Too big, too small, worn out, brand new: The curious ways players wear their boots

Embed from Getty Images

The lucrative sponsorship deals get the headlines, but be it superstition or whatever feels most comfortable, every footballer has their own preference when picking a pair

25 September ~ Many footballers will have started the season with new boots – breaking them in is an important ritual. With darker evenings and cooler temperatures, September provides a glimpse into the long season ahead. The sun-baked earth of summer gives way to more suitable surfaces for running around in studded soles. This is vital for those trying to break in new boots. Once a player has a pair supple enough to get a good feel for the ball, they are loath to part with them. The Nikes that Jack Grealish wore for Aston Villa in May’s Championship play-off final were falling to bits. Grealish persisted with them, believing they were lucky – and so it proved.

Not everyone’s boots are as fortunate. As West Germany’s designated penalty taker during the 1990 World Cup, Lothar Matthäus had already scored from the spot in the quarter and semi-finals. Yet when his side were awarded a spot-kick five minutes from full time in the final, he assigned the responsibility to Andreas Brehme. The sole of one of Matthäus’s boots had cracked during the first half, forcing him to wear a new pair. Unlike the Adidas World Cups he’d played in during the tournament, this new model lacked the familiar folded-over tongue. “They didn’t feel right,” he said. Brehme scored from the spot, but Matthäus did get to lift the World Cup.

In the past, apprentices were often given the task of breaking in the boots of senior professionals, who wanted to avoid blisters on rock-hard pre-season pitches. Stan Osborne, author of a book about his time as an Everton apprentice, remembers Alan Ball requesting this with a handful of pairs of his new white Hummels. A fistfight broke out among the youngsters for the honour of doing so. Ball was reported to have made £2,000 for the deal with Hummel.

In early August, Raheem Sterling was considering wearing Nike Air Jordan boots in a deal that could earn him £100 million while it might come as a surprise to some, given his open admission of playing purely for money, that former Spurs defender Benoît Assou-Ekotto is the voice of frugality. “I’d rather be free than a sponsor’s prostitute,” he said, after it was discovered he bought his boots from Ebay for no more than €30, which he describes as a good price for comfortable boots.

As children, many African footballers began playing without boots, including Victor Wanyama and Sadio Mané, who was laughed at during trials in Senegal. “I was wearing pants that looked nothing like football shorts,” he said. “And my boots were completely shredded.” The striker had attempted to repair them using wire. This year, New Balance launched a design to commemorate his Senegalese heritage: Maagum, which in the Wolof language translates as “rise”. It’s unlikely Mané imagined this happening when fleeing home in secret to follow his dream of becoming a footballer.

When you have boots you are happy with, you just want to wear them. In 1986, Gary Lineker’s favourites had gone missing before an Everton game against Oxford United at the Manor Ground, forcing him to wear a spare pair that were too big. Oxford won 1-0, a victory that helped them stay up. The boots were found in time for Everton’s last two league games of the season, which they won, with Lineker scoring five. Everton ended the campaign just two points behind title-winning Liverpool. The boots were repaired for Lineker to wear in that year’s World Cup in Mexico, in which he was top scorer.

Size wasn’t a problem for Southampton midfielder Brian O’Neil in the 1970s. As something of a free spirit, he never owned a pair of boots, a story he has recounted in a few books: “I just used to borrow some.” Arriving at The Dell late one afternoon, the only ones left were two or three sizes too big for him. O’Neil still scored.

John Terry had a more unusual attitude. From 2013, he liked boots that felt tight, believing they allowed for better control. He would change the pair he wore in the pre-match build-up for fresh ones for kick-off, before changing again for the second half. Given he played 179 games, this means he got through 537 pairs of boots over five seasons.

So, comfort is the name of the game – even if that means cutting holes in the heel, as Philippe Coutinho has been known to do, supposedly to prevent blisters. One man’s desecration is another’s comfy pair of slippers. Mark Sanderson

This article first appeared in WSC 391, October 2019. Subscribers get free access to the complete WSC digital archive – you can find out more here