Sneaker Icons: The Enduring Appeal Of The Adidas Samba

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Sneaker Icons: The Enduring Appeal Of The Adidas Samba

Words by Mr Benedict Browne

30 July 2022

For the people of Brazil, the year 1950 still strikes a nerve. It was the first time they hosted the Fifa World Cup and, off the back of beating Sweden 7-1 and Spain 6-1, they faced Uruguay in the final as favourites. Official Fifa documents state that 174,000 fans were in attendance, but it’s thought that more than 200,000 were inside the Maracanã Stadium in Rio. With the score tied at 1-1, the tricky Uruguayan winger Mr Alcides Ghiggia scored the winner in the 79th minute. The stadium went silent at full time and it was reported that two people took their own lives as a result of their despair. Ghiggia later said, “Only three people have reduced the Maracanã to silence: Frank Sinatra, the Pope and me.”

To coincide with the tournament and to create some leverage off its global audience, in 1949, adidas released what has since become one of its most iconic and enduring models, the Samba. Named in honour of Brazil’s greatest musical export, it was designed specifically to aid footballers playing on hard, icy surfaces and it did so via a brown rubber gum sole fitted with suction cups. It had an upper made from black kangaroo leather and it was impressively durable yet bulky. Its gold lettering and three signature white stripes made it instantly recognisable. This design by the company’s founder, Mr Adolf “Adi” Dassler, marked the beginning of his legacy. Sales have reflected its popularity. It’s the second highest-selling adidas design ever – more than 35 million pairs have been sold worldwide.

Uruguay’s Ghiggia scores winning goal past the Brazilian Goalkeeper Barbosa to win the World Cup final, Maracana Stadium, Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, 19 July 1950. Photograph by Popperfoto/Getty Images

Over the course of the next few decades, the Samba’s international appeal grew, particularly in the UK and Europe. Elite footballers were naturally drawn to it, which paved the way for its introduction to the amateur and grassroots levels. In the 1970s, five-a-side football became popular and the Samba was the shoe to wear. “If you were serious about your football, it was a must-have and, for many, still is,” says Mr Neil Primett, founder of the English retailer 80s Casual Classics, which specialises in timeless sportswear. “Personally, I would have never worn the shoe for anything but kicking a football and the days you hit the streets after kicking a ball around.”

The Samba has also long been considered a staple in the wardrobes of “casuals”, the ardent football fans from the 1970s and 1980s. But, according to Primett, this wasn’t so much the case and the Samba was more popular among another British tribe. “Generally, one-upmanship would have said the style was too common for casuals,” he says. “I recall it was more commonly worn by skas and skins as a sort of variant of the bovver boot.”

Regardless of whether the pitches were made from concrete, hardwood or artificial turf, the Samba afforded football players extra finesse and control. In the mid-1970s, its design was streamlined. It became sleeker and lighter, the exaggerated tongue was removed and the T-shape toe box was introduced, which allowed adidas’ design team to get creative. Soon, there was a range of colourways available that paired leather and suede in eye-catching combinations. The wearer was then able to sport them on and off the pitch, which meant the Samba transcended its original purpose and became a lifestyle shoe.

In 1986, the American hip-hop group Run-DMC released “My Adidas”, a bass-thudding homage to the German sportswear brand that captured the zeitgeist, although they were more inclined to wear adidas Superstars, rather than Sambas. Their shout-out led to the world’s first endorsement deal between a musical act and an athletic company and opened the floodgates for of an array of cultures and lifestyles that adidas could infiltrate.

“The authentic crossover into skate is what really laid the groundwork for the Samba to become the hit of that subculture”

In the 1980s and 1990s, skate culture and hip-hop increasingly began to overlap and intertwine. “The authentic crossover into skate is what really laid the groundwork for the Samba to become the hit of that subculture,” says Mr John Kim, editor-in-chief of Sneaker News. “We’ve seen a similar cross-sport movement across a number of classic footwear models, such as the Air Jordan 1, Blazer, Forum, etc.”

Skateboarding and football may be different sports, but they are bound by a need for traction and control underfoot. In 2006 adidas launched the Busenitz, which closely resembled the Samba, for skateboarders.

Like many iconic shoes, the Samba entered a period in which its popularity dwindled. It wasn’t until the late 2010s that it had a renaissance, after being worn by celebrities such as A$AP Rocky, Mr Frank Ocean, Ms Bella Hadid and Mr Jonah Hill, whose love for the Samba led to a collaboration for AW20 on a trio of tonal Sambas with his initials embroidered into the heel tab. Today, it’s one of the most popular templates that fashion designers use to flex their creative identities.

“What Grace Wales Bonner has done with adidas is underrated and sadly overlooked by a lot of consumers in the US,” says Kim of the British-Jamaican menswear designer. “Her recent adidas Samba collaboration [her fourth with the brand] has the attention to detail and choice of materials that aren’t found in many other sneaker collaborations.”

With a decidedly retro vibe, Bonner’s latest two Samba models for SS22 pack a contemporary punch while retaining their sporting heritage. By contrast, “Craig Green’s collaboration with the Samba really interpreted the model as a different breed,” says Kim on the forward-thinking British designer’s take on the style, which boasts eye-catching embroidery all over the shoe.

It’s safe to assume that the Brazilian spectators of 1950 would take little solace in the fact that a German company named a shoe after one of their greatest cultural exports. But, 73 years later, perhaps the next generation can appreciate the way the Samba has transcended from football to high fashion and cemented itself as a certified classic that’s still in a constant state of evolution.

“That undeniable connection to sport is what makes it simply timeless and it ranks alongside the Chuck Taylor, Air Force 1, the Puma Suede and the Waffle Racer,” Kim says. “Those silhouettes are also synonymous with the respective sports they were created for.”

My Adidas and me