The upper section of the soccer cleat has always been the most important piece of the soccer boot puzzle. A player’s comfort in their cleats, touch on the ball, fast footwork, and ability to create curve when striking the ball all stem from their choice in their soccer cleat upper. If you’re wondering what types of advantages modern-day synthetic materials provide over traditional leather and how to choose the right material for you – our explainer is here to help.
What Are Soccer Cleat Uppers?
A soccer cleat upper is the material that’s attached to the soleplate of the boot and comes in two types of material – leather and synthetic. Each material brings unique design capabilities and features a range of pros and cons (more on that later).
To understand soccer cleats fully, you need to know each of the different parts that make the whole boot.
There are six main sections in total:
- The collar: This is the hole where you put your foot and what wraps around your ankle when your foot fits fully in the boot
- The upper: The material attached to the soleplate
- The midsole: The cushioned material inside the boot under your foot
- The heel counter: The back part of the shoe. It gives support to your foot
- The soleplate/outsole: The strong underside of the cleat that the studs attach to.
- The stud: Lots of variety available. They give you traction on the playing surface
What To Look For
There are four key factors to keep an eye out for that will affect how good a soccer cleat upper is and how much it is right for you.
- Fit: Pay close attention to how well the cleat mold holds onto your foot. The perfect pair will fit as tight like a sock. It is very important to make sure there are no gaps between your foot and the cleat upper. If you are unsure of your exact foot size, we highly recommend you measure your feet before you buy anything.
- Lockdown: Closely related to the fit of the upper, the lockdown is the amount your foot slides in the boot when making fast turns on the field. The last thing you need is a foot slipping about in your boot.
- Touch: Otherwise known as the control, the level of touch the cleat provides effects your feel for the ball. It also affects your grip in different weather conditions and how well you can add spin to the ball. The general opinion is that the thinner the cleat upper the better the touch will be, but it is very much down to personal preference.
- Durability: Will the upper hold up over the course of a season? Can it withstand rain? Today’s modern boots use materials that may give you great fit and touch but won’t last more than five games.
Leather vs. Synthetic Uppers
The material that has been used for the longest time is leather. The first soccer cleats, made for King Henry VII in 1536, were made from leather. Leather has been worned by all of the greats – from Pele to Cruyff to Maradona to Ronaldo. In the ’90s, Beckham was famous for wearing the legendary original leather Adidas Predator boot. Leather is a classic choice that has proven it’s worth over many generations of soccer players.
- Molds to your foot as you wear it
- Provides a soft touch on the ball offering high levels of feel and control
- Provides added protection as it’s thicker and tougher than synthetics
- It will last a very long time with regular care
- Limited options with design and color
- Requires a break-in period
- In wet conditions, it absorbs water
- If not maintained properly, it will dry and crack
- Requires upkeep to keep leather conditioned
- Can over-stretch and lose tight fit
- Much heavier than the synthetics
Leather Uppers are less popular today than in the past, but they still have their place. Nike is down to a single line of leather cleats – the Tiempo – where they combine kangaroo leather (the softest and most durable) with synthetics to make a hybrid cleat. Similarly, Adidas is down to a single leather cleat line – the Copa – where they also mix leather with synthetics. Puma’s One line follows suit, with kangaroo leather on the instep and toe mixing with synthetics on the heel and mid-sole. Manufacturers mix k-leather with synthetics to offset some of the drawbacks of leather (heavier weight) and to keep the costs down (and profits up!).
Leather is a great choice if you are a defender as they offer more protection from the rough and tumble at the back. Liverpool’s Virgil Van Dijk, one of the best defenders in the world, prefers the leather Nike Tiempo. Leather is also a great choice for kids as it provides them with a good feel for the ball and protects them from the inevitable foot-stomping. Just don’t expect your mini-Messi to stick to a regular leather conditioning program to maintain the soft leather.
Synthetic uppers have skyrocketed in popularity in the last twenty years. Most of the top-level players today can be found wearing them. Just look at Messi, Ronaldo, Mbappe, or DeBruyne. Synthetic uppers come in two distinct versions based on their manufacturing technique; knitted and traditional synthetic.
Many high-end cleats worn by pros today are ‘knitted’ – a new technology that weaves synthetic material together making a tight sock-like fit and unique textures for ball control. Knitted synthetic boots are very close in feel to kangaroo leather.
Traditional synthetic cleats come in all shapes and sizes. They’re very durable, don’t absorb water, and with the high-end variants, closer to leather in terms of softness and feel (i.e., touch on the ball).
- Much lighter
- No need for additional treatments
- More colors and designs available
- Fast drying
- Thinner so gives a better feel for the ball
- Unique textures for ball control and swerve
- Less durable. Only made to last a few seasons.
- Less protection for the foot
- Traditional synthetics will not mold around the foot
Synthetics are the best choice for players who value speed and quick movements, often the preferred choice of wingers and strikers. Players at higher ability levels can also benefit from the added freedom they give you when using skills in tight situations. They give advanced players the freedom to express themselves more.
Choosing The Right Upper Material
In the end, the right choice for you depends on a lot of factors. Age, position, and skill level should all play a part in your decision-making process. Don’t be afraid to play with a few different styles, there is no substitute for in-game testing.
I grew up obsessed with my Adidas predators and I really can’t even consider moving away from leather uppers. Yet it is obvious why synthetics are the most popular today. There is so much more choice of design that they suit many soccer players’ needs.
In the end, though, your cleats will not make or break you on the pitch, but they will help.
Sources & Resources
Helpful soccer upper articles and videos
- Watch: The Best Upper Material, Unisport
- Watch: Leather vs. Synthetic, Boot Nerds
- Read: Leather vs. Synthetics Football Boot Guide, Footy.com
- Read: Football Boots History, FootballBoots.co.uk