“I didn’t have shoes – well, apart from the broken-down ones I’d inherit from my brothers – and sometimes we didn’t have food at home, but we had soccer.” (Claudio Suárez)
A rite of passage and a potent early memory in the mind of any football enthusiast, the first pair of boots received as a child forever hold a special place in your heart. I remember mine vividly; a pair of red and black blades bought for a pair of seven year-old feet from no less a world-renowned sporting institution as Clarks shoe shop.
Over the Christmas weekend I received as a gift Tom Watt’s quite excellent book, A Beautiful Game: Football Through the Eyes of the World’s Greatest Players. Part photo journal, the wonderfully engaging images are accompanied by a collection of pieces written by some of the game’s leading contemporary players. From Lionel Messi to Emmanuel Pogatetz, the contributors write eloquently on the subject of their relationship with football and the events which first sparked their interest in it. Leafing through the pages I noticed one recurring theme which seemed to resonate with an extraordinary number of the players; that of their first pair of boots.
Arsenal’s Emmanuel Eboué provides what is perhaps the most emotional story, describing how his father gave him his only pair of boots just before he passed away. As a child, those events had a significant emotional impact on the young Ivorian and increased his resolution to succeed professionally at the game he loved so much. Eboué says that, after a brief period of wearing the boots for his own matches, he decided to preserve them, keeping the sentimental footwear in a box under his bed – something he still does to this day.
Eboué’s fellow West African, Ghana’s Sulley Muntari, also recounts the inspiration his first pair of football boots gave him. Hailing from a relatively poor family who moved between Ghana and Nigeria on the whims of his father’s work, Muntari paints a picture of a disrupted childhood with football one of the few constants he was able to cling on to. As the Internazionale player says, “My Mum got me a pair of Adidas boots. I was so happy. I slept with those boots. I used to go to sleep with them in my arms. I just wanted the next day to come so I could go and play in the boots. I thanked God and I thanked my Mum.”
The Ghana international’s words clearly demonstrate the simple powers and emotions football can generate. While a first pair of boots are always treasured, no matter what the ability or background of the recipient, to children of penurious upbringings they can be symbolic of the more comfortable life they and their families may long for. To Muntari those boots were clearly extremely precious, a tantalising glimpse of a fruitful future and his first step on the road to realising his ultimate ambition.
Mahamadou Diarra paints a similar picture in his short entry in Watt’s book. Writing of his time playing the game on the streets of Bamako, the Malian capital, the Real Madrid midfielder describes rudimentary games with stones for goalposts and improvised balls fashioned from old rags. Learning about the game from his older brother who allowed the young Diarra to watch games on his television, the man who now captains Mali began to take a keen interest in the game at around the age of ten.
It was at that time that his father bought Diarra his first pair of boots, and the enthusiasm with which he writes of them comes through more strongly than any other emotion in his well-written piece. “Until I was ten, I didn’t have any boots but then my Dad bought me a pair. I was so happy that I slept cuddling them for the next two days. I went to play in them; then, when I got home, I washed them and polished them very carefully and then went to bed with them next to me.”
Football boots, it would seem, act as a symbol of legitimacy, a departure from the purely basic and a move into the realm of formalised athletic activity. That moment, for the talented and the hopeless alike, holds a mysteriously weighty form of significance.
An object that engenders a form of sporting authority and pride in their wearer, boots are as much a status symbol as a tool for the aspiring player. Simultaneously a luxury and a necessity, our first pair of boots are something which make our younger selves swell with confidence and, though them may be fleeting for the majority of us, dream bigger dreams.
They may only be simple things, but don’t underestimate the social and psychological power of that first pair of football boots.