The defender is the unwitting protagonist of several slapstick football videos, kicking the ball into his own net without provocation, feeding an inch-perfect back-pass onto the feet of an opposition player, knocking out one of his own men and looking on dazedly from his station on the turf as the lucky forward bunts the ball home and in other acts of hilarity. Rather unjustly tagged along with examples of the Comic Cavalcade defending are videos that have a defender, who has typically lost a boot to either an ill-made tackle or the slippery turf, scampering back from the sidelines to make up the numbers against an incipient attack.
Like an actor pushed on to the stage face only half-daubed in paint, the semi-clad footballer may not be completely dressed (at least as far as his feet go) for his part, but nevertheless shows industry in ploughing on.
The spectacle is sure to attract the mock-cheers of the crowd, but the half-shod defender is also unlikely to regard with any real anticipation the prospect of having to plunge into a tackle to retrieve the situation. God forbid a goal is to be conceded in such manner, the defender is sure to hear from the crowd, become the victim of Terrace Tourette. But there is also the more immediate and very real prospect of injuring yourself. Barefoot may not exactly be the way to go in modern football.
Paradoxically, however, manufacturers are attempting to recreate more and more accurately in research labs across the world this feeling of shoelessness. A golden mean of weightlessness and functional sturdiness is the aspiration of boot manufacturers, a combination that may seem impossible to achieve, but something that was knocked off without much fuss in the early phase of the global footwear industry’s bootrace (Nike sponsors 10 teams in Brazil, Adidas nine and Puma eight).
Two decades and counting
Nike, for example, has fitted teams with their boots since the World Cup in 1994, and an early product, the Mercurial R9 (for Brazil’s Ronaldo in 1998), was designed keeping in mind these principles. The holy grail may have been more or less achieved, but the World Cup’s quadrennial schedule and the marketing opportunity that opens up around the event demands manufacturers to come up with a new line of products for each edition. The focus has now moved on to design and augmentation.
Nike recently launched Magista and Mercurial in time for the 2014 World Cup. The configuration of the studs, the honey-combed multi-layered inners, the snug fit and the special skin on the outer surface, the manufacturers suggest, enhance speed, traction, touch and feel.
The technology involved in eliminating the feeling of wearing a boot (when Nike designers talk of the ‘precision engineering’ involved, it effectively stifles natural but perhaps naive questions about why all the attributes could not be combined in one single ‘super boot’) is patented, as one suspects, is the design.
So when Cristiano Ronaldo breaks away in a leather-lunged burst of speed, you know where the enhanced traction comes from. When Andres Iniesta husbands a misplaced pass in the pouring rain and, in one flawless motion, threads an assist to one of Spain’s several false-forwards, you know he trusts the ‘all-weather control’ his Mercurial promised.
The Nike line manager assures us that, unlike the slick swimsuits that were subsequently banned, the cleats are in no danger of confering on the wearer unbeknownst powers. This is immediately proved as a bunch of journalists try the new range of cleats and make dire attempts to control or pass the ball. The boots that are not, cost 399 Singapore dollars, approximately Rs 20,000. Suddenly they seem too snug to remove.
(Raakesh was in Singapore at Nike’s invitation for the launch of their latest line of football boots)