One Giant Leap for Mankind: The Evolution of Football Boots Throughout History
Football boots have had a long and varied history over the centuries, developing into a vital piece of equipment that can make or break a performance.
You’ve probably never forgotten your first pair of football boots. Maybe they were a gift for Christmas or you were going to school and you didn’t want to have to use whatever spare boots they had lying around. You can remember scoring your first goal in them or showing them off to your friends – boot envy is a thing, right? Or maybe you never got the dream pair you always wanted because they were too expensive but you remember yearning for them as your favourite football player scored the winner in a final.
But where did the dreams start? With you, sitting in your bedroom? A group of teenage boys playing on a street in Victorian London?
The history of the football boot can tell us so much about the reverence for the sport and the care that goes into making a quality boot. We wouldn’t have the boots we had today if it wasn’t for those first pioneers and dreamers so let’s take a look at where it all began and see how far we’ve really come.
Football Boots Origin
It goes without saying that you can’t have football boots without football but just how old is the football boot?
There isn’t much proof pertaining to special footwear for ball sports in ancient times. It may be that any archaeological evidence just hasn’t withstood the test of time. But we do know for a fact that ball sports were being played.
An Ancient Greek sport popular in Sparta, played with two teams of twelve or fourteen players handling a ball with either their hands or their feet and trying to get it past a white goal line known as the skuros. It was typically violent but then the Spartans never did do anything by halves.
A Japanese ball game was first played in the Heian period (8th-12th Century AD). It was a non-competitive sport where the goal was simply to pass the ball to the other players. At first, only noblemen were allowed to play it but now Shinto priests are the ones keeping the tradition alive.
An Ancient Chinese ball game with similarities to football except there is one singular goal in the middle of the field and players try to score by kicking the ball through from their half of the pitch.
An Ancient Roman ball game thought to have been adapted from episkyros. Two teams try to keep the ball on their side of the field for as long as possible. It is believed you were allowed to incapacitate members of the opposing team through wrestle holds.
A ball game of unknown origin played by the Eskimos of Alaska and Canada. One legend has it that a match was played between neighbouring villages with the goals separated by ten miles!
So considering the ancient origins and popularity of ball sports, why is it there is no evidence of football boots?
There has definitely been speculation.
In 2016, a wealth of shoes was unearthed in Northumberland, UK near Hadrian’s Wall, dating back to Roman times. One of the shoes bears a remarkable resemblance to Adidas’ famed Predator boot. It’s not exactly evidence of a football boot – let alone whether Romans were playing football around Hadrian’s Wall, but the timelessness of the design does leave much to the imagination.
The First Recorded Pair of Football Boots
Medieval Europe saw further growth in the playing of football. La Soule was being played in France, with similarities to mob football in Britain where a contest was held between as many participants as possible on two sides who charged en masse.
The popularity of the game was growing even though many attempted to ban it, starting as early as Edward II through Edward III and Edward IV as well as Henry VIII. In fact, there were as many as thirty royal and local laws banning the sport from between 1314 and 1667 (not that it really stopped anyone).
So who commissioned the first known pair of football boots in history?
That’s right, Henry VIII, who also banned the sport from being played in public places because it so often ended in riots. You’ll notice that it doesn’t say anything about private games which a royal king would have in abundance.
He paid the royal cordwainer, Cornelius Johnson, four shillings to make the football boots.
Though the boots themselves haven’t physically survived for analysis in the present day, it is thought that they were heavier than normal shoes and made of stronger leather, making them more suitable for running around and kicking a ball. Spanish leather was a premium in the sixteenth century and Henry VIII would have only wanted the best of the best.
Football Boots: The Lost Years
After Henry VIII, knowledge of football boots fades into non-existence for a period of about three hundred years.
It’s possible we only know about Henry’s pair because he was a king. The shoes a peasant would have worn would never have been nearly so notable. It’s even possible that aside from the king’s special commission, everyone else just made do with their normal day-to-day shoes
We do know football was being played in England though. Large games often took place on Shrove Tuesday with Shrovetide Football dating all the way back to the reign of King John in the late 12th and early 13th centuries.
Pioneers of a New Age of Football Boots
Fast forward to the mid-nineteenth century.
Workers were playing football in their hard, leather work boots with steel capped toes, sometimes with leather or tacks hammered into the soles as makeshift studs.
These were not shoes made for running or kicking a ball and the steel caps presented a lot of dangers – you wouldn’t want to be kicked accidentally, that’s for sure.
In 1863, the Football Association was formed, organising football for the first time. Ebenezer Morley, who formed Barnes FC in 1862, is often considered the father of the FA. The represented clubs gathered together and formed a list of thirteen rules, finalised in a tavern in Lincoln’s Inn Fields in London. They included:
- After a goal is won the losing side shall kick-off and the goals shall be changed
- No player shall carry the ball
- Neither tripping nor hacking shall be allowed and no player shall use his hands to hold or push his adversary
But the rule specifically relating to football boots is the thirteenth one in the list:
- No player shall wear projecting nails, iron plates or gutta-percha on the soles or heels of his boots.
For those of you who don’t know, gutta-percha is a natural latex or rubber originating in Malaysia. Players often applied it to their boots in order to make them harder. (It has many other uses though! Natives in Malaysia use it to craft knife handles and walking sticks and these days, it’s used in root canals!)
The thirteenth rule aimed to make football boots safer in case kicks landed on opposing players shins. Studs were introduced a couple of decades later in 1886. They gave boots more grip in all weather conditions and provided players with more balance. Boots were also being made of thick leather with extra-hardened toes for kicking the ball.
Football Boots in the 20th Century
Football boots only continued to develop as we headed into the 1900s. Early developments are light on the ground due to World War One and the same holds true for the ’40s as well. The ’20s however saw a sudden boom in the manufacture and development of football boots with more and more brands rising up out of the woodwork.
Football Boot Brands
Two of the most famous sporting brands in the world, Adidas and Puma, found their origin together. Adolf and Rudolf Dassler were German brothers who set up their own company together in the 1920s called Gebrüder Dassler Schuhfabrik (Dassler Brothers’ Shoe Factory). They went strong till the end of the 1940s, even making the shoes for the athlete Jesse Owens, four-time gold medalist in the 1936 Olympic Games.
No one really knows what split the Dassler brothers apart.
Some say it was an affair, or which of them invented screw-in soccer studs.
The most likely reason for their fallout was an ideological rift with Rudolf being a much more ardent supporter of the Nazis than Adolf, a rift that turned nasty after the war and during denazification.
Their company crumbled and they both went their separate ways. Adolf went on to form Adidas (derived from his first and last name) while Rudolf founded Puma (initially known as Ruda).
Their feud lasted for decades and as far as historians know, the two brothers never reconciled.
They still managed to accomplish some spectacular feats though, when they were still working together.
Adolf started their original business in his mother’s laundry room, making shoes out of army debris.
Later, when Rudolf returned from the First World War and joined him, they became a successful sports shoe company. Adolf was the innovative mind behind the spiked shoe and by 1925, the brothers were also making leather football boots with nailed studs.
The two brothers saw even more success with their individual companies even though it divided their home city. Each brand had its own football club and the town was divided into two clear and separate camps, like 20th century Montagues and Capulets. The two sides even went to different pubs!
Adidas and Puma weren’t the only brands manufacturing football boots in the 20th century though.
Timeline: Football Boot Brands of the 20th Century
The Stud Game
The year is 1954. Germany has won the World Cup Final, with Adidas’ screw-in studs being lauded as the heroic invention that gave Germany the win over Hungary.
But there is some significant dispute as to who actually invented the screw-in stud.
Adidas and Puma both take the credit, seeing as their founders learnt the same patent from a shoemaker in the 30s. Witnesses claim Rudolf presented prototypes in a 1951 exhibition but there is evidence screw-in studs were invented by someone else entirely.
In 1949, Alexander Salot applied for a patent on football boots with replaceable anti-skid studs. His boots were also lighter than others at the time and the studs were changeable based on weather conditions, including conical, flat cylindrical, high and low studs. But not even Salot was the first to apply for a patent for a replaceable stud with other inventors being Ludwig Wacker in 1925, Adrien Morisse in 1929 and Venustus Eigler in 1930.
Unfortunately, it simply seems like none of these inventors had the weight behind them to go up against football brand giants Adidas and Puma which is probably why they’re the ones gaining the recognition in the stud game.
A Colourful Game
A classic feature of football boots outside of studs, low barrels and light leather materials, is the all-black colour. This started to change from the 1960s onwards. It was considered a novelty until the famous 1970 game when Alan Ball wore all-white boots manufactured by Hummel.
Except they weren’t really Hummel at all as they didn’t have any shoes that fit him so his Adidas boots were painted to look like the real thing.
After that, the colour really started to skyrocket in the industry. Charlie George of Arsenal and England fame wore red boots and in the ’70s and ’80s, neon colour became fashionable. The trend died off again afterwards but it inevitably grew in popularity again with a bonafide kaleidoscope of colours being available in the present day.
One of the most significant developments in football boots in the 1990s is Adidas’ famous Predator shoe. Introduced in 1994 and worn by some of the biggest names in football including David Beckham and Steven Gerrard, the Predator is still going strong almost thirty years after its debut.
The original shoe was made with rubber elements added to the upper part of the cleat for improved power and agility. Rubber fins were added to the toes of the boots to give players better control. Gradually though, Adidas started downsizing on the rubber they used on their boots until, by 2002, they had vanished entirely.
It’s not entirely clear why. Perhaps it was an unnecessary cost or it wasn’t helping with control as much as they thought it would. Whatever the reason, it certainly hasn’t caused the boot to lose popularity.
2021 marks the launch of the Predator Freak with wider studs on the soles that cover more surface area and provide better grip and swerve. Adidas’ most iconic boot just keeps getting better and better, probably helped by its strong beginnings.
The Technological Revolution
The 21st century has seen a significant rise in the advancement of technology and these developments have aided significantly in the manufacturing of football boots. In the 2000s, the soles of the boots became more flexible, giving players greater ease of movement.
This century is also the golden era of colourful boots and new laser technology enables players to personalise and customise their boots.
Microchips and tracking devices are now implanted into football boots. These help players to track their movements and their performances on a computer or smartphone, helping them to improve their style and tactics to play more effectively. The chips can show you how much ground you cover and how fast you’re moving, taking your training into the digital age. Manufacturers are even 3D-printing their boots!
The 2010s also saw more development into bladed studs after their original invention in 1996. Having more points of contact gives players a firmer grip on hard ground, providing more comfort when running around.
Bladed studs are built in square, triangular or chevron shapes to allow free movement and turning of the foot when it is planted. This is because the original blades posed a bit of a safety issue.
With the way it was designed, if you tried to turn your foot while it was planted, you could cause some serious ACL damage (A tear or sprain to the ligament that helps connect your thigh bone to your shinbone).
Some clubs even banned bladed studs because of the rise in injury, which is the same reason that screw-in studs have fallen out of fashion.
Bladed studs continue to be improved upon though.
Australian David Miers elongated the bladed studs on his boots to improve grip and gain more traction. He established his company XBlades in the 1980’s and they are the original creators of bladed studs in an attempt to minimise injury. Recent developments have also seen them introduce the X-Slip which provides in-heel stability, and the X-Grip, a hydrophobic ball striking printed pattern.
Football boots are also getting lighter and faster than ever. Adidas unveiled the Adizeros in the 2010 World Cup that weighed only 165 grams.
Nike also revealed its own innovative shoe in 2019, celebrated for their speed and their durability. Nike’s Skin technology has helped it soar across the competition, emphasising and enhancing the boot’s flexibility.
The Future of Football boots
Technology is only going to help football boots become more impressive.
The mysterious Adidas Predator Edge will be released in 2022 and Puma’s adding another boot to their Future Z roster with the Puma Tech Future Z 1.2. This will be following the hugely innovative Lazertouch Future Z that was released in March earlier this year. The insole came with NanoGrip technology made for no slipping, as well as a slew of other features including a Grip Control Pro for optimal ball control in any weather and an evoKNIT Pro that gives the boot a comfortable sock-like collar.
Football boots throughout history have been focused on speed, agility and control on the pitch.
Football is one of the most popular games in the world and developing boots to showcase the best of technology proves how much love and care goes into making the sport the tour-de-force it is today.