Cristiano Ronaldo is the highest-paid athlete in the world, above LeBron James, Steph Curry, Roger Federer, and Kevin Durant. But when you think of those four guys, a sneaker instantly pops into mind. For Ronaldo, perhaps the best soccer player in the world, it’s a blank. Yes, he’s had an Air Force 1, a Nike Free training shoe, and a handful of sneakers and cleats designed specifically for soccer, but it feels light in comparison to his fellow Nike stars. The brand’s changing all of that, though, and has finally given Ronaldo the sneaker he deserves. No, it’s not a street-savvy signature shoe, rather they’ve given him his own Air Max 97. And it’s perfect.
Let’s get into the shoe real quick. Ronaldo’s Air Max 97 is inspired by his youth in Portugal, where he only had two pairs of shoes growing up—one for school, the other for football and play, which would quickly get torn to bits. His mother would have to sew them up, and Nike decided to celebrate that on this special-edition sneaker. The patchwork shoe takes on a gold colorway, which isn’t only a play on one of the original designs of the Air Max 97, but it’s also a reference to Ronaldo being referred to as a “Golden Boy” and him winning multiple Golden Boot awards for scoring the most goals during a season. There’s also a green Swoosh that’s a nod to him playing for Sporting earlier in his career. It’s the perfect makeup to tell a poignant and powerful story. The sneaker looks damn good, too.
So why isn’t Nike doing this more for the biggest athlete in the world?
Football stars, for the most part, haven’t been traditional ambassadors for sneakers. Franz Beckenbauer has an Adidas sneaker that’s still made to this day, and that’s about it. Nike made a similar play with Ronaldinho in the late 2000s, giving him a pair of Air Force 1s and Nike Dunks. Neymar received a signature Air Jordan last year. But Ronaldo’s Air Max 97 feels a lot different and a lot more important than all of the aforementioned shoes.
It is over the top. But so is Ronaldo. I’d never want to dress like him, but there’s no sneaker that’s more fitting—the 97 is one of Europe’s favorite Air Max models—to give the continent’s wonder boy, in all of his slim-fitting clothes and gelled-haired glory.
Maybe Nike making a great retro sneaker with Ronaldo’s name attached to it isn’t just a one-off example, but a changing in the tide of signature sneakers for all sports. It’s no secret that athlete-endorsed shoes have been on the decline, both in sales and public interest, for a few years now, and brands need to shake things up. In a world where rappers have equal or even more influence than their counterparts who can run, jump, and dunk, it’s not farfetched to think that overly technical sneakers aren’t what the public desires at the moment.
Nike still needs Ronaldo to help sell football boots; there’s no one they have with more cachet right now. Not only did he help Portugal win the European Championships last summer, but he also willed Real Madrid to winning the Champions League, too. Nike knows he’s an international superstar, even if soccer isn’t the biggest sport in the States. They’ve had him debut their auto-lacing Hyperadapt sneakers, and he also had Flyknit Air Force 1s before everyone else. With over 113 million Instagram followers, he has nearly four times as many followers as LeBron James. And his most recent sneaker photo, of the Air Max 97s, received over 3 million likes—nearly six times as many as James’s photo of the “Equality” LeBron 15s he wore on the NBA’s opening night. Numbers never lie, but LeBron James has received exponentially more sneakers than Ronaldo.
I’m not saying that Ronaldo needs to replace LeBron in Nike’s hierarchy—he’s not nearly as charismatic and shelters himself from the limelight much more than James, and basketball shoes (along with running) will always be Nike’s premiere products. But Ronaldo needs to be considered as someone who can move shoes.
Apparently they’re not quite convinced yet, as Ronaldo’s shoe won’t be a global release. This Air Max 97 is a good product, yes, but it’s only going to be available in Western Europe on Nike’s SNKRS app. People in America will have to buy the shoe through secondary retailers or resellers.
I get it—soccer isn’t basketball in America, and there’s a big difference in trying to sell an athlete, although he’s the most popular one in the world, who plays most of his games at 10 a.m. EST every Saturday. But it needs to be considered. Neymar was able to sell a low-top Air Jordan and Ronaldo will be able to sell an Air Max 97. They deserve the chance to do it more often.