Somewhere in Germany, there’s a machine that thinks it’s Alan Shearer, David Beckham, Roberto Carlos, Ronaldo, Alessandro del Piero and Pele all rolled into one.
King of street cred and probably the world’s best known manufacturer of football boots, Adidas, invested DM1m (£345,000) about three years ago in an advanced robotic leg that mimics the action of a football player.
However, unlike any of the above superstars, when it launches a 20m thunderbolt towards the net, the robot gets it right every time.
This is just one illustration of the extent to which football boot design has become big business and something in which big firms such as Nike, Reebok, Puma, Diadora and Umbro are also willing to invest vast sums on research and development.
University wind tunnels and laboratories are today called upon to check aerodynamics, materials, stresses and striking surfaces with surprising frequency.
Players who provide product endorsement, meanwhile, are now required by contract to spend substantial amounts of time working with manufacturers and their robots to test and develop new models, rather than simply wearing the kit every Saturday.
Thus, as the World Cup kicks off, it is easy to see that France 98 will be more than just a contest between the cream of global football. It will also be a contest between its leading manufacturers to see which will provide the boot that gives this tournament its equivalent of Roberto Carlos’ Umbro-powered free kick against France in Le Tournoi last summer.
It is a big change from 10 or 15 years ago, when boots were marketed less on the technology they used than the people who wore them.
There were Pele boots, Keegan boots, Beckenbauer boots, even Trevor Francis boots. Each might have been a little different, but the core design remained the same, and it was a variation on Puma’s classic King boot low-cut, with a narrowing tip to aid control while dribbling, a plastic sole, screw-in studs and a lightweight leather top. This design also offered the rigidity needed to deliver power to the ball and flexibility for running and sprinting.
The selling point was the idol because, it was believed, most design issues had been overcome.
During the 1950s, the King’s creator, German designer Rudi Dassler, and his brother and rival Adi (hence Adidas) were the frontrunners in overcoming the challenges of cutting away the ankle protector to offer greater mobility and reducing boot weight by switching to lighter, less water absorbent kangaroo leather.
These were the innovations that responded to the increasingly elegant playing style pioneered by the Hungarians in Europe and across South America. Before this, football boots looked more like desert boots.
Studs were a minor issue, but removability became important, allowing boots to be adapted for different playing surfaces. Another surprise new design feature was logos.
Adi Dassler dreamt up the famous three Adidas stripes as extra material supports that would prevent the boot surface from tearing and wearing out too soon. Others quickly picked up on this unusual meeting of marketing and technology.
As one manufacturer says: ‘Once you had the settled King design, there was some fiddling with comfort issues the length of the tongue, the materials in the toe cap, weatherproofing but really it was soap powder marketing. Each new boot was just marginally different from the predecessor.’
So what changed? Four factors can be picked out: economics, safety, ecological pressure and the brainwaves of some genuine innovators.
Take economics and safety. In the 1980s and 1990s the valuations on star players increased immensely. The training regimes of leading clubs are almost as much about preventing injuries to multi-million pound squad members as enhancing fitness. This environment has made football, a traditionally conservative industry, more receptive to innovations.
Then, there are the green issues. Professionals have favoured kangaroo leather as a durable, lightweight and water repellent covering. But demand for it is creating growing concern among Australian environmentalists, and manufacturers have been coming under increasing pressure to find alternatives.
Finally, there are the innovators. Two men stand out and it is perhaps not too surprising that both are Aussies. Both came to the belief that there had to be a better way to approach the football boot and pursued their quests obsessively.
The most famous of the two is former Liverpool player Craig Johnston, inventor of the Predator, the Adidas boot favoured by David ‘from the half-way line’ Beckham (see box). It has played a big role in getting other manufacturers to address ways of getting more power to the ball and more swerve on it.
Less well known is David Miers, although his Blades innovation has been equally influential.
Blades combines the issues of safety and technological development. Miers was not a soccer player but an Australian Rules star with Collingwood Football Club. During his career, he underwent 11 knee operations. As a scientist in biomechanics, he concluded that one of the main causes of injury was that studded boots were unstable platforms, impeding manoeuvrability during the many twists and turns that a player will make over a full match, and placing significant stresses on the ankle, knee and leg.
Miers’ solution was to get rid of the studs and develop a series of moulded rubber rather than plastic soles with X-shaped ‘blades’ on them to provide grip and flexibility on different playing surfaces.
Moulded soles with studs were not new, but dispensing with the stud was. As research continued based on Miers’ innovation, other sole patterns were introduced by different manufacturers. Not only did the ribbed effect appear to work, but it reduced another problem, injuries and pain caused by the studs bursting through the insole or creating pressure points on the bottom of the foot. Most top-of-the-range boots are now offered with either a moulded sole or studs as an option.
The latest idea, Umbro’s SpinRG on the new Velocica boot, will carry the hopes and dreams of the English to France they are Alan Shearer’s chosen method of destruction.
But if imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, that has not stopped some manufacturers looking at ways to adapt the traditional stud model. One of the drawbacks of a ribbed sole is that a different boot is required for each varying pitch, wet, dry, soft or hard.
One of the most radical approaches here has come from Spanish firm Kelme with its MSK Multidirectional System. Mountings allow the aluminium and nylon studs to move more in sympathy with a player’s breaks, slides and turns. Rather than rubber, the outsole then uses Pebax, a lightweight and flexible plastic, with Kevlar supports for strength and resilience (Pebax, as a material, has also been adopted by Nike).
Not to be left behind, Adidas has also launched its Traxion system, using studs with a small surface area at the tip and a larger area around the outside to offer more lateral contact and the ability to change direction or speed quickly.
Unlike bladed or ribbed soles, however, this new approach to studs does not totally overcome many a coach’s bete noire, when a boot collides with a player’s leg. Even rubber and plastic studs, which are increasingly replacing traditional wholly metal ones, can inflict serious injuries, and with FIFA willing to outlaw tackles from behind, some tighter regulations on player equipment cannot be that far off.
However, the studs issue also drew attention to the distribution of stresses on the foot during play. The big firms were more on home territory here as they had already dealt with this in sports such as athletics and basketball. As a result, many boots now also contain a number of midsoles with air, foam or gel cushioning. A footballer in a 90-minute game will cover more ground than many a middle-distance runner with sudden stops, starts and changes of direction and speed in between.
Midsoles are therefore very popular, but having introduced an artificial layer between the player’s foot and the sole, questions of stability again inevitably arise. Different approaches include Reebok’s creation on the DMX Evolution Boot of essentially an inner sockliner pressured against the foot. Rather than introducing padding at particular points this allows the air to run between the heel and forefoot as well as laterally so that support is provided as appropriate. It does not appear to have hurt Dennis Bergkamp’s skills.
By contrast, Puma is using its Cell technology from athletics on the Cellerator to provide a lightweight synthetic gel cushioning as a direct part of the sole construction, again to tackle the stability issue. Colombia’s Tino Asprilla uses this model for scoring and his spectacular celebratory somersaults.
If all this deals with the sole of the boot, what of the uppers? The poor kangaroos are getting some help. Puma has got together with a British leather manufacturer to develop Soccer 2000 for use on the latest version of the King. Coatings make this less weather absorbent than ‘roo hide and also easier to clean and maintain. The Adidas’ Predator, meanwhile, has also greatly reduced the use of the material because of its largely rubberised surface.
However, as demonstrated by the Predator, a bigger issue has been creating a shape and profile which will deliver more power and swerve. Again, the relationship between linings and uppers has been the main area of exploration.
One problem in transmitting force to a ball when kicked is that, as Sir Isaac Newton would no doubt point out, the foot recoils as the strike takes place. This has always lain behind the essential narrowness and comparative rigidity of the football boot, but is about to be tweaked a little further. Puma has developed its Powerframe to reduce vibrations and direct the foot more into contact with the ball, for example.
But all this work does raise the question as to just how much further the latest wave of football innovation can go. With so many solutions to the main difficulties today, England’s Beckham has already been heard to quip that the next stage will be the computerised boot that plays the game for you.
Even the professionals admit it is difficult to predict what will be the next truly major step forward.
Paul Dempsey is the co-author with Kevan Reilly of Big Money, Beautiful Game Winners and Losers in Financial Football to be published by Nicholas Brealey Publishing this October.