Ready for the big match
The heavy football boots worn for decades are virtually unrecognisable when compared to the design and construction of modern styles.
Image © Northampton Museum and Art Gallery
Boots for Association football – ‘known as soccer’ in some parts of the world – have come a long way since the first footwear specifically designed for the game was produced in the latter part of the 19th century. Until then, players normally wore their hard, leather working boots. These often had steel toe-caps, with long laces and leather or metal studs or tacks hammered into the soles in an attempt to improve grip and stability.
Even when boots made for players began to be produced, the selected material differed little from that used in work footwear – they were still made from thick leather. Their intention was to provide protection rather than comfort or allow for speed, and featured high ankle support and hard box toes. The first styles could double in weight when wet – in stark contrast to modern boots, which are the culmination of decades of research and development.
The English Football Association’s laws of the game were first discussed during the body’s inaugural meeting in October 1863, and an experimental game was played two months later. To begin with, footballers were not allowed to wear boots with studs. Things changed in 1891, when both studs and bars could be fitted to the soles of the boots. To meet the new regulations, however, these components had to be made of leather, they could not project more than 12.5mm (half an inch), and had to have their fastenings driven in flush with the material. Studs had to be rounded rather than conical or pointed, not less than half-an-inch in diameter, and were originally hammered into the boots on a semi-permanent basis. Players would have several pairs of these boots, with studs of different length to allow for varying pitch conditions.
The appearance and construction of football boots remained basically the same from the 1900s to the end of World War II. The First World War and the 1939-1945 conflict left little in the way of innovative materials that could be used for football boots – nor perhaps the desire to dedicate resources to what in many people’s minds was a trivial pursuit compared to the day-to-day struggles of life. Nevertheless, during this time, a number of manufacturers were established.
The Dassler brothers – Adolf and Rudolf – founded a shoe factory in Herzogenaurach, Germany in 1924. The following year, they began to produce football boots with six or seven replaceable, nailed studs, which could be changed according to the weather conditions of play.
The Latin American influence
By the 1940s, football boots still covered the player’s ankles, with protection remaining the most important design factor. The innovations of the day centred on the general use of removable studs.
After the war, however, research and new technology led to the design of boots changing suddenly and significantly, with lighter, more flexible footwear being worn by players in South American and Southern Europe. Their exciting style of play immediately caught the imagination of professional and amateur players alike. Football boot production quickly shifted to making much lighter footwear, with the focus being on providing the ability to kick accurately and control the ball rather than wearing a simple protective boot, although most of the styles of the time still covered the ankle.
Towards the end of the decade, more synthetic materials and rubbers were being used, producing even lighter boots in which the players of the day could display their skills. In 1948, the Dassler brothers went separate ways, leading to the adidas company being founded by Adolf (Adi), and Rudolf starting the company that became PUMA.
England international Stanley Matthews was one of the first players in his home country to opt for a lighter-weight boot. While in Brazil for the 1950 World Cup, he was impressed by what the overseas players could do with the new style of footwear, so he also wanted a pair. Matthews travelled to the Co-op factory in Yorkshire, where he worked with the plant manager to design a new boot and, over time, the weight of the footwear was reduced to 1lb 6oz (624g). This caught the attention of players around Britain, and between 1950 and 1958 the Co-op reportedly sold more than 500,000 pairs.
Interchangeable plastic or rubber screw-in studs were introduced in the fifties. In 1956, adidas launched ‘polyamide’ soles to replace traditional leather solings. The German company also produced boots with kangaroo skin uppers, which were marketed as moulding to the foot better, being more hard wearing, and allowing a more accurate touch on the ball.
The sixties was a time of great technological advances in virtually every walk of life, and progress in the design of football boots was no exception. The biggest change saw the introduction of lower-cut designs, which allowed players to move faster. Several manufacturers joined the market with their own brands and styling, including Mitre in 1960 and Joma five years later.
The endorsement of football boots by international stars expanded dramatically during the 1970s, with players being paid to wear one particular brand of footwear. Continuous technological advancements produced still lighter boots, and designers began to experiment with a variety of colours. These included, for the first time ever, the all-white boot worn by Everton’s Alan Ball during his team’s 1970 Charity Shield victory over Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.
Moulded football boots for wear on firm natural surfaces were introduced. These featured more studs than had traditionally been fitted – often 12 – in order to provide improved traction and wearer comfort on hard ground. By the end of the decade, there were many new companies making football boots, as well as a number of long-established sportswear manufacturers which had decided to move into football boot production.
A significant development took place in the 1980s, when former Liverpool player Craig Johnston designed the ‘Predator’ boot, which was eventually released by adidas in 1994. For the first time, a boot featured dimpled rubber patches attached to the kicking area in order to apply extra spin to the ball when passing and shooting.
By the late 1990s, new construction technology and materials had brought the weight of the newest boots down to 200g. However, other technology quickly caused controversy, with vociferous claims that a number of injuries were due to the introduction of elongated ‘blades’ as an alternative to studs. In 2005, FIFA (football’s governing body) announced that blades were safe, but this did not stop Manchester United banning its players from wearing them. At the time, a club spokesman stated that while there was no firm evidence that blades caused injury, Manchester United was taking a cautious approach, and not letting its players wear them.
In the nineties, a number of other advances were seen in football boots for the first time. These included PUMA’s introduction of what it marketed as the first foam-free midsole, designed to reduce the weight of the boot, and Mizuno’s ‘Wave’ technology, which was claimed to diminish and redirect impact forces away from the wearer’s foot. Nike began production of footwear with air cushioning technology. The company also developed lightweight synthetic leather-like materials, with the aim of creating a water-repellant boot that would not stretch or lose its shape.
The application of the new research and developments since the start of the new millennium has allowed for what manufacturers say is yet improved ball control. In 2007, Nike produced a limited-edition version of its Mercurial SL, made almost entirely out of carbon fibre and weighing just 190g.
Now and the future
Thanks to modern technology, personalised football boots are available, and the option of featuring the player’s name and shirt number on the upper is not just the reserve of mega rich international sportsman. Personalisation has also entered the arena in the form of footwear being customised for an individual’s fit and playing style.
In 2014, adidas launched ‘Primeknit’ – the world's first football boot to have an upper knitted entirely from a water-resistant polymer microfibre yarn. This was marketed as ‘a brand-new solution in the search for higher levels of comfort and flexibility’, and was said to offer the same levels of strength and stability as conventional boots while using fewer materials and weighing less. A major selling point for this footwear was the wearer’s feet being allowed ‘unprecedented freedom of movement’.
Designers using this new method of construction were also able to create specific zones on the fabric upper, to increase flexibility or stability – depending on which part of the boot the yarn is located. Since then, a number of other global brand owners – including Nike and PUMA – have launched their own football boots featuring knitted uppers.
How times have changed. While football boots from 100-plus years ago were viewed as providing the player with little more than protection and grip, the major manufacturers have spent years and untold millions of dollars in researching ever-lighter, highly technological footwear. Without doubt, this has encouraged the emergence of world-class footballers who can kick a ball in ways that players decades ago would have only dreamed about.
The photograph at the beginning of this article shows tan and brown leather football boots made in the 1930s, with large nailed-on leather studs.
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This article was originally published on page 16 of the June 2019 issue of SATRA Bulletin.