Trying to solve the great mystery of the revolutionary Adidas Predator boot

Nostalgia

Adidas and David Beckham this month released a trio of new shoes inspired by the 1998 Predator Accelerator boot.

It’s fair to say they don’t look that much like the originals, but they’re a good enough reason to take a quick look back at one of the most iconic football boots of all time. And to ask a very serious question about them.

Back in 1994, Adidas appeared to have revolutionised football. The ‘Predator’, a bizarre-looking boot that later become synonymous with the likes of Beckham, Zinedine Zidane, and Alessandro Del Piero, promised better control, harder shots, and improved swerve.

And these weren’t just the usual buzzwords stuck on new shoes. Adorned with a conspicuous section of rubber spikes around the toe area, the Predator really was different.

It even had official-sounding ‘scientific tests’ to back it up. So geometrically favourable were these boots, goalkeepers – the prey, presumably – were warned they might as well give up. (Or was the ball the prey? Never figured that one out.)

Cast your eyes over a professional football match this week, however, and you’ll see 22 players wearing shoes that look like a fluorescent Converse All-Star, mostly smooth, instead of a toothy pair of Preds.

Why?

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Everything about Predators suggested they would make you kick a ball really bloody hard. Even if Adidas never sat you down to explain exactly why those rows of rubber teeth did something, you just knew they would.

Yet by 2002, when the ultra-popular Predator Mania boot was released, those rubber teeth had completely disappeared, having already been downsized over the previous two Predator models.

I’m not going to recount the history of the Predator though. You know what they are, you know who wore them, and you probably owned one of the cheap versions with the Spanish suffix.

You know the Predator was invented by former Liverpool midfielder Craig Johnston, who would later forge a career in photography, and you know that Johnston used a video of Franz Beckenbauer playing in prototype Preds to get Adidas on board.

This is not my concern. I only want to know why footballers aren’t wearing rubber teeth on their boots any more.

Really, why? Either they’re willfully jeopardising their own kicking ability by wearing those ridiculous sock-boots with hardly a rubber fin about them, or Adidas was lying about its scientific tests. There is no middle ground, and I’m not happy with either option.

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READ: The 10 best football boots of all time: Adidas? Nike? Puma? Mizuno?

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First off, I won’t believe that those rubber spikes didn’t do anything, so get that thought out of your head right now. Nope. Off the table.

I also won’t entertain accusations that Adidas might have become tired of stitching bits of rubber onto leather when it could just say random words like pulse, dynamism, or traxxion, and then pay famous footballers to back them up. Brands have integrity.

No, what we have here is an issue with the psyche of the amateur footballer circa 1997. It is, after all, the consumer who can determine the commercial success or failure of a boot, not the pros who get paid to wear them.

Consider, if you will, your 38-year-old Sunday league captain. Johnno, Stanno, or whatever. He’s someone who’ll categorically rule out wearing those yellow, green, or pink sock-boots.

And to be honest, if your team or league is full of really old bastards like Johnno, there’s a good chance you rarely see much besides black Copa Mundials, Puma Kings, Umbro something-somethings…

This, in the mid-late-90s at least, was a simple matter of pride.

The stigma is certainly dying down now that colourful boots are more common than black ones, but for many years – and still in some circles – wearing, say, yellow boots would be seen as sign of arrogance, a surefire indicator of a preening winger begging for a bit of Johnno roughhousing.

And while the early rubber-finned Predators weren’t especially colourful – a splash of red on black and white – they were certainly fancy.

And fancy, until recently, wasn’t always acceptable on a muddy Sunday league pitch. Fancy was arrogant, indulgent, or just plain unmanly – labels an amateur player in the classic Predator era would be keen to avoid.

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READ: ‘Salt & Lineker’ and beyond: Football’s weird relationship with Walkers Crisps

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Arriving a whisker before the universal embrace of fancy and colourful boots, did the Predator simply have to contend with a proud, nervous and awkward world that wasn’t ready for it?

Maybe, but my hunch is that the end of rubbery Predators wasn’t just about Johnno’s pride.

After all, it’s not like you had to buy the boots in Becks-approved champagne. These were still (mostly) black football boots.

Mixed in with that pride was an element of shame.

Shame because the Adidas Predator was, in a technical sense, too good. With those ‘scientific tests’ proving once and for all that you could kick harder, better, and swervier wearing Predators (again, don’t even think about doubting this), there must have been an element of embarrassment about Sunday league cloggers pulling on these potentially match-winning boots.

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Think about it. Miss a penalty at lunchtime in your Kickers school shoes and nobody bats an eye. But shank one wearing Predators? The ridicule would be unbearable.

Perhaps that was an even bigger problem than pride. By creating a boot that would bend free kicks around the wall for you as long as you weren’t total garbage, Adidas created not just a Predator, but a psychological monster: fail to match the expectations placed on you by your cheat-mode footwear, and the fall from grace would be fatal.

And falling from grace leads us back to this new David Beckham collection: a grass, astro, and ‘street’ shoe that’s basically a Yeezy Boost with an ironic nod to the Predator, reminding you of what you once had but now don’t.

Sure, there are a few token rubber teeth on there, but it’s nothing compared to the Stephen Mangan package of the 1994 Predator, the 1995 Rapier, or the terrifying 1996 Touch.

No, these are just another triplet of sock-boots.

And maybe that’s exactly what we deserve. By all means, Adidas, let us break our toes in your knitted slippers, just don’t make us look too hard in the mirror.

By Benedict O’Neill


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