For as long as we've had footballers—officially since 1863 in England, but a lot longer under the guise of its tougher previous forms—spectators have compared their respective skills to the traits of animals.
The long-gone legends of the earliest days of the game were competing in brutal, semi-lawless battles that would probably need a public warning if aired on television today. Those players were more like rhinos, cumbersome and heavyset perhaps, but strong and tough to meet the physical demands.
Now, the game is quicker, more intricate and full of flair and jaw-dropping skill. It's frighteningly fast, especially at the highest levels, yet it hasn't lost its edge — violence and sheer brute strength have merely been replaced with breathtaking pace and venomous strikes. A clever drop of the shoulder, a burst of acceleration, and a rifled shot to the top corner. Today's players, like Neymar Jr.—in fact especially Neymar Jr.—are more like cheetahs.
Until now, though, the comparisons were true in only a metaphorical or poetical sense. But that changes with the release of Nike's latest iterations in its long and illustrious line of Mercurial boots: the Mercurial Superfly 360 and the Mercurial Vapor 360.
The shiny orange weapon you see above was unveiled yesterday at a huge launch event in London (where, incidentally, the Nigeria kit everybody can't stop talking about was also revealed), attended by some of the world's deadliest players including Neymar Jr., Alexis Sanchez, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Marcus Rashford and more.
It's definitely Nike's fastest ever Mercurial, according to Nike's Global VP of Football Footwear Max Blau, but it might also be its most comfortable. How? A game-changing, soleplate-less 360 construction that eliminates gaps between the foot and the shoe; an all-over Flyknit material with texturized spots just where you need them most; and, of course, the brand new claw-like traction plate inspired by the movement of cheetahs to propel players to rapid speeds and slow them back down just as quickly.
"As soon as I tried it on for the first time I knew it was going to be a very fast boot," Liverpool player Emre Can said at the launch. "It's very light, it's very comfortable, and most importantly, I'll feel good and confident wearing it on the pitch."
The most immediate thing you notice, at least if you can take your eyes off the daring orange color, is the construction. For the first time ever, there's no soleplate, meaning the entire boot clings right to your skin. "This new innovation hugs the foot and eliminates the gaps between the foot and the soleplate. In fact, it eliminates the soleplate altogether,” explained Max Blau, VP of Nike Football Footwear.
The radically changed composition is individually tuned to your specific size using computational programming. “With previous Mercurials, we based everything on a size 9. But with Mercurial 360, we can deliver a properly proportioned fit at every size,” explained Jeongwoo Lee, Nike Football Senior Design Director. “Each size has a unique chassis designed to align with the expected bone structure.”
What excites the players most, however, is the revolutionary underfoot traction system. “This boot is less like a hoof, more like a claw,” explained Blau. “The feedback we get from players is that there is a sensation that the boot just disappears in the way it syncs with the foot.”
"The players always say tell us that they want to go fast, but they don't want to compromise control," Blau said. That's why the Nike All Conditions Control (ACC), the texturized patches you see around the toe areas and below the tongue, has been revamped this time around. Now it's embedded within the yarns of the Flyknit, rather than as a thin layer on top, resulting in a deeper and more responsive finish.
As the launch event climaxed with the new boots dropping from the ceiling, Neymar Jr. himself was presented on stage to a thumping backing track of grime and cheetah roars. He may have looked unthreatening right there and then, but his first chance to wear the new Mercurials comes February 14 as his team, Paris Saint-Germain, take on Real Madrid in the Champions League, you know it'll be Neymar Jr. doing the roaring.
The Nike Mercurial Superfly 360 and Mercurial Vapor 360 will debut on pitch this weekend and will be available February 14 on nike.com.
Next up; here are 18 fitness tips from Joe Holder, trainer to some of the biggest names in streetwear.