Time was when football managers’ touchline style could be divided into two camps: the tracksuit-and-trainers faithful and the three-piece tailoring veteran. Think Tony Pulis, patron saint of the club badge-emblazoned stash with non-negotiable baseball cap, on the one hand; Arsène Wenger, the immaculate suited savant (let’s forget the multi-zippered puffa jacket era) on the other. Now? Everyone’s wearing a form of anonymous leather trainers.
Nondescript but unmissable in their ubiquity, minimalist sneakers are a somewhat surprising addition to a game that frequently draws headlines for its ostentatious impulses. Sure, some players opt to train in lurid neon football boots custom-painted with Minions cartoons from the Despicable Me film franchise (guilty: Arsenal’s Alexandre Lacazette) and party in Mayfair nightclubs in candy-coloured Balenciaga Triple S styles (Manchester City’s departing player Sergio Agüero). But for a more mature generation of managers, pundits and football executives, choosing logo-free, stealth-luxury sneakers in which to spectate on match day speaks of elegant restraint.
Prices and labels may vary, but the constituent parts of the anonymous trainer remain the same: slimline white sole, smooth leather upper in navy or black, with branding either discreet or absent. Key styles include Grenson’s Sneaker 22, Axel Arigato’s Clean 90, Adidas’s Supercourt, Lanx’s Ancoats and Hugo Boss’s Mirage. The latter is in pole position, and no wonder: since 2018, the Mirage has been offered to Boss-sponsored clubs including Paris Saint-Germain, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Tottenham Hotspur as part of their official formalwear uniform. Since then, the brand reports, sales of the style have increased by more than 40 per cent, making it one of the best-selling Boss shoes in the UK.
The anonymous shoe is emblematic of a wider relaxation of dress code diktats in football circles. “There is a clear dressing-down movement in elite-level football,” says Adam Hurrey, journalist and author of Football Clichés, a 2014 study of the language of the beautiful game. “A focus on ‘coaching’ (tactics, hands-on engagement with the players’ development) has replaced ‘management’ (lofty, unapproachable dictatorship) and the dress code appears to have changed accordingly.”
The ultimate endorsement? The sight of 79-year-old Sir Alex Ferguson wearing plain navy leather sneakers at the beginning of May. “It’s not just the sheer proliferation [of the style] but also the individual benchmarks,” says Hurrey. “When Ferguson, perhaps the eternal leader of Proper Football Men, embarked on the promotional tour of his recent documentary . . . there they were.”
Manchester City’s Pep Guardiola is largely responsible for the football dugout’s sartorial gear shift. Frequently seen in a charcoal cashmere Stone Island sweater, pressed chinos and smart sneakers from Puma, for which he acts as a brand ambassador, or Emporio Armani, his pitch side looks are the equivalent of sipping a cool glass of mineral water while others are spraying Bollinger with abandon.
In 2016, he gained fashion plaudits for pairing Rick Owens sneakers with his cashmere turtleneck. And Guardiola has a group of acolytes — including his former assistant, Arsenal’s Mikel Arteta, ex-Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane and former Watford manager Quique Sánchez Flores — working a similar smart-casual hybrid in his wake. The trend extends to the boardroom: when Leicester City won the FA Cup in May, director of football Jon Rudkin, chair Khun Top and manager Brendan Rodgers were all wearing anonymous sneakers with their navy suits.
The pundits are at it, too. Out have gone the three-piece suits and naff ties, with the talking heads on BBC’s Match of the Day, Sky Sports and BT Sport inevitably to be found wearing directional knitwear and anonymous trainers.
Even Graeme Souness, whose flamboyant ’80s perm from his Sampdoria days lingers long in the memory, has succumbed to the quiet charms of Hugo Boss’s Italian-crafted Mirage style. “Part of the appeal, perhaps, is that they are typically brandless to the TV viewer’s eye,” points out Hurrey. They also match up with a tone of football commentary that has become “less stuffy and more conversational”.
In turn, they are inspiring a generation of football fans. Where once the terraces circa 1980 were dominated by “casuals” wearing limited-edition Adidas and Sergio Tacchini shirts, today’s middle-aged faithful has traded in his Reeboks for a pair of Axel Arigatos. “Gorgeous,” reported one owner on a Reddit thread discussing Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta’s choice of low-key footwear. “I have them in all white.”
What could possibly unseat the minimalist leather sneaker now? Superstition. Those wondering why Chelsea’s players were holding aloft a pair of Hoka One One Bondi 7’s in the dressing room after their Uefa Champions League victory on May 29 might be surprised to learn that the trainers were credited with the win. Belonging to coach Thomas Tuchel, the shoes were a gift from the president of Tuchel’s former club, Paris Saint-Germain, which he led to the 2020 Champions League final where they lost to Bayern Munich.
“I promised my [former] staff I would wear them in the final and I did not wear them, so we lost,” recalled Tuchel in a post-match interview. “I wore them today and they worked.”
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