Gotta Be the Shoes: Nike's World Cup-Conquering Style

It is called the Beautiful Game, after all. And beauty, as some would have us believe, is something that can be apprehended, measured, described. It is a pleasure we can hope to wrap our minds around or, in some cases, diagram. Not so much the sublime: those mysterious pokes through the fabric of the everyday that hurl us beyond awe and reason, that vast surge of feeling that delivers us heavenward for explanation. A brilliant counter-attack; a rhombus of one-touch passes: these are beautiful. Those Nike boots every player at the World Cup seems to be wearing, the ones that gradate, unnaturally and unreasonably, from a glowing orange heel to a deeply metrosexual, lavender poppy nose, a colorway that would make even the Creator above double-take? Sublime.

If there is a shared affection among the world's footballers, one that crosses the moats of faith and national temperament, it is their taste for flashy, oft-ridiculed, at times indescribably tinted boots. The one constant at this year's World Cup, besides the infobuzz of Vuvuzela and, more recently, shoddy refereeing, might be those engrossingly hideous new Nike Mercurials that weigh about as much as an empty soda can. They are the reason those little, feet-aflame men look extra-fast (or notably slow) as they cut across your television-sized pitch; they ensure that you can tell certain players apart from the others; they inspired one of the most elaborate and re-watchable commercials in quite some time. Each squad (the North Koreans included) has featured a few members with enough swagger to try and pull this bizarre new colorway off, with Portugal--captained by Mercurial-in-the-flesh captain Cristiano Ronaldo--the loudest advocates.

"This boot is my face," Ronaldo explained at the latest version's unveiling, before realizing that this is the kind of sentiment that needs to be explained further. "Light. Beautiful."

That these boots cost a great deal ($300-400) and are not as versatile as a pair of Air Jordans--cleats and jeans are rarely a good look--doesn't prevent them from being one of the great World Cup 2010 must-haves, as evidenced by the YouTube clips of kids hornily filming themselves opening Mercurial boxes (one-handed, at that). But what might so showy a shoe say about this generation of young ballers, if anything? Declining values? Narcissism? Colorblindness? A nefarious individualism? A slowly unraveling in-joke by Nike designers? For some, the psychedelic boot is a flourish to be earned, a reward for achievement. Sir Alex Ferguson, boss of Manchester United has banned his youth and academy players from lacing up eye-catching footwear until they've made the first team.

Which conforms with a commonsensical idea: why stand out if you're not very good yet? Why wear boots intended to simulate a superhero tiptoeing through lava if you're just a lead-footed defender?

Then again, why must blond players, the scouts' favorite, according to Soccernomics, get all the looks? Perhaps this is why Japan's world-class Keisuke Honda has finally cemented his star status during this tournament: that bleached hair, those lovely Game of Death-looking boots. Football, for all its talismans and Galacticos, seldom rewards individual flair. But to be seen--to be one who is worth seeing, following, tracking, marking--this is the most elusive glory.

Which returns us to the matter of those unmissable lavender-and-orange numbers. Mercurial: has there ever been a more fitting name for a shoe? Its primary connotation, the one that conforms with Nike's mythology-obsession, conjures images of the god Mercury, winged feet and quicksilver speed and the like; but then there's its secondary definition: unpredictable, moody, erratic and temperamental. Mercurial: superhumanly able yet occasionally screwy. How better to describe Ronaldo, Ribery, Rooney, Ronaldinho, and nearly everyone else in Nike's "Write the Future" commercial? How else to explain Rooney's painfully accurate sequence, one moment Queen-hugging glory, the next pure, self-flagellating abjection?

Mercurial: what better adjective for a sport where the greatest might also be its darkest? Lavender to orange, because the game itself sometimes defies sense. It is a word that perfectly encapsulates the contradictions of many of the great players, the possibility--and this is a sport of possibility, as the countless YouTube clips of near-goals evidence--that a single, vigorous moment might result in a statue or a sending-off. An amazing sequence of play that is pure instinct, pre-thought, baffling; a miserable, theatrical dive, infrared heels clicking, announcing it for all to see. And then the cruelest gradation of them all: yellow, followed by red.

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Hua Hsu teaches in the English Department at Vassar College and writes about music, sports, and culture. More

Hua Hsu teaches in the English Department at Vassar College and writes about music, sports, and culture. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, Bookforum, Slate, The Village Voice, The Boston Globe Ideas section and The Wire (for whom he writes a bi-monthly column). He is on the editorial board for the New Literary History of America.

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