Thursday, December 27, 2007

Cameron Kippen's Potted History of Soccer Boots: Part I

The evolution of the football boot highlights the conflict between protection from injury and the climate; and the freedom to control the ball. Originally football boots were crafted by local boot makers, loosely based on engineer's boots worn high around the ankle for protection. The players boots were laced tightly with long laces wrapped around the ankle and across the ball of the foot. There were no rules at first and when they were instigated the regulations governing boots had only one condition, Rule #13: “players must not wear anything that may endanger their opponents.” Soles and heels with projecting nails, iron plates, or rubber (gutta percha) were banned. As the game progressed the football boot soon emerged as an essential part of the sport. To begin with the way the game play was quite different from the modern game and players booted the ball with their toes. The toe box of the early boot was made with reinforced leather and by 1880 boot designs incorporated a toe strap across the foot to protect the player’s toes. The inclement climate meant games were often played in heavy weather and leather boots soaked up rain making them heavier as the match progressed, slowing the game down to a snail’s pace. Once the English Football League (1888) was established and the Football Association accepted professionalism, then the transfer of players with different styles of play made the game a more exciting spectacle. Engaged crowds were mesmerised with better ball control and in 1890 layers of leather i.e. plugs (or studs) were added to the soles for better traction. These were strategically placed to avoid irritation to the foot and the common formation was six studs, two distal and proximal to the metatarsal heads (ball of there foot) and two on the posterior perimeter of the heel. To avoid the boot buckling studs were worn on the outside of the sole. By 1900, soccer boots were a recognised entity and no longer modified work boots. In 1901 a pair of football boots cost 8 shillings and six pence (42 new pence or 86 cents US) when even the highest paid players would earn no more than two shillings and 11 pence (14 new pence or 28 cents US) per game. Screw in studs were introduced by Adi Dassler (co founder of adidas) in 1922, this allowed players to adjust to playing surfaces and weather conditions. Most professionals continued to prefer the 4:2 or 4:3 ratio. The 'baggy shorts and heavy boots" game continued in the UK right up to the Second World War. By this time the popularity of football had spread globally and whilst following the same rules climate and clothing forged distinctive difference upon the game play. The Continental and Latin games were played faster and players were more athletic with individual balls skills not seen in the UK game. Increased ease of travel and international fixtures with better media coverage, home fans craved the skills they saw form oversea's players. This led to unopposed acceptance of newly designed soccer boots which were worn below the ankle and tight to the foot. Jumping volleys and overhead kicks necessitated the foot be free to control the ball and not contrained by high tops. Passing techniques changed from toe booting to side flicks and new regulations governing the length of stud were introduced in 1951. More and more, synthetic materials replaced natural leathers as moulded studs became popular. Players keen to perform to their maximum wanted to be seen wearing the latest style boots especially since football had become a global spectacle mainly through television. By 1966 soccer shoes weighed less that their forebears and incorporated synthetic materials which gave them greater durability and strength. This corresponded to new rules of play which protected players from undue roughness and the introduction of new soccer balls to make the game flow faster. The rise in popularity of indoor soccer influenced the design of new football boots with more emphasis given to stabilising the supporting leg as well as the need to protect the foot in a contact sport. From the seventies the design of football boots had two goals safety and performance. Increased research and development can be charted from the early seventies with manufacturers keen to harness new technologies to capitalise on the popularity of the beautiful game. Player endorsement and club sponsorships were the order of the day. By the eighties, soccer shoes encapsulated all the known conventions of shoe making. Despite this player injuries increased, duty of care forced greater emphasis on scientific analysis of the game plus the biomechanics of player and their boots. Improvements in the last decade have covered a broad range of design changes from the shape of the shoe to new lacing systems. The popularity of women’s soccer encouraged adidas and their rivals to cater for the new market. To improve overall comfort, midsole cushioning incorporated viscoelastic polymers to reduce impact shock. Later manufacturers included polyurethanes in the structure of the boot and changes from split sole shoe design gave greater support to the midfoot without loosing shoe flexibility in accelerated movements. Adapted lacing and eyelet mechanisms made the hitting surfaces flatter against the foot. Despite these practical developments most other design innovations were stylistic to cater for growing market with less emphasis on boots that improved play and decreased the rates of injury. In the late nineties new cleat systems were devised to help distribute pressure across the boot. Incorporation of new polymer materials strengthened the sports shoe without adding weight. New upper surfaces to assist better ball control and increase the sweat spot on the ball were developed. The popularity of soccer in North America saw greater interest from parents keen to reduce the number of injuries associated with the modern game and now the soccer boot is probably at the state of the art.

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