By Jason Davis (@davisjsn)
The pieces of equipment we use to play our sports are more than just stitched together pieces of leather, carefully shaped hunks of wood, or, in the modern world, technological marvels consisting of composite materials designed to maximize balance, power, speed, et al. They are also magical implements that transform us from ordinary joes into personal versions of our sports heroes, capable of replicating the feats achieved by the best in the game, no matter how amazing and seemingly unachievable.
Even when we know we can’t be like the best, we still buy what they wear. It’s as close as we’ll ever really get, and the companies that made the equipment know we’ll snatch it up almost as quickly as they can make it.
In the soccer world, nothing ignites the imaginations of weekend warriors and young kids like the World Cup. Every four years the best soccer playing nations of the world gather to crown a single champion and at the same time display the latest and greatest in soccer equipment. The ball matters, sure, but as any half-decent footballer (or wannabe) will tell you, it’s the shoes that make the player. Ask one about his favorite soccer shoes, and you’re bound to hear a tale of love and loss about the special pair that saw him through his footballing peak before succombing to those dual horrors “wear” and “tear.”
In the USA, we call them “cleats.” In Britain, they’re “boots”, a word that harkens back to the sport’s blue collar roots when the shoes a man wore onto the pitch aided him in doing “work” that was equal parts panache and grit. For decades, soccer shoes were little more than utilitarian footwear embedded with spikes to provide grip on packed earth patches and rain-sodden fields. Legends like Stanley Matthews and Dixie Dean played in shoes we’d hardly recognize today.
By the 70s, however, the cleat-making elite of the world were putting real thought into the design of their soccer footwear. An eruption of classic boots arrived on the biggest stages possible, World Cups, and harkened an era of technological innovation and mass marketing that continues unabated to this day.
In the spirit of nostalgia, and because the iconic boots of the past deserve to be celebrated ahead of World Cup 2014 in Brazil, here are some of the soccer shoes that made an indelible mark on the world’s favorite game at the world’s biggest sporting event.
The notable boot story of the 1970 World Cup in Mexico was less about the actual shoe than the man who wore it. After warring German shoemakers adidas and Puma agreed that neither company would sign Pelé to a personal endorsement contract (the better to prevent a bidding war between rival companies run by estranged brothers Adolf and Rudolf Dassler), Puma struck a deal a secret deal with the Brazilian star to put him in their shoes just before the tournament.
Before the opening whistle of the final between Brazil and Italy, Pelé asked the referee for an extra moment. He then bent down to tie his shoe, giving the millions watching on television around the world a clear view of his Puma boots with the trademark form stripe. Brazil then went on to beat the Italians 4-1, with Pelé scoring the opening goal. Pelé’s move and the story behind it quickly became soccer lore.
By violating the “Pelé Pact”, Puma launched a shot across the adidas’s bow. Adi’s company would soon respond with a full volley of their own.
These shoes, the last to be designed in part by adidas founder Adolf “Adi” Dassler before his death the year of their release for the World Cup in Argentina, were specifically made for the steamy South American environment. Dassler’s company earned their rep as the shoe of choice for the world’s best over the course of several decade—previous adidas boots graced the feet of many German legends as well as England’s 1966 hero, Bobby Moore—but this edition pushed their profile to new heights.
By 1978, the company was well-established as the outfitter of the West German national team and could be seen on the feet of some of the game’s other international stars. Argentina’s victory in the 1978 World Cup is highly controversial years later, but that didn’t take away from those adidas shoes getting their fair of shine during the tournament. Despite that fact, the company was probably better known for their groundbreaking, TV-friendly 1970 and 1974 World Cup ball, the now-ubiquitous Telstar, than the footwear they had been making for thirty years. That would change with the next World Cup and the introduction of the first football boot to achieve the designation of “icon.”
Originally released in 1979 but ultimately identified with the 1982 World Cup in Spain, these shoes are the standard bearers for iconic soccer cleats. “Copa Mundial” is Spanish for “World Cup”, but in the parlance of the English-speaking soccer adherent, it will always mean this set of transcendent boots. What made the Copa Mundial so much different was the sheer comfort of the shoe—lovers of what is still adidas’s best-selling model rave about the soft leather and quality fit. Nearly 35 years after their introduction, the Copa Mundial is still an adidas staple and a go-to model for aspiring footballers of all levels.
Copa Mundial’s molded studs made it perfect for dry field, and the leather supports at the heel made it one of the most durable boots to that point. On the pitches of Spain at the 1982 World Cup, , two of the world’s biggest stars, Diego Maradona of defending title holders Argentina and Franz Beckenbauer of eventual runners-up West Germany, wore the shoes to great effect.
It was Italy that defeated the powerful Germans in the final, lifting their third World Cup trophy.
The 1986 World Cup edition of the Puma King is famous for one very good reason: It was the shoe Diego Maradona wore during the tournament, and therefore the shoe he was wearing when he scored two of the most famous goals in the history of the sport.
We’re speaking, of course, about the controversial “Hand of God” goal and Diego’s epic, meandering, gasp-inducing run quite often labeled the greatest goal ever scored, both of which came against England in the quarterfinals. Maradona was at the height of his powers in ‘86, and led Argentina to a second World Cup title the span of eight years.
The Tiempo was Nike’s first entry into the high stakes world of the football shoe game. The American company managed to get their Tiempo cleats—part of a broader line of products under the Tiempo name aimed at the soccer market—onto the feet of ten players in the World Cup final between Brazil and Italy.
The final itself was forgettable, save for the Roberto Baggio’s miss in penalty kicks to hand Brazil the title. It did, however, further establish Nike on the international soccer map.
By World Cup ‘98 in France, Nike was ready to throw their considerable weight around. The Oregon company introduced the Nike Mercurial, signed up Brazilian striker Ronaldo to wear it, and paid a massive fee to outfit the Brazilian national team for good measure.
All of that came to a head for the final as Brazil prepared to face the hosts. The unstoppable Ronaldo suffered a seizure in his hotel room just hours before the game, naturally putting his availability into question. Head coach Mario Zagallo submitted a team sheet without the two-time FIFA World Player of the Year as a result, only to suddenly reverse himself 20 minutes before the match. Never mind the convulsions and foaming at the mouth, Ronaldo was back in.
So Ronaldo played, wearing his flashy chrome-blue-and-gold Nike Mercurials of course, but wasn’t effective. In fact, he was terrible, and the 3-0 loss the Brazilians suffered was so shocking that the Brazilian government launched an official inquiry after the tournament.
Though it has never been confirmed, the prevailing wisdom (file it under “conspiracy theory” if you must) is that Nike pressure got Ronaldo back into the lineup. The company went so far as to issue an oddly worded denial in the aftermath, though it did little to quell speculation. With more than $100 million flowing into the Brazilian soccer association’s coffers from Nike, it is not hard to imagine CBF and president Ricardo Texeira may have folded to their influence.
As a footnote, it’s worth mentioning that Texeira resigned his position in 2012 after revelations that he was disgustingly corrupt.
In the first ever World Cup in Asia, Ronaldo was back on center stage wearing the new iteration of the boots he sported in 1998. The Nike Mercurial Vapor was built for speed, coming in at less than 200 grams total weight. Il Fenomeno scored eight times for Brazil as the Samba Kings raised the World Cup trophy for the fifth time.
While 2006 and 2010 brought their own major marketing initiatives, identifying a single shoe most tied to each tournament is more difficult the bigger the investment and the more heated the competitions between shoe giants. The sheer scope of the battle between storied adidas and relative newcomer Nike (who replaced Puma in the role of main adidas foil) means it’s impossible for one product to stand out above any other. Technological advancements, mass media, the internet—it all conspires to turn each successive World Cup tournament into a story of two companies trying to one up each other (with the actual gear getting lost in the dust kicked up by the process?) rather than a display for one striking boot.
To that point, the 2014 World Cup is approaching, and both Nike and adidas have released their own take on a knitted football boot. It’s an arms race played across the feet of million dollar soccer stars.
What that all means is that there will probably never be another iconic World Cup boot, connected by history to a moment in time when our imaginations were most ensnared by the exploits of the world’s greatest footballers. In a way, that’s a shame.
At least we’ll always have the breaking of the Pele Pact, the Copa Mundial, Diego’s rocket run, the highs and lows of Ronaldo, and those other stories of World Cups past when the shoes were such an integral part of the story.