing the then-record club sponsorship deal with Manchester United – worth over a £1 billion combined – the financial muscle and brand strength of the Adidas group is powerful. In the last 20 years, moves have been made into almost all sports, all with a key figurehead to push the brand – Andy Murray in tennis, Sachin Tendulkar in cricket and, for a while, Tiger Woods in golf.

While world domination is in process in the sparkling arenas of the world, it is moments surrounded by mud, peeling paint and a pair of boots that stick in the memory.

Every afternoon before having to face the real world as an adult was spent bending free-kicks and penalties into the top corner for so many youngsters. OK, so most efforts went flying over or wide, and the quantifiable effect of one brand over another on the success of a shot in reality was negligible; just try telling that to the owner of a new pair of Predators or Copa Mundials.

By Andrew Flint @AndrewMijFlint

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