OUR GAME: Getting a leg up on the history of shin guards in soccer

OUR GAME: Getting a leg up on the history of shin guards in soccer

Steve Buttle, Soccer Bowl '77. (Scott Butner)
Steve Buttle, Soccer Bowl ’77. (Scott Butner)

by David Falk

Soccer (Association Football) is by nature a sport where the legs see lots of action, contact and exposure to kicking whims of opposing players. Especially vulnerable to stingers, bruises and whacks are the shins, the front parts of the lower legs that lead the charge and help control the ball. I was digging through some old photos from the North American Soccer League recently and it struck me when I saw players with bare front legs, sometimes with their socks curled down just above their shoes. Are these brave warriors of a different generation, true manly men of the sport, or just guys who lived in a time when equipment had yet to develop to help them?

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Turns out that most sources say the first shin guards (or “pads,” as they are also called) arrived in soccer around 1874 when they jumped over from the sport of cricket. Even earlier in history, credit for the form and use of shin guards is given to their ancient relatives— armor worn around the legs in the middle ages. So what were those NASL Sounders such as Steve Buttle doing without them? Were they just willing to call up William Hill and place bets on not getting kicked and injured?

Astroturf has played a role – when cleats went away, many players were willing to ditch their shin guards knowing that they wouldn’t get cut by the metal prongs that dig into grass pitches. They only risked bruising from what was to some, a “tennis shoe.” Hard plastic spikes used on fake turf eventually changed some players minds.

Sebastien Le Toux of the 2008 USL Sounders was more concerned with upper ankle protection. (Rick Morrison)
Sebastien Le Toux of the 2008 USL Sounders was more concerned with upper ankle protection. (Rick Morrison)

Referees and FIFA play a big role in shin guard oversight. Law 4 of the FIFA code for player equipment states shin guards must provide “a reasonable degree of protection.” Match officials are instructed to look a player gear before matches to see that shin guards are being worn. If you see a professional player on the pitch today and it looks like they are not wearing shin guards, it’s either referee error or you need a second look to see if they are sporting some new light “insert.”

Shin guards cause irritation for some players. Watch after a match and see how many guys take there guards off the minute the whistle blows. Also notice how guards differ by player choice and position. Steve Buttle was a midfielder for the NASL Seattle Sounders. His position might require lighter, more flexible guards than a defender’s would. The development of lighter, stronger materials now means that players can choose between “insert” guards that slip into socks, and the more traditional guards that fasten around legs and then are covered by socks.In any case, FIFA requires players to wear them and referees to check for them. Steve Buttle’s era may be gone for good.

Lamar Neagle, 2014. His shin guards are clearly seen beneath his socks. (Jeff Halstead)
Lamar Neagle, 2014. His shin guards are clearly seen beneath his socks. (Jeff Halstead)
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2 thoughts on “OUR GAME: Getting a leg up on the history of shin guards in soccer

  1. Lots of NASL matches (including all Seattle and Portland home matches) were played on astroturf…getting whacked by your opponents “tennis shoe” was not that big a deal. Players more often wore shinpads when on the real stuff, and studded boots were worn by the opponent.

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