From Super Atom to Flyknit: The history of the modern soccer boot

Once basic, black and white, soccer cleats have evolved dramatically, with an eye toward performance and fashion.

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Soccer boots have a storied and diverse past. From rural Germany to the wilderness of Australia, from design rooms in Oregon to labs in Japan, the rise of what we now know as a soccer cleat has enjoyed influence the world over, just as we’d expect from the game itself.

Sure, you can start the story in ancient times, with folklore of King Henry VIII, or even the late 1800s and early 1900s, when the rulebooks added that studs must be made of leather and not project more than half an inch. But the real evolution of soccer cleats took a big step in 1948 and beyond with Adidas and Puma.

The Dassler brothers' sibling rivalry sparked a cleated rivalry, with both brothers claiming to have brought the world the first interchangeable studs.

It then started evolving rapidly, just as the game has, by the time the late 1980s and early 1990s rolled around and Nike entered the fray.

First, dip back to the late 1940s, when the now-fabled story of two brothers takes a sibling-rivalry twist, and the two, Adolf and Rudolf, split apart from the Dassler Brothers Shoe Factory in Herzogenaurach, Germany, with Adolf — known as Adi — forming Adidas and Rudolf creating Puma and debuting the Atom soccer boot in 1948.

It was with this sibling rivalry that we started to see a cleated rivalry, with both brothers claiming to have brought the world the first interchangeable studs — Puma’s Super Atom in 1952 had screw-in studs. No matter who was first, the most prominent was Adi, as he locked up the German men’s national team for the 1954 World Cup, the start of modern-day cleat history.

The 1954 Adidas boot came with a lighter leather in a low-cut form and a toe-cap with a softer feel for better touch on the ball. But the real innovation was the interchangeable studs, which the German players wore longer than their Hungarian counterparts at Wankdorf Stadium in Bern, Switzerland, to help give them enough grip for a comeback victory.

Evolution ensued.

Adidas introduced the rain-resistant Weltmeister in 1958, the first with a polyamide sole that kept its shape by not absorbing water. The heel tab was added in 1962 and 1978 saw a dual-density sole to start the process of diminishing weight without losing strength.

But 1958 was also the year of Pele and Brazil winning the World Cup in Sweden, which Pele did in a Puma cleat. That Pele-Puma connection was strong right through 1970, and Pele introduced the Puma King, one of the most popular soccer cleats of all time. The King offered up an all-white version and was the first to drop weight by going with a flat silhouette. Kangaroo leather, known for its ability to retain strength even when cut thin, was also used for the first time in the King.

While it didn’t make a splash when it came out in 1971, the introduction of The Nike —  the first piece of footwear with a Swoosh on it —  pushed the industry forward again when it debuted as a black-and-white leather upper with a molded outsole.

After its introduction in 1979 and rollout in the 1982 World Cup, the molded studs of the Adidas Copa Mundial propelled it to the forefront of soccer cleats the world over, helping to stay the top-selling soccer cleat in history.

“It is one of the most popular boots in the history of football and the best-selling football boot of all time,” says Robert Ashcroft, the category director for soccer at Adidas. “It introduced the benchmark in upper material at the time. A premium ‘k leather’ upper provided ultimate touch and comfort.”

Puma introduced the Torero in 1982, a cleat designed by Rudolf’s son, Armin, with a flexible sole with two joint zones.

NEXT: Nike begins its innovation with the birth of the Tiempo