If you’re here for a history lesson on football boots, then it might be best for you to leave now. I’m not going to lecture you on what material was most commonly used during the 1950s, when the first carbon fibre studs were introduced, or who dared to don any colour other than black first. This is about culture, identity and style; about revoking images that you need clarifying or confirming from the filing cabinets of your football memory.
As an obsessively observant kid growing up watching football, I knew who was wearing what brand, what make and what colour boot at any given time, almost hoping someone at school would hand me a test paper to rattle off my brilliantly pointless pearls of knowledge. Steven Gerrard wears Adidas Predators, Didier Drogba Nike Mercurials, Ronaldinho Nike Tiempos, Wayne Rooney Nike T90s, Lionel Messi Adidas F50s. It was a way of life.
Some boots you just automatically associate with certain players, certain goals. Like Zinedine Zidane’s majestic red and black Predators sweeping through the air to strike that volley in Glasgow, leaving a blazing trail of three parallel lines behind them. Or Diego Maradona’s Puma Kings guzzling up the grass and surging past several England defenders at Mexico 86. It’s arguably one of the greatest advertising techniques in the world.
Major international tournaments were always special in that respect, especially in recent years. Adidas and Nike would bring out their own ranges, all steered towards a specific theme or colour scheme. Orange and silver are some of the most vivid colours I remember from the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Andres Iniesta fired in the winning goal in the final with Nike boots of those shades as Rafael van der Vaart, sporting the same studs, leapt in to try to block the shot.
Nike raised their game for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, introducing ankle socks that gave players that extra ounce of flair to their appearance – a fitting addition for the most flamboyant tournament in recent times. Mario Götze stretched and shot past Sergio Romero wearing some stylish yellow and red Nike Magistas with those exact features at the Maracanã. Russia didn’t particularly stand out in that respect, but there was something freshly modern about the clean, white Nike editions that went so well with an England kit.
Read | How Adidas, on the verge of collapse, changed football forever
Speaking of England, you can’t talk about football boots without mentioning those majestic white Predators that David Beckham used to steer Sven-Göran Eriksson’s men to the World Cup at Old Trafford. Beckham, ever a style icon, revolutionised the football boot scene along with Zidane in those early years of the 21st century. They were the first in a long line of illustrious names to wear Adidas’ signature make. As a result, they were present for some of the most pivotal moments in modern football history.
Zidane dinked the ball in off the crossbar in the World Cup final in them, Xavi played hundreds of thousands of passes in them, Robin van Persie fired Sir Alex Ferguson to his final Premier League title in them. Gerrard wore them for years before shifting to a pair of Adidas Nitrocharges. He slipped in those ones. John Terry’s Umbro studs didn’t help him in the Moscow rain either.
The Predators weren’t innocent by any means, they were the boots of choice as Beckham kicked out at Diego Simeone in Saint-Étienne. Rooney opted for Nike to stamp on Ricardo Carvalho’s groin in Gelsenkirchen. This is definitely an English thing, no matter what you’re wearing on your feet.
You often see throwback posts on social media of Ronaldo’s sensational R9 boots for the 1998 World Cup but there are some makes that, in my humble opinion, are drastically underrated. Take Nike’s CTR360s, introduced around the time of the 2010 World Cup as smaller, technically gifted midfielders began to control the game.
Players like Iniesta, Cesc Fàbregas and Jack Wilshere were in fashion and so was their choice of footwear. They also fired in South Africa’s opening goal that summer courtesy of Siphewe Tshabalala. The boots were split in half, with the front a different colour than the back, with the iconic pairing of red and white making way for yellow and black. They had specialist padding on the inside of the foot to help Europe’s playmakers cushion through that killer pass.
Read | Nike, propaganda and the moulding of the Mercurial generation
Puma went one step further for the 2014 World Cup as they made the likes of Mario Balotelli, Antoine Griezmann and Yaya Touré wear a cherry red boot on their right foot and a blue boot on their left foot. Maybe they’d taken inspiration from Tottenham’s Benôit Assou-Ekotto, who’d been wearing odd boots for the previous couple of seasons by choice rather than sponsorship pressure.
“I’d rather be free than prostitute myself for a sponsor,” he told Canal+ in 2016. “In all honesty, when you’re an African player, it’s not that interesting to have a sponsor. When you’re European, it’s better because business is done in Europe. I buy boots for €30. It’s a good price for comfortable boots. You can find them on eBay, and they’re not expensive. Being fashionable is expensive, but you’re more distinguished to be vintage.”
Puma have had a curious history when it comes to being à la mode in the football boot industry. Pelé won World Cups in them, so did Diego Maradona. Johan Cruyff didn’t but he did reinvent the sport, performing his very own move in them. Eusébio burst onto the scene donning them with both Benfica and Portugal. Nike and Adidas have taken over the mantra, forming a sort of duopoly in recent decades, but Puma have still had their moments. They’re the reason why everyone in Manchester remembers 13 May 2012.
Only those of you of a certain vintage will know what Marco van Basten was sporting for his stunning volley against the Soviet Union at Euro 88 – Diadora. The Italian brand were hugely popular towards the turn of the century, with George Weah, Zico, Roy Keane, Gary Neville and Phil Neville all lacing them up. Francesco Totti wore a gold pair at the 2006 World Cup, which ended up matching the trophy in his hands.
Gold is perhaps the hardest colour to get right on a football boot, and you can’t just hand them to anyone. The white and gold Nike Tiempos which Ronaldinho dazzled in suited him better than any football boots have suited any other player before or after his time. Very rarely can you escape unscathed on a Sunday league pitch if you stride out in gold-tinted numbers that look like they belong on a plinth in Messi’s hands.
Read | Remembering Nike’s 2002 Scorpion advert: the greatest tournament that never was
To avoid mixing and matching with mere mortals, the Barcelona superstar has been wearing his very own pair of Adidas boots for years. The first ones tailored to his feet were fittingly white and gold, but he’s donned just about every other colour since. Cristiano Ronaldo has also wandered down that glittering path and has made his CR7 brand synonymous with scoring goals. Neymar is one of the very few other players privileged to have boots specifically made for them.
Another of those is Toni Kroos, who isn’t one to show off, but he doesn’t seem to like constant change. Adidas have been producing pairs of white and blue 11pros specifically for the German midfielder since 2013 and they’ve helped him to a World Cup and three Champions League titles. “My football boots are the most important thing when I go out on the pitch,” he said in 2018. “I have to play in white shoes, that’s a little tick of mine. Even the smallest bit of dirt disturbs me. That’s why I clean and care for my shoes myself. Some people think I’ve lost my marbles but when I look down, I want to see white shoes, otherwise I don’t feel well.”
Some players are very precious with their boots, especially the ones that may have scored a winner in a World Cup final. We’ve already touched on Götze’s Magistas from Brazil in 2014. The former Bayern Munich forward didn’t wear them again. Instead, he auctioned the left boot, the one that he slotted past Romero with, off for charity, raising an astonishing €2m euros. “I have never washed the boot,” he told Bild in 2014. “It is still in the same condition as it was in Rio when I left the stadium with it. There is still grass on it. I have never put the boot on after the final. I kept it safe in my house.”
There’s something so distinctive about footballers’ footwear that propels it further than any other piece of clothing in terms of importance. They don’t hang up their shirts, shorts, socks or shin pads when they retire, do they? The best football adverts are for boots, there’s no debating that. Ronaldinho’s Touch of Gold promotion video for his Tiempos was the first YouTube video to hit a million views in 2005. Nike’s airport advert for the 1998 World Cup is yet to be beaten for quality, although I fondly remember their effort for 2014 – it’s worth looking up. Adidas haven’t been able to match their rivals on that level.
Such is the pull of the past, we’ve got to the point where players are delving deep into nostalgia and donning boots from yesteryear on the pitch today. Rooney was spotted playing and training in some classic Nike T90s with Everton a couple of years ago while Michy Batshuayi struck Chelsea’s winner at Ajax in a black and green pair of Adidas F50s. Somewhat sadly, we’re seeing fewer players keeping with tradition. Black Adidas Copa Mundials are a thing of the past, it seems, as we enter a new era, but, as long as at least one centre-half in the Championship is wearing them, I’ll be happy.
By Billy Munday @billymunday08