Boots, Balls and Kits: In Search of Football Memorabilia's Holy Grails

Tom Williams@tomwfootballSpecial to Bleacher ReportJune 9, 2020

The shirt from Pele's last appearance for Brazil that sold for $33,000 at auction last year.
The shirt from Pele's last appearance for Brazil that sold for $33,000 at auction last year.MARCO BERTORELLO/Getty Images

When you collect football memorabilia, it pays to have a keen eye. Gavin Boyd collects classic World Cup footballs, and when he saw an Adidas Telstar Durlast from the 1974 tournament for sale in a recent online auction, he knew something wasn't right.

"There was a ball they said was from the 1974 World Cup, a Telstar Durlast, but it wasn't from the '74 World Cup," Boyd tells Bleacher Report. "There was a slight difference. The same ball was used in 1976, and it was actually a 1976 ball that was being advertised. The letters of the word 'Adidas' are slightly bigger, and the words 'made in France' are more over to the right of the panel than central."

The same attention to detail has enabled Boyd to winkle out fake balls put up for sale on auction sites by scammers attempting to dupe collectors. On one occasion, he realised a ball advertised as an Adidas Tango from 1984 was a fake because the second D in Adidas was in the wrong position in relation to the brand's trefoil logo. It saved him from being conned out of over $1,000. "It's wee things like that that you pick up with experience," he says.

Boyd, who lives in County Tyrone, Northern Ireland, developed an interest in classic footballs after watching Hero: The Official Film of the 1986 FIFA World Cup, at the age of 13. He finds them on online auction sites and has also acquired a few match-used balls from retired referees. Fearful the balls will lose their shape or colour, he stores them in cardboard boxes at the back of a wardrobe.

"Ultraviolet light does the damage—it yellows the balls," Boyd says. "I'd only ever put them on display if I could get a room with very little ultraviolet light coming in. I've got a 1978 ball, and it's as white as the day it was made."

Boyd obtained that ball—an original Adidas Tango—from an Italian collector for €5,500 ($6,144). Balls used in historic matches go for even higher amounts. The one used in the 1892 FA Cup final sold for £15,000 ($18,790) at auction in 2012, while one of the Adidas Jabulani balls that was kicked around the Soccer City pitch in Johannesburg by Spain and the Netherlands in the 2010 World Cup final went for $74,000.

An Adidas Tango 1988 ball that makes up part of Gavin Boyd's collection.
An Adidas Tango 1988 ball that makes up part of Gavin Boyd's collection.Gavin Boyd

Memorabilia associated with football's most iconic players and competitions can sometimes fetch enormous sums: £157,750 ($198,025) for the shirt worn by Pele in the 1970 World Cup final; £478,400 ($600,659) for an FA Cup trophy dating back to 1896; £881,250 ($1.1 million) for a football rulebook from the 1850s.

While the chances of stumbling across such an item while poking around in your attic are remote, the COVID-19 pandemic appears to have sparked interest in football memorabilia. As football fans around the world have adapted to being cooped up indoors with no matches to watch, some have been using their time to add to or start their own collections.

"The market at the moment, since lockdown began, is unbelievably strong," Robert Stein of sports memorabilia auctioneers Sportingold says. "There's definitely been an uptick in [interest in] sporting memorabilia and specifically football—programmes, tickets, etc. The reason is that people are at home, whereas normally they would have been at work, and people are available. We've also found new people getting into it."

Josh Warwick, co-founder of retro football shirts website Cult Kits, has also noticed an increase in demand on his site.

"I think people are missing football," he says. "Most football fans, not that they needed a reminder, are remembering how much they love football and how much they miss it when they don't have it every weekend. I'd say we've probably had an increase [in orders] of 10 to 15 percent, which is not insignificant."

Even before vast swathes of the global population went into lockdown, interest in retro football shirts was already on the rise, reflecting recent booms in 1990s nostalgia and '90s-inspired fashion. The sweet spot, as far as vintage kits are concerned, is where a classic design meets an iconic team.

"The most valuable ones tend to be the classics from the '80s and early '90s," says Warwick, who has around 100 replica shirts in his own personal collection. "The Germany away shirt from '88, that Holland shirt from '88, the Germany 1990 World Cup shirt, they're all incredibly popular. It usually matters if the shirt was worn by a player who did something special or by a team that was successful.

"That being said, Arsenal didn't achieve that much in their 'bruised banana' shirt. But that shirt is incredibly popular now—and incredibly expensive—because it was so unusual and unique and it set the tone for football shirts in the following decade."

Some of Josh Warwick's classic kits.
Some of Josh Warwick's classic kits.Josh Warwick

An Ipswich Town fan, Warwick has long coveted the blue Adidas home shirt worn by his club from 1984 to 1986, which closely resembles the jersey sported by the France team that triumphed on home soil at the 1984 European Championship.

"When they're available, they go for £800 or £900 ($1,112) now," he says. "We had one about two or three years ago, and we sold it. I was thinking, 'I'll leave it a couple of years, and I'm sure we'll get another one in.' But we haven't. That to me is the absolute pinnacle."

Items from the '90s are also highly prized in the market for vintage match programmes. Except in their case, it's the 1890s. At Sportingold's most recent online auction, the top item was a programme from the 1895 FA Cup final between Aston Villa and West Bromwich Albion, which had an estimated value of £16,000 to £17,000 ($21,300) but failed to sell. An Arsenal programme from 1891 (when the club was still known as Royal Arsenal) fetched £4,000 (just over $5,000).

Stein, who owns a "virtually complete" collection of Chelsea home programmes for the first team and reserves dating back to 1905, says that for a programme to reach a really high price, it needs to hold genuine historic value.

"If you have a pre-First World War cup final, that is a star item," he says. "It's a limited market because of the value, but it usually attracts someone. The majority of people don't have the funds to spend £18,000 ($22,500) on one programme."

Boots worn by famous players can fetch similar amounts, and when a pair appears on the market, Photnunan Suphot Charoenrodsirikul is usually one of the first people to know about it. The owner of a small recycling company in Bangkok, the 37-year-old has been collecting match-worn boots for eight years and owns 320 pairs. Purchased from specialist sellers around the world, they include boots worn by superstars such as Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar, Mohamed Salah and David Beckham.

Pride of place in his collection belongs to a pair of golden Adidas Predator Absolute boots once worn by Zinedine Zidane, which arrived in their own gold-coloured suitcase.

"I am the only collector who owns them," Photnunan proudly tells Bleacher Report. "Zidane only wore them at the 2006 World Cup, and they never went on general sale. I paid a very crazy 1,200,000 baht or £30,000 ($37,600) for them to a seller I'd only known for two days and by bank transfer too. There was a big risk that I'd be ripped off."

The gold Adidas Predators once worn by Zinedine Zidane.
The gold Adidas Predators once worn by Zinedine Zidane.Photnunan Suphot Charoenrodsirikul

He dreams of owning a pair of Zidane's golden Adidas Predator Precision boots, which were made to mark the Frenchman's coronation as FIFA's World Player of the Year in 2000, saying: "No one ever has even been able to find them."

He is not the only collector driven by the search for a personal holy grail. In County Tyrone, Boyd hopes he will one day be able to add an Adidas Tango Espana from the 1982 World Cup to his collection. But only if it passes his inspection.

"Between 1970 and 1978, Adidas used a varnish on their balls called Durlast, but they stopped using it in 1982, so the leather on the '82 ball doesn't last," he says. "It's very, very rare to find one that isn't totally cracked. And I wouldn't buy a cracked one.

"I'm waiting for the day a mint condition one comes up. It might never happen. But I'll wait for my day."