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Tools of the trade: the history of the football boot

A player's boots say as much about them as the shirt on their back. Superstition, emotion, passion, precision – the football boot has always been more than just a piece of kit.

A pair of adidas Copa Mundial boots
A pair of adidas Copa Mundial boots ©UEFA.com

"Boots are the footballer's tools," says Paolo Rossi as he looks back on his relationship with the football boots he wore.

Yet, as Rossi, the former Juventus and Italy forward who top-scored at the 1982 FIFA World Cup, tries to put into words what the football boot means to a player, he takes us back much further – to the first pair he ever wore, half a century ago.

"When I started playing for a football club at the age of ten, my mother bought me my first boots with rubber studs," he said. "I can still remember it now – I could hardly breathe with the excitement. I felt like a Serie A footballer; I was so proud."

Rossi is not alone - you can ask most footballers, amateur or professional, about their first footwear, and most will recall with delight that special pair bought for them by their parents. You only have to see the countless Instagram accounts devoted to nostalgic designs to see just how much love there is for this most crucial of instruments.

Early days

Like the stories we have told of the pitch, the ball and the shirt, the football boot has taken an interesting journey of its own as the game has developed.

Stanley Matthews played in specially designed footwear after seeing Brazil’s boots in 1950
Stanley Matthews played in specially designed footwear after seeing Brazil’s boots in 1950©UEFA.com

They have transformed from the cumbersome designs of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when boots were made of tough leather and reached high over the ankles, to today's super-lightweight synthetic models with their bright designs and impressive technology.

The original Laws of the Game, drafted in 1863, stipulated only that boots should have no protruding nails, which would have been used prior to the introduction of proper studs, which offered grip on the often-muddy pitches of early football.

For many decades, it was common for players to put new boots on and sink them into warm water to mould them to their feet. Dubbin was also put on boots to soften them up.

Change came following the Second World War. In 1949, Adi Dassler's newly-founded company – adidas – produced the first boots with moulded rubber studs. Five years later, West Germany's players won the World Cup wearing boots with screw-in studs. And two years after that, boots with nylon soles were on the market.

Over in England, it was the 1950 World Cup in Brazil that opened elite players' eyes to the future. On Brazil's bone-dry pitches, the England players turned out in footwear – made of heavy leather with thick toe caps – that had changed little since the turn of the century. They were amazed at the sight of the Brazilian players' lightweight, streamlined boots.

The reaction of Stanley Matthews, England's legendary winger, was to go straight to a sports shop in Rio de Janeiro and buy himself a pair. "I realised that, with a pair of these, I could be even quicker," he said.

On his return home, Matthews arranged for the design of his own private pair – selling 500,000 replica pairs too – which he would wear for the rest of his career. Matthews' example is evidence that the practice of top footballers having boot endorsements is nothing new.

'Put yourself in my shoes' was the tagline for the Stylo Matchmaker boots promoted by Manchester United and Northern Ireland great, George Best, in the 1960s. A decade later, Johan Cruyff was refusing to wear the three stripes of adidas on his Netherlands shirt owing to his boot deal with Puma.

England’s World Cup winner Alan Ball was a pioneer of white boots in the 1970s
England’s World Cup winner Alan Ball was a pioneer of white boots in the 1970s©UEFA.com

Coloured boots are not an entirely modern phenomenon either. While boots are now available in a kaleidoscope of colours, it is worth noting that Alan Ball, who won the World Cup with England, wore a white pair at the start of the 1970s. However, with supply chains not being quite as efficient as they are today, Ball actually ended up painting his old adidas boots white while waiting for Hummel to provide his new footwear.

Hunting the perfect modern boot

Arguably, no footballer is better placed to discuss boots than Craig Johnston, the Australian who designed the prototype for the adidas Predator, which first appeared on football pitches in 1994.

It was a revolutionary concept: a boot designed to aid performance. "I looked at a boot like a golfer would look at his clubs and a tennis player would look at their racket", Johnston says. "I don't think people had ever looked at a football boot as a performance instrument – it was just a boot."

The idea came to him during a coaching session with youth players in his native Australia: "I was explaining to them how to swerve the ball, and I said: 'Look, you've got to think of it like having a table tennis bat on your boots. You grip the ball and you give it an effect – side spin, top spin, and so on.' They said: 'Yes, but Mr Johnston, it's starting to rain, and our boots are made of leather and they're slippery; they're not made of rubber.'

"Driving home, I thought: 'The kids are right.' So I got a table tennis bat and took the rubber cover off it. I went back out in the rain and strapped it to my boot with some elastic bands."

The aim, Johnston explains, was to design a boot with a bigger sweet spot and better grip at the same time. "It had a bit more grip and firmer, longer contact. The fins and jets – which were the backbone of the patent – gripped and deformed the ball like a ping pong bat. It allowed more of a contact, and because it was rubber, players could kick the ball harder."

Paul Gascoigne was one of the first players to wear Craig Johnston’s adidas Predator
Paul Gascoigne was one of the first players to wear Craig Johnston’s adidas Predator©UEFA.com

In the end, Johnston – having been rejected by adidas, Nike, Puma, Umbro and Reebok – took his prototype to Bayern München and filmed some of the club's all-time greats trying out the shoe.

"I got [Franz] Beckenbauer, [Karl-Heinz] Rummenigge, Paul Breitner and Gerd Müller," he recalls. "I filmed them in the snow at Bayern's training ground kicking the ball."

That video he produced convinced adidas to eventually back the project, creating a boot that was instantly iconic, and bar a short period between 2015 and 2017, has been on the market ever since.

The present day

And so to the present and today's players and their boots. They look increasingly like high-street fashion items and can be lighter than the ball itself, but does that make them more disposable than they once were?

Some players have been known to wear a new pair every game. Anecdotal evidence from one UEFA Champions League club, Tottenham Hotspur, suggests that players will get through ten pairs a season.

However, former Austrian international Christian Fuchs estimates that he uses half that number – "four or five" – in a campaign. "I play until they rip," he says.

Anders Svensson, Sweden's most-capped male player, offers insight as a recently retired player who began his career in the early 1990s, when his black Lotto boots would last him an entire season. Later, as a Premier League player, Umbro would provide him with made-to-measure boots.

Modern boots come in a variety of colours
Modern boots come in a variety of colours©UEFA.com

By the end of his career, he was wearing coloured boots adorned with the names of his children, his shirt number and a Swedish flag.

"In the last few years, there were so many different boots – different materials and different colours – but I tried to get boots that were as similar as possible to the ones I'd had before, preferring leather and mostly discreet colours," he explains.

"I wanted as comfortable a boot as possible. I never liked standing out with all kinds of different colours. If I had boots that were a discreet colour and comfortable, I played in them until I couldn't use them anymore. It was difficult to get that colour again, as they always had new colours."

New colours, new designs, all contributing to the game we see today. Where might the boot be in another 100 years?

This article was adapted from the original published in UEFA Direct 164.

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