Material Matters: How Cleats Hit The Streets
Retired basketball boots and runners of yesteryear tend to dominate today’s casual-sneaker scene, which makes sense, as they’re the styles that transition from the stadium to street with the greatest ease. The influence that field games have on our shoes, however, is often overlooked. Soccer – ‘football’ to most – is the world’s most popular sport, so there’s no doubt it’s had a considerable effect on the sneaker industry. But how exactly did the soccer boot shift from cleat to street? Let’s start at the beginning.
From hard-packed dirt to ankle-deep mud, and crunchy dry grass to slick wet sod, a soccer boot needs to cater to a curious variety of surfaces. The earliest mention of football boots is found in Henry VIII’s Great Wardrobe inventory of 1526. There isn’t much known about the king’s purpose-made boots, but the fact they existed suggests conditions on the field called for a special solution. Fast-forward to the early 19th century when players wore leather boots with metal tacks sticking out of the soles for traction. Soon after, the game took on its first uniform regulations and the earliest studs – or cleats – made from stacked leather, six to a sole, came into being.
Traditionally, football boots have featured high-cut silhouettes for additional ankle support when the studs bite into the earth. In the early decades of the 20th century, brands such as Gola and Hummel churned out variations of the leather boot. Then in the mid-20s, the Dasslers set their sights on the sport. The brothers from Herzogenaurach introduced interchangeable studs, which could be switched out to suit different conditions – an early example of the progressive spirit that saw the brand become the sportswear giant it is today. Compared to basketball shoes, which remained largely unchanged for decades, innovations came thick and fast for the football boot.
Once World War II was over, leisure activities earned a more important station in society, and thanks to advancements in air transport, international travel became the thing to do. The progress saw football became a truly global game, which meant players needed more versatile shoes; but more importantly, it saw serious money funnelled into and generated by the sport. With a fresh revenue stream and an arsenal of wartime technological breakthroughs, boots began to get lighter and more flexible. Brands experimented with new leathers, such as Riddell’s lightweight kangaroo models streamlining silhouettes to improve ball control. Other brands such as Magnus went in the opposite direction, increasing padding and protection, and even offering a wedged sole to keep the heel elevated.
The 60s were all about nylon. The new wonder material was colourful, durable and très chic in the fashion world. But football boot designers had different ideas and used the trendy polymer to create moulded soles. Not only was it easy to achieve the desired shape, but the slick surface prevented mud from clogging up the studs, increasing the shoe’s weight and effectively rendering the cleats useless.
In 1965, a German player named Uwe Seeler suffered a torn achilles, which just about signalled the end of an athlete’s career at the time. Determined to keep the star player in action, Adi Dassler produced a special orthopaedic boot for Seeler, which featured extra cushioning and a lace-up heel. The adidas Achilles changed the way we viewed foot and ankle injuries, and scores of players suffering from bursitis, tendon injuries and heel spurs were kept in the game thanks to the new tech.
The story of Michael Jordan’s rule-breaking Nike colourway is part of sneaker folklore, while André Agassi’s 90s models can never be unseen. However, one of the first sportsmen to hit the headlines with their choice of footwear was Everton’s Alan Ball, who earned the name Twinkle Toes for appearing in white Hummel boots in the 1970 Charity Shield Match. A little-known fact is that Ball was actually playing in a pair of adidas boots painted white with Hummel chevrons drawn on – you wouldn’t get away with that in the era of HD TV.
In the 80s, players began to land lucrative sponsorship deals with brands, which led to individuals having more of a say in the design process. Players began dictating how the boots would feel and perform, leading to some iconic upper designs like adidas’ Copa Mundial. In step with indoor soccer’s increasing popularity, adidas created a dedicated shoe for the sport – the soft-soled Trimm Trab – but many players opted for tried and tested athletic models such as the adidas Samba and Gazelle. With a link to the sport- and street-ready style, these simple suede sneakers became popular choices on the terraces, and with that, we saw the controversial casual culture’s first move towards bringing soccer shoes onto the streets.
While the 90s didn’t see a whole lot of transition between the field and the streets, the decade did introduce some iconic designs. Nike’s Tiempo and New Balance’s Epic took on a similar look to the Copa Mundial with quilted toe boxes providing extra protection from heavy impact with the ball. Brands’ obsessions with shoring up the toes produced some, how do we say, particularly over the top ideas. PUMA laced the Phantom with Kevlar so they could stop bullets and the adidas Predator Rapier was equipped with a strange kind of armour that must have terrified the competition. In 1998 Nike introduced the Mercurial, with an unparalleled lightweight construction, the design kicked off an era of stripped-back minimalism.
Thanks to the insipient style nurtured by the globally infamous casuals culture, brands started thinking about cashing in on the popularity of the old-school football aesthetic. In 2014, Brazil hosted the FIFA World Cup and Nike jumped feet first into football fever. They kicked it off with a new hybrid, taking their two-decade-old Tiempo and slapping it on a whole new sole. The design was a hit and it didn’t take long for other brands to drop their 90s football uppers onto street soles – the adidas Copa Mundial or New Balance Epic to name a couple. Then the Swoosh went all-out, allowing the three brilliant minds behind HTM (Hiroshi, Tinker and Mark) to take the ultra-tech Mercurial Superfly knitted upper and knock it to the sidewalk with a 5.0 Free sole.
The high-cut Flyknit style of the Mercurial had been developed for increased ankle support on the pitch, but it blew up in the lifestyle category. All of a sudden the Swoosh were splicing Magistas onto Footscape soles and The Stripes were on a BOOST rampage kicked off with the Palace colab Copa Mundial BOOST.
The latest wave of insanely high-tech knitted football boots lends itself perfectly to today’s streamlined street aesthetic. The more recent releases from adidas have ditched laces in favour of highly engineered uppers. The Ace 16+ got its own BOOST sole, while the strapping-tape inspired Nemeziz Tango 17+ UltraBOOST is one of the best-looking new lifestyle sneakers around.
With such a long history and so specific a purpose, the football boot has driven the progression of sneaker design for decade. Although it might be hard to spot, when the next big drop comes swooping in from left field, take a good long look and you’ll most likely find a football boot in there somewhere.
Material Matters is our weekly tech section where we peek behind the mesh curtain and examine the building blocks of the industry. Recently, we’ve looked at Reservations on Elevation, Fables of The Forgotten and Sneakers of the Space Race.