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​Every Other Colour Is The New Black: The Evolution of Football Boots

Modern football boots come in a wide range of elaborate colours and synthetic casings. It began in 1970, when Alan Ball wore a pair of white Hummels – and nothing has been quite the same since.
March 24, 2016, 1:54pm
PA Images
PA Images

This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.

Modern football boots come in a range of elaborate colours and synthetic casings. In 2016, knock-it-long players – who in any other era would have been sporting thick, black, steel-toe-capped boots – wear lilac-coloured Nike Mercurial Superfly Pros with a protruding built-in sock. Two years ago, Luis Suarez wore literal knitted Adidas boots. Players commonly wear odd-coloured footwear on purpose. The football boot scene is a mess of colour, flamboyance, flagrant peacocking, and speed-enhancing engineering.

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These days, the boot's "uppers" are sometimes made of supple leather, providing a rare link to the old days, but most of the time we're talking man-made fibres worthy of NASA. The sometime presence of leather is probably the only link between what you wear to play Sunday league and what was seen in football's black and white era.

Unsurprisingly, we arrived at this point thanks to money – the sponsorship variety, to be specific. It happened without malice and without design, with a simple pair of Adidas boots, painted white to masquerade as a lesser-known German brand, Hummel. It happened with our very own Alan Ball, back in 1970.

Picture the scene: for a few months more at least, England were the champions of the world (and not just the perennial comedown in football form that they are today). Meanwhile Hummel, a burgeoning German sportswear company, were looking to muscle in on the lucrative UK market. Having set up a UK franchise, they hired the progressive-thinking sports businessman Brian Hewitt to help manoeuvre the brand into the public consciousness.

Hewitt had previously worked in football with Slazenger (back then a big name in the sport, and not just a quaint relic of Henmania), and was tasked with spearheading Hummel's British marketing attack. He recalls how they had previously made "around 5,000 sales of Hummel boots in the UK, but we just weren't making it [big]. So I spoke to my guys and said 'nobody's done it yet, let's paint the boots white'."

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With these immortal words, Hewitt had unwittingly set in motion a chain of events that would change the landscape of boots forever – eventually leading Fila to make these.

But back in 1970, there was the small matter of providing Everton midfielder Ball – a member of the '66 World Cup-winning side – with a pair of boots emblazoned with the little-known chevrons of Hamburg-based Hummel.

Ball walks out in his freshly liveried 'Hummel' boots | PA Images

As Hewitt says, the white boots were yet to make a huge splash in the market, but when Ball wore them (with his name printed on the side) for the Charity Shield against Chelsea, that changed very quickly.

We should note that these were actually Ball's usual Adidas boots painted white and with added Hummel branding, as Hummel had no boots that fitted the player. This was soon rectified, and Ball was provided with new and improved Hummels.

Cameron Kippen is a former podiatry academic and preeminent world expert in the psychosocial and psychosexual aspects of shoe design – and, by extension, football boots. He notes that 12,000 pairs of the white Hummels were sold on the Monday after the game, more than doubling their entire sales quota in one morning.

Soon, several other players were wearing Hummel's coloured creations: Arsenal's Charlie George stayed true to his club by picking red, while Derby County's Alan Hinton risked the ire of Brian Clough by wearing white (it's said that Hinton only got away with it because he was Cloughie's provider of knock-off Marks and Spencer pullovers).

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Hinton received a grand for his endeavours, while Ball made even more; Hummel were at the forefront of this elaborate football-meets-fashion frontier.

READ MORE: What The Evolution of Kit Sponsors Tells Us About The Premier League

But despite their exploits, football boots in the seventies remained black as a general rule, be it due to manufacturing norms or deep-seated ill feeling toward coloured boots and those who wore them. Now 55, my own father has spoken of a harrowing childhood memory where he showed up to school football practice with red boots, purchased from that old-timey purveyor of cool, Marks and Spencer. He was (figuratively) torn to bits.

We live in a very different age: back then, you had to be the best on the pitch to justify flamboyant boots; now, players like Martin Skrtel might wear pink Mercurials.

As Kippen notes, colour was splashed about on boots in the seventies and eighties, but mostly in the detail or across the soleplate. Things got really interesting in the nineties with the excessive use of neon, when brands like Lotto and Diadora committed their respective crimes against fashion with their penchant for luminous green and blue detailing. It's probably no coincidence that this was also the decade of massively jarring goalkeeping kits.

Yet boots remained predominantly black. It wasn't until the late nineties that we began to see colour move away from the detail and envelop the whole boot. Nike's introduction of the blue-chrome and gold Mercurial – sported by Brazilian legend Ronaldo at the 1998 World Cup – played a significant role in changing perceptions, both among ordinary football people and designers.

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Ronaldo puts his Mercurials to good effect, opening the scoring in Brazil's World Cup semi-final in 1998 | PA Images

It has been widely reported that Ronaldo suffered some form of seizure in the hours before the final against France, but he played nonetheless. He and his Nikes could not find the net that evening in Paris, as Brazil were undone by the might of Zidane.

Zizou, like much of the World Cup-winning French side, was sporting Adidas Predators in '98. Undoubtedly the highest profile boot ever made, the model is widely acknowledged as a game-changer, altering the way designers thought about boots due largely to its emphasis on the 'sweet spot'.

But for many years Predators remained black, sometimes with touches of red. It wasn't until David Beckham – with his unique combination of ability and celebrity kudos – that 'Preds' started going white, and even champagne coloured.

The early years of the 21st century saw growing acceptance and increasingly outrageous colour combinations. This was thanks to the ever-more lucrative boot sponsorship deals engineered by increasingly influential agents. By the year 2000, more and more top players wore lurid colours promoting Nike and Adidas, which in previous decades would have led to derogatory (and sometimes even homophobic) terrace chants.

More From This Author: We Need to Talk About Joe Cole

In recent years, the coloured boot has become a fully established part of the game. Indeed, in 2016 it's the black boot that looks to be the endangered species in an otherwise shimmering sea of colour. What happened?

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On a basic psychological level, the bright colours are designed to attract us, the consumer. Like the commodity fetishists we are, we see luminous boots better than a matte-like finish, and this helps persuade us to buy them. Bright colours and flash designs also help us differentiate between manufacturers in an age of unprecedented TV coverage.

Their variety and bombast have swelled in an increasingly competitive field. Nike, Adidas, New Balance, Reebok and Puma among others are all competing for our attention. When we see them on a Messi, Ronaldo or Muller, we see what can be done when they're used properly – and we want to imitate it.

Irrespective of how we feel about it, football boots around the world are increasingly starting to look like an elaborate Henri Matisse homage. Stranger still, Kippen suggests that the "nude boot" may be the next evolution. "Everyone appears, in this day and age, to want to show off their feet in some way, shape or form. Certainly in fashion anyway, especially women's fashion. So subsequently, I suppose the next big thing will be the nude boot. [It] would show a technical advancement in colour manipulation and polymers to be able to do that. It wouldn't be easy."

Interestingly, with coloured boots dominating the market, black is now a safe colour, expressing certainty and authority. Kippen says it has become the choice of players who wish to set themselves apart from the team in a reliable sort of way, like goalkeepers. At the 2014 World Cup, the vast majority of players in black boots were stood between the sticks. Beyond goalies, black boots seem to be the preserve of the steadfast, the old-fashioned, and the Lee Cattermoles of this world.

We are now at a stage where black boots are essentially "alt". The proliferation of colour has changed the landscape of boots and made player choice seem like a sweet nostalgic sentiment of a time long gone. For better or worse, this is the state of contemporary boots, be it on the pitches of the highest level, or on the feet of the Sunday sloggers. Just remember: it all started with Brian Hewitt back in 1970, and that simple decision to paint a black boot white.

@nick_thompsonog