Who doesn’t enjoy reminiscing about the football boots they used to wear?
When The Athletic wrote about the secret world of football boots in September, telling stories about the modern-day trend for anti-clogs, blackouts, mixed soleplates and customised conversions, it led to a wave of nostalgia.
Readers disappeared down memory lane, telling tales about their Patrick Kevin Keegans, the Ligne 7 boots they purchased while on holiday in France, how the first love of their life was a pair of Adidas Accelerators, and why Nike’s T90 Laser range was a dream.
With that in mind, we decided to travel back in time and write about the best and most iconic boots of yesteryear, covering the 1990s, 2000s and 2010s in a three-part series that will transport some of you back to your childhood and others onto the internet in search of the Umbro Specialis that you now regret giving away.
To choose the 30 boots that made the cut, we enlisted the help of four people who know the football boot industry inside out.
- Wessel Rietveld: More commonly known as “The Dutch Boot Collector” on Instagram, Wessel was an academy player in the Netherlands, playing against Frenkie de Jong and Donny van de Beek, before he set up an independent online web shop selling classic and rare football boots.
- Ben Warren: Ben started buying and selling football boots more than 15 years ago, when he was still at school. He now runs BW Boots UK and, as well as specialising in classic football boots, services hundreds of professionals all over the world.
- Noah Cavanaugh: Now a footballer with Flower City Union in the U.S., Noah started a YouTube channel in 2020 to document his journey as a professional footballer overseas and to talk about his passion: football boots. “I still get excited trying on a new pair of boots in the mirror and walking around my house in them.”
- Bryan Byrne: A former professional footballer with New England Revolution in Major League Soccer, Bryan is the founder of Soccercleats101, an independent website that has been reviewing and testing football boots for 15 years.
Our panel of experts were asked to pick their favourites from each decade, determined by the year in which the boot was released. Alas, that means there is no place for the Puma King (first released in the 1960s) and Adidas Copa Mundial (1970s) or my personal favourite, the yellow and black Nike Air Strike (1980s).
Still, we hope you enjoy reading about the boots, why the experts have selected each one, hearing about the stars who wore them (even if their own version was often customised), and reliving some iconic moments — and one ironic moment — over the years.
We also look forward to reading your own personal football boot memories and, naturally, expect you to flag up the ones that, in your opinion, deserved a mention.
“Where is the Asics Testimonial?”
Here goes with the 1990s…
Mizuno Morelia II (1991)
Long before slippers were invented, the Japanese brand Mizuno introduced the football boot world to the Morelia. For comfort, the Morelia took some beating, especially the second generation, which came into its own in the 1990s and was worn everywhere from Twerton Park to the Nou Camp.
Made from kangaroo leather, the Morelia II was incredibly soft and supple (molding to the shape of your feet in days), and lightweight and long-lasting too. With an understated white fold-over tongue (OK, it needed a bit of encouragement to stay down at first), they looked the part as well.
Kudos to Thiago Motta, the former Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain midfielder, who steadfastly refused to move with the times and was still wearing the Morelia II when opponents were running around in a knitted sock.
Oh, a bloke called Rivaldo loved them too.
The expert says: “Perhaps the epitome of comfort, the Morelia II provides an unmatched feel on the ball with expertly crafted premium materials. The boots are surprisingly lightweight, and feel like the best pair of slippers which were custom made for your foot. I’m beyond impressed with the patience and consistency with which Mizuno has created such a masterpiece. The Mizuno Morelia 2 MIJ is excellent in every way.” (Cavanaugh)
Best colourway: Black/white/red
Who wore them? Rivaldo, Thiago Motta
Iconic moment: Rivaldo scoring one of the greatest hat-tricks of all-time, for Barcelona against Valencia in 2001. The first was a free-kick, the second a swerving left-footed shot from 25 yards and the third an overhead kick from the edge of the box.
Adidas Predator (1994)
Groundbreaking. Craig Johnston, the former Liverpool player, became obsessed with developing a new style of football boot — a boot made out of something other than leather and with a bigger sweet spot that would produce more swerve and power and better grip.
Table tennis bat covers, conveyor belt plastic, windsurfing footwear, golf shoes, a Yugoslavian cobbler, car tyres, a Malaysian rubber company — Johnston left no stone unturned in his research and dropped around £250,000 in the process.
After presenting his prototype to Adidas and overcoming some initial scepticism (not to mention plenty of knock-backs from other manufacturers), the Predator — a kangaroo leather upper with protruding rubber fins — was born.
It was heavy — very heavy — but this was football boot innovation on another level. Adidas famously described the boot as “100% legal, 0% fair”.
The expert says: “The first ever Predator. I think everyone remembers those rubber parts on the upper. It was revolutionary and the start of a new chapter in the creation of football boots. That in itself makes this a necessity on the list of all-time greats.” (Rietveld)
Best colourway: Black/red/white
Who wore them? John Collins, Paul Ince
Iconic moment: The free-kick that Collins curled into the top corner for Celtic against Rangers at Ibrox in April 1994. “It was the first scored with these boots and for years the strike was shown in Adidas’s promotional films,” Collins said.
Nike Tiempo Premier (1994)
It’s a myth that this Tiempo Premier was the start of Nike’s journey into the football boot market. Ian Rush, the prolific Liverpool striker, was the face of Nike’s football boot coverage a decade earlier, when the black and gold Nike Tiempo D was released.
What is clear, though, is that the 1994 Tiempo Premier was a huge statement of intent on Nike’s part, not least because of their relationship with the Brazil national team and the A-list footballers recruited to wear it. Many of them featured on Nike’s ‘The Wall’ commercial, back in the days when adverts were fun to watch.
Yet it was the 1994 World Cup final between Brazil and Italy, where almost half the players involved were wearing this classic boot, which had a soft fold-over tongue (no need to use clothes pegs to pin it down overnight) and white-lettering around the heel (a slight change from the model above), that transformed Nike’s relationship with football boots.
The expert says: “For me, all-black leather boots will never be beaten. The big, bold white Nike swoosh on the side, along with the fold-over tongue and the clean white soleplate. They could be the perfect boot. Collar-up Cantona vibes straight away. They’re that good, Nike remade them on their 15th anniversary.” (Warren)
Best colourway: Black/white
Who wore them? Eric Cantona, Romario, Paolo Maldini, Ian Wright
Iconic moment: Bebeto, Romario and Mazinho’s goal celebration against the Netherlands, when the three of them, all decked out in their Nike Tiempo boots, pretended to rock a baby after Bebeto scored two days after the birth of his son.
Umbro Speciali (1994)
Although colour TV launched in England in 1967, football boots were still living in a black and white world in the early 1990s. The Umbro Speciali was a classic example and, at the same time, a classic boot.
Made in Italy, the Speciali was a less-is-more kind of boot. The black fold-over tongue may as well have said, “I mean business on it” (it actually said “Umbro Speciali”).
Roberto Carlos was wearing a pair for Brazil in Le Tournoi de France in 1997, when he scored that free-kick, and they were the go-to boots for Michael Owen when he was leaving a trail of Argentina players in his wake at the World Cup a year later, and also Alan Shearer, who asked Umbro if they could provide him with a pair as a teenager. By the time Shearer was 24, Umbro were paying him £250,000 a year to wear their boots.
“A really pure football boot,” Shearer said.
The expert says: “The Umbro Speciali feels like it was made for your foot, no matter what foot shape you have. True to its era, the classic tongue, black and white design, and made-in-Italy quality come together to create a football boot worn for some of the most iconic moments in football history. To this day, there are still young footballers discovering Roberto Carlos’ free kick and who probably have no idea he’s rocking the Umbro Speciali. A true icon of the 90s.” (Cavanaugh)
Best colourway: Black/white
Who wore them? Alan Shearer, Michael Owen, Roberto Carlos, Carlos Valderrama.
Iconic moment: Sorry Alan, but this one belongs to Roberto Carlos — that free-kick in Lyon was heading towards Paris at one point.
Nike Air GX II (1998)
A story that starts at the Nike Montebelluna factory in Italy, which is the closest thing to heaven for boot-nerds. Opened in 1996, Montebelluna is where Nike’s elite sportsmen and women have their boots custom-made. The Air GX I, which was released in 1997, was the first football boot to be manufactured there.
By today’s standards, the Air GX I and II look fairly bland. But back in the late nineties, it was a bold and bullish boot, partly because of the flash of red or blue, but also the wavy design, asymmetrical lacing and Air Zoom cushioning unit.
Endorsed by Robbie Fowler, a Nike poster-ad at the time featured the line, “God is everywhere”. In tribute to the iconic Air GX boot, Nike released a limited edition Hypervenom GX 20 years later.
The expert says: “A fairly historic boot for Nike. One of the first to have off-centre lacing but more importantly to have the most amount of colour at that time. Teddy Sheringham was one of the main faces of the model — paying off when he scored the equaliser for Man United in the 1999 Champions League final. There were even rumours that he picked to have red as one of the colourways, in production. The shiny metallic swoosh on the side finishes these off smartly.” (Warren)
Best colourway: Black/red
Who wore them? Robbie Fowler, Teddy Sheringham, Francesco Totti
Iconic moment: Sheringham against Bayern Munich — the Air GX range has never made such a beautifully scruffy connection with a ball. Oh, and Totti scored his first goal against Lazio in a pair too.
Adidas Predator Accelerator (1998)
A sign that Adidas — or more to the point the Predator — was ready to let its hair down. Look at the shape and size of those stripes!
With the 1998 World Cup finals coming into view, Adidas decided to replace the more sedate Predator Touch with something that was eye-catching and refined, helped by the obtrusive rubber fins being pared back.
Zinedine Zidane and David Beckham, who was fast becoming the most marketable footballer in the world, were the poster boys for a boot that was so ahead of its time that it still looks sensational 25 years later.
The original Predator had evolved into something that was far more streamlined and markedly lighter too. With off-centre lacing to increase the strike area, fewer and more discreet rubber fins, and a new soleplate as well, the Predator Accelerator was comfortable, classy and cool.
The expert says: “A close second behind the Mania for my favourite of the Predator collection. Forget about the Simeone red card. Beckham-curtains-Accelerator: a combination that will never be beaten. The rubber elements all round the front of the black leather, the bold white stripes, topped off with the red tongue. Nostalgia.” (Warren)
Best colourway: Black/red/white
Who wore them? Zinedine Zidane, Alessandro Del Piero, David Beckham, Patrick Kluivert
Iconic moment: Zidane put on a masterclass in the World Cup final in a pair but he scored both his goals with his head, so it’s got to be Beckham kicking out at Simeone against Argentina and getting that red card.
Nike Mercurial R9 (1998)
You know the picture. Ronaldo staring into the distance with his hands on his hips, with that gorgeous pair of silver, blue and yellow boots tied around his neck.
Unfortunately, he had a runners-up medal around his neck too — Brazil had just lost the 1998 World Cup final 3-0 to France and nobody was talking about Ronaldo’s boots afterwards. The fact that we still are 25 years later, though, tells a story.
Weighing under 250g, the Mercurial was incredibly lightweight for its time, helped by a state-of-the-art soleplate. It was made from a synthetic upper called KNG-100, which enabled Nike to introduce colours that had never been seen before, and the boot also had a coating that meant the ball was glued to your foot (not really, but it did have a sticky feel).
The beginning of the end for the old-school black and white football boot brigade.
The expert says: “The value of this boot lies in how mythical it is — 99 percent of people can see nothing but Ronaldo when they look at it. The fact that Nike made a super exclusive remake (15 pairs only) based on this 1998 design, and in order to celebrate 15 years since Ronaldo wore them at the 1998 World Cup, says enough. The Nike Mercurial R9 XV is one of the most valuable and rare boots and definitely a pair that is missing in my collection.” (Rietveld)
Best colourway: Silver/blue/yellow
Who wore them? Ronaldo, Thierry Henry
Iconic moment: Ronaldo’s first World Cup goal, in 1998 against Morocco — a thumping right-footed shot into the corner of the net. An explosion of joy and relief for the man who had the weight of a nation on his shoulders.
You can read the best of the 2000s on December 25 and the best of the 2010s on December 26