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Football is a game that can be decided in a split second — by a crunching tackle, a timely interception, or a moment of magic. Fine margins make all the difference, which is why elite teams are often built around game-changers such as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
It’s also why football boots and the advancement in their technology can be considered game-changing. Not only does the latest and greatest allow elite athletes to perform to their potential, but a truly innovative football boot can also alter the trajectory of the sport.
Whereas kangaroo leather uppers and metal studs were standard several decades ago, the quest for lighter, more versatile football boots has pushed manufacturers to experiment with different stud configurations, synthetic materials, upper designs, and much more. Football boot design has been pushed to the limits continuously, forever searching for the ultimate level-up.
While all football boots do the basics and get the job done, there are a handful that have had a lasting impact on the game we love and the way it is played. They stand head and shoulders above their counterparts. Our Sportswear Editor Fabian Gorsler and Senior Features Editor Graeme Campbell dive into these game-changing football boots below.
The F50 was launched ahead of Euro 2004, featuring kangaroo leather uppers and a synthetic heel counter to keep the weight down.While it was immediately worn by many of adidas’ top-tier football players, the F50 only really changed the game a few years after its initial release. In 2006, ahead of the World Cup in Germany, the F50.6 became the first-ever boot that could be completely customized by the wearer. You could switch out any or all of the upper, insole, and studs (of which there were three types for different conditions), meaning the possible combinations were endless.
It was much more than a gimmick, as it allowed players to combine different types of studs (depending on the weather) with different insoles (that ranged from lightweight to comfort). It allowed amateur players to feel like pros.The F50 was also the first time we saw Lionel Messi line up in what was then considered a signature shoe. In 2008, Messi had personalized versions of the F50.8 and F50.9 TunIt. Over the next few years, adidas phased out the customization of the boot, instead putting adiZero technology into the shoe, making it one of the lightest boots on the market. Unfortunately for many adidas speedsters out there, the F50 was discontinued in favor of the adidas X series in 2016.
From "Volt" to “Dynamic Turquoise”, it's become more common to see players wearing retina-zapping colorful boots than a no-frills black pair. The gestation point of this was Everton's Alan Ball, star of the 1966 World Cup final, who broke necks when he took to the Charity Shield Final wearing the first ever white pair by Hummel. Or at least, that’s what they wanted people to believe.
As the Danish brand hadn’t actually made a pair for football boots yet, they took an adidas pair and painted over them several times to achieve the desired look. Still, it worked, and Hummel shifted 12,000 pairs the following week when the silhouette was ready. Even if Hummel has pretty much removed itself from the football boots industry, they broke the mould forever.
As far as modern-day football boots go, there’s not a style that is more iconic than the Nike Mercurial. The list of players who have worn the boot notwithstanding — it includes Ronaldo, CR7, Kylian Mbappe, Thierry Henry, Ruud van Nistelrooy, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic — the Nike Mercurial is one of few football boots that has withstood the test of time and developed an aura of its own.
For the uninitiated, the Nike Mercurial was first released in 1998 ahead of the France World Cup. Its original name was the Nike Tiempo Ultralight, to reflect its lightweight design. Luckily that name has changed, as Mercurial better encapsulates what the boot was all about. Brazil’s Ronaldo was the first player to test the boot, and it was designed for players with his speed, power, and individual brilliance. If the Nike Tiempo is the ever-reliable Volvo in your garage, the Mercurial is the decibel-shattering Lamborghini.
In the nearly 25 years since its unveiling, the Nike Mercurial has taken on many forms, including the ultralight Mercurial Vapor, the flywire-equipped Mercurial Superfly, Mercurial 360, and 2021’s Mercurial Dragonfly. Each iteration has impossibly improved on its predecessor, as the Mercurial keeps getting lighter and lighter. Considering the popularity of the Nike Mercurial from youth football all the way to the pros, this boot is going nowhere fast.
Patrick "Keegan" Gold Cup
Kevin Keegan will only be familiar to a lot of kids because of that YouTube video, but during the ‘70s, the man was a superstar in Europe and England captain. How odd, then, that, having signed for Hamburg in Germany, he would decide to sign a boot deal with lowly Belgian brand Patrick. I mean, could you imagine Phil Foden signing on with Joma? Soon the upstart’s two-strip boots would be seen on the feet of kids across playgrounds everywhere, as well as other legends of the era such as Michele Platini.
Yet this wasn’t a relationship built to last. By the time the late ‘80s rolled around, Patrick began to withdraw from football, spooked by the money being thrown around by the likes of adidas. Not that they were really missed... Writing in his autobiography in 1997, Keegan described the boots as rubbish and claimed he only wore them for the money.
The Nike Tiempo changed the game when it was first released in 1983, for the simple reason that it represented the Swoosh’s first (real) step into the footballing world. It basically laid the foundation for Nike Football. Without the Tiempo, there is no Mercurial or Phantom GT or Hypervenom.
While the very first Nike football boot was released back 1971, it was a $16.95 afterthought that didn’t hold up well in cold and wet weather. It took Nike over a decade to get it right. But get it right they did.Whereas the Mercurial is Nike’s hot and sexy (relative) newcomer, the Tiempo is the tried and tested “Uncle Drew.” That’s not to say that the boot’s technology is subpar, just that the boot is built for a different type of player. Lush leather uppers and sturdy studs make for a durable boot that is as versatile as the players that wore it.
Among names such as Andrea Pirlo, Jerome Boateng, and Carlos Puyol, one name stands out: Ronaldinho. The Brazilian magician — one of the best to ever do it — was the face of the Tiempo Legend line during most of the ’00s and is a big reason why the boot has enjoyed the sustained popularity that it has. Nearly 40 years of heritage speaks more than words ever could. The Nike Tiempo is here to stay.
The adidas Predator is the Three Stripes’ equivalent of Nike’s Mercurial in that it is one of the brand’s most popular boot silos in modern footballing history. Players such as Zinedine Zidane, David Beckham, Raul, Michael Ballack, and Paul Pogba have worn the adidas Predator, rivaled only by the Nike Mercurial’s roster of endorsers. That’s where the similarities stop, however, because the Predator — as its name suggests — is more of a powerful beast than a speed merchant.
Debuted in 1994, the adidas Predator OG was a legitimate disruptor in the football boot world. Rubber was added to the boots upper and adidas’ iconic Three Stripes branding was modified to look like vicious fangs, giving the boot a monstrous look. adidas also opted for a black, white, and red color scheme, which has since become a hallmark of the German sportswear giant across all of its product offerings.It wasn’t until the second edition, in 1995, that the Predator series featured its signature fold over tongue. Asymmetrical lacing followed in 1998, ahead of the World Cup (which Zidane won in the Predator Accelerator), while adidas continued to add some of its greatest footballing innovations to the Predator line over the years.
The adidas Predator line was briefly discontinued in 2015, when the adidas ACE 15.1 was released. It was meant to be a modern-day equivalent of the Predator, however, the original name was brought back in 2018, when the first-ever laceless Predator boot was introduced. Since then, the boot has gone from strength to strength, and is still adidas’ premier boot offering that features the brand’s best football technology. 2020’s Predator 20, for example, featured 406 “spikes’ across the upper that were designed to grip and control the ball.
Formed in 1886, Italian luxury expert Pantafola D’oro is still going strong today, even if you won’t see any superstars wearing their boots at the upcoming Euros. These white Pantofolo D’oro boots might be the least obvious choice on the list, but for a lot of kids in the ‘90s, they were the weapon of choice in many a football daydream, and served as the gateway drug into an obsession with Italian football and style.
The likes of Roberto Mancini, Marco van Basten, and Jurgen Klismann wore them during the ‘90s, but the most iconic endorsement (at least on UK shores) was by Italian firebrand Paolo Di Canio, who also had a pair in gold. You have to be a certain type of personality to wear boots as loud as these, and Di Canio is certainly not without his controversy. After seeing these, the idea of black boots just felt bland.
Iconic, comfortable, timeless — you could make the case that PUMA Kings are one of the best football boots ever made. Antithetical to the flamboyant colors we mentioned above, the black PUMA Kings are for the no-nonsense footballer who places performance above style. Perfect, then, for the hardworking 5-a-sides player who doesn’t want to draw attention to his limited ability.
Made famous by Pele at the 1974 World Cup, when the Brazilian won player of the tournament in a pair of Kings, the torch for the PUMA King was passed on to Neymar when he joined the German brand for Nike in an industry-shattering deal. But it was actually Portuguese footballing sensation Eusebio that can be credited with the invention of the King. Ahead of the 1966 World Cup, Eusebio asked Puma for boots that were softer and more flexible, as boots at the time were notoriously stiff and uncomfortable. The German sportswear brand obliged, outfitting its boot in kangaroo leather, which is renowned for its durability and supreme softness. Eusebio was in dynamite form, ending up top goalscorer that summer.
Two years later, in a nod to Eusebio’s eye for goal, Puma named the boots he was still wearing the King. Titans such as Diego Maradona, Johan Cruyff, and Lothar Matthaeus went on to wear the boot, winning team and individual awards aplenty and doing the King’s name justice with their heroics on the pitch.