Pace, Power and Skill: The History of the Nike Mercurial

Pace, Power and Skill: The History of the Nike Mercurial

Pace, power, skill and class. Just some of the attributes you’d associate with the Nike Mercurial. A silhouette that revolutionized the game and became an instant success.

Two years prior to its launch in 1998 Nike had teamed up with the Brazilian national team. Their plan was to create a boot that was completely unique. Like nothing on the market. And they did exactly that. 

Taking inspiration from the track, where they’d made a name for themselves in the early days, Nike wanted to create a silhouette that was lightweight and therefore increased pace and acceleration. As a result, they ditched kangaroo leather and opted for a synthetic replacement. They reduced plate thickness by almost half with the Mercurial being 1.75mm compared to the industry standard 3mm. Nike had completely revolutionized the football boot with one player in mind throughout the entire design process, Ronaldo.

He was the perfect fit. He was explosive. He had world-class talent. He could finish with his eyes closed. He was everything they wanted. And it turned it out be one hell of a partnership. 

Over the course of the last two decades the Nike Mercurial evolved into one of the biggest silhouettes of all time. The look and feel of the boot was in a league of its own. Below we take a look at each release of the Nike Mercurial.

Nike Mercurial (1998)

The OG. Launched in 1998 ahead of the World Cup, the Mercurial started as a lightweight alternative to the successful Tiempo, but went on to forge its own legacy. 

Specifically designed to suit the intense, pacy, style of Ronaldo the Mercurial featured a KNG-100 synthetic upper which displayed the same characteristics as real leather but did not absorb water. Thus making it more effective in wet, boggy conditions. Lightweight, the Mercurial improved acceleration and speed, while a sticky substance, sourced from the motorcycle industry, increased ball control. The boot was completely different from anything else on the market at the time. Nike even dropped a lavish blue and yellow colourway, which Ronaldo sported at the 1998 World Cup.

Of course, Brazil lost out to France in the final. With the build-up to the game dominated by one man, R9. It’s rumoured the striker suffered a seizure prior to the final and was therefore omitted from Brazil’s original lineup. Moments later a new team sheet appeared with the striker named in the starting eleven. Nobody had a clue what was going on. Even to this day only Ronaldo and a few others know the true story. Anyway, whatever happened, the original Nike Mercurial was outstanding. And it was the start of something special.

Nike Match Mercurial (2000)

The second-generation Mercurial, the Nike Match Mercurial, was launched in 2000 and weighed just 230 grams. Nike continued to work towards achieving the lightest boot possible. Like the original, the Match Mercurial was made from KNG-100 with the only significant change being aesthetical. Again worn by Ronaldo, the signature R9 was a metallic copper colour which faded to black towards the toe panel. The R9, Ronaldo’s famous trademark, was visible on the tongue.

Nike Mercurial Vapor (2002)

Four years on from the original Mercurial being launched the Vapor was born. And while increased pace remained the goal, Nike’s goalposts had moved. They now wanted to create a boot that would maintain a 90-minute sprint, rather than a track spike for the football pitch. Therefore every element of the boot was scrutinized. Everything from glue to stitching was weighed in an attempt to remove excess weight.

Nike went all out to make the Nike Mercurial Vapor as light as possible. But to sustain speed for prolonged periods required comfort. A new anatomical last was designed to fit the natural shape of the foot, keeping it closer to the plate of the boot. This helped reduce weight and ultimately increased speed. According to Nike’s research, the Mercurial Vapor reduced sprint times by 3% over a 20m burst.

Other features of the boot included a thin upper which made from Nike Skin – a lightweight synthetic material – and an external heel counter for added protection.

The Nike Mercurial Vapor was first introduced to the world during the famous Cage Advert featuring footballing legends Eric Cantona, Roberto Carlos and Thierry Henry to name but a few. Originally three vibrant colourways were launched white/maize, white/obsidian and medium grey/red. A chrome/lime variation, first worn by Ronaldo in the semi final of the 2002 World Cup – before he went on to lift the trophy wearing a pair – was later released to the public, with this colourway showcasing the popular R9 branding.

Nike Mercurial Vapor II (2004)

The Nike Mercurial Vapor was the lightest boot on the market, so when the Mercurial Vapor II launched in 2004, Nike did little to adjust its weight. Instead, they went about increasing comfort. A larger heel tab provided added ankle cushioning and a better fit all round helped achieve a near-perfect foot to ground feel.

Ronaldo’s iconic gold and black colourway was by far the most popular. With the R9 branding once again prominent on the tab. Fittingly a young Cristiano Ronaldo burst on to the scene wearing the same boots. Nike continued to run with the Team Red edition too, which of course Thierry Henry made iconic.

Nike Mercurial Vapor III (2006)

Nike’s third instalment of the Mercurial Vapor included several significant changes. To start, Teijin microfibre – designed to adjust to the shape of your foot – was used on the upper. Additional padding on the outer heel cup improved the fit, while a newly designed speed last helped maintain speed.

A lightweight, two-piece plate featuring direct injection studs enhanced acceleration, ground grip and turning speed. Once again, the design team at Nike had gone above and beyond to create a boot, unlike anything on the market.

Once again, the colourways remained vibrant and eye-catching to match its pacy characteristics. Cristiano Ronaldo sported a pair of red and white Nike Mercurial Vapor III at the 2006 World Cup, where he famously winked to the Portugal bench after Manchester United teammate Wayne Rooney had been sent off. A year later Nike linked up with Brazilian Ronaldo to launch a limited edition tenth anniversary version of the Mercurial Vapor. It featured the iconic design from 1998 alongside the advanced technology featured on the Mercurial Vapor III.

Nike Mercurial Vapor SL (2008)

Following the appointment of Mark Parker as CEO in January 2006 Nike upped their game. He encouraged all design teams within the company to create something completely outrageous. There were no limitations. And that was evident with the Nike Mercurial Vapor SL launched two years after his arrival.

The Mercurial Vapor SL went back to its track roots. Made from carbon fibre, it weighed just 185 grams. Its upper was crafted in Italy. The outsole was made in South Korea and the plate manufactured in Germany. The Mercurial Vapor SL was created using the very best innovations the world had to offer.

Cristiano Ronaldo was the first player to wear a pair in the Champions League final where he scored a trademark header against Chelsea and later missed a penalty in the shootout, which was famous for that John Terry slip.

Nike Mercurial Vapor IV (2008)

The same year Nike dropped the Mercurial Vapor SL they also launched the Vapor IV, bringing an even more aerodynamic look to the football pitch. A Teijin upper covered the laces, providing a bigger striking zone and the inclusion of a new, larger swoosh changed the aesthetics completely.

But it was the all-new hidden internal chassis which made the Vapor IV stand out from the rest. Made from glass fibre the insert snapped like a standard running spike to enhance acceleration. This was Nike’s fastest boot yet, and they continued the speed theme with a number of bold, striking colourways including Orange Peel, Vapor Rosa and more. The classic all-black boot was long gone. A sad day for all the traditionalists out there.

Nike Mercurial Vapor Superfly (2009)

As with all Mercurial silhouettes, speed has been Nike’s key focus, but with the Mercurial Vapor Superfly, they wanted to create a boot that had it all. And that’s exactly what they did.

An ultra-light Teijin upper helped create their lightest version yet, while Flywire threads increased support by keeping the foot locked in place. Paired together with the shell, this created a snug fit for added comfort. Add that to a carbon fibre chassis, which reduced weight and a layered carbon outsole designed to increase flexibility, the Vapor Superfly was perfectly designed to improve acceleration and reaction times. Perfect for players like Ronaldo who thrives on his quick turn of pace and athleticism. The Superfly was the start of a new era for the Mercurial.

Nike Mercurial Vapor Superfly II (2010)

Heavily influenced by Cristiano Ronaldo, the Mercurial Vapor Superfly II took inspiration from the cheetah. It was the first boot to incorporate Nike Sense technology, which was once again groundbreaking technology. The studs extended and retracted depending on the pressure applied and ground conditions. Thus providing players with optimum speed, acceleration and stability at all times. 

Ahead of the World Cup in South Africa, Nike gave the Superfly II a bold makeover. With speed still the main focus they reduced weight with a carbon fibre plate and gave the boot a striking Mach Violet Total Orange colourway. But there was more to it than aesthetics. Research found these colours to stimulate the vision most, therefore in a blur the bold colours provided a better target for precise passes. It’s the small details that give elite footballers the bigger edge.

Despite Cristiano Ronaldo providing the inspiration for the silhouette it was Clint Dempsey who debuted the boot during Fulham’s famous 4-1 Europa League win over Juventus. The American scored a delightful chip late on in the game.

Nike Mercurial Vapor Superfly III (2011)

The third instalment of the Mercurial Vapor Superfly focused on grip and control. Nike reduced the chances of slipping with toe-off traction, while tri-blade configuration maximized turning speed. The upper was the most streamlined it’s ever been within the Mercurial series, again vastly improving aerodynamics. But the core technology remains the same.

Like its predecessor, the Superfly III featured a bold colour placement to enhance visibility. Later Nike dropped the CR Mercurial Vapor Superfly III featuring an all-over ‘Safari’ print in Black/Volt. 

Nike Mercurial Vapor VIII (2012)

With the eighth edition of the Mercurial Vapor, Nike introduced a new traction system to enhance explosive speed. Advanced stud technology guaranteed fast in and fast out penetration, while a single central stud was designed to increase acceleration. 

The Teijin microfibre upper had a suede-like finish which was engineered to enhance touch and control. Its shape and fit were altered too. A Mango colourway, part of the original launch, was incredibly eye-catching. Didier Drogba wore a pair during Chelsea’s famous Champions League win over Bayern Munich in 2012.

Nike Mercurial Vapor IX (2013)

The Nike Mercurial Vapor IX was all about control. It comprised of ACC technology (All Conditions Control) for improved ball control in both wet and dry conditions along with Speed Control – a material similar to that seen on a golf ball – which provided an equal balance of friction and a soft touch against the ball. A new, lightweight plate, consisting of two glass pieces enhanced flexibility. At the same time, acceleration and traction were improved due to a new twin stud configuration.

Ronaldo’s bespoke CR7 line saw Nike launch several neon colourways which accompanied a wild Safari print. They didn’t stop there, though. The CR7 Mercurial Vapor Supernova featured an intergalactic print, echoing the explosive speed of the Mercurial franchise. It’s a thing of beauty.

Nike Mercurial Vapor Superfly IV (2014)

The Nike Mercurial Vapor Superfly IV was years in the making. It was like nothing seen before in the football world. A dynamic fit collar made from Nike Flyknit technology not only completely transformed the silhouette aesthetically, but it enhanced the connection between player and boot. Brio cables, attached to the upper, secure the foot in place. A full-length carbon plate increased power, while the studs on the heel helped to provide added stability. 

From the materials used to the shape, every aspect of the Nike Mercurial Vapor Superfly IV was scrutinized and tested to ensure ultimate performance. It was one of the lightest and most advanced boots on the market, allowing players like CR7 to reach new heights. With this silhouette, Nike transformed the football boot industry, yet again. 

Nike Mercurial Vapor Superfly V (2016)

Two years later Nike launched the Mercurial Superfly V which featured a soleplate 40% lighter than previous models. Yet again helping to increase pace and acceleration.

The gap between the underfoot was eliminated using a new anatomical plate that traced the contour of the foot. Texture mapping was used to create a unique texture known as the 3D Flyknit, which helped provide added friction between the upper and the ball, leading to improved ball control.

Nike Mercurial Vapor 360 & Nike Mercurial Superfly 360 (2018)

Drawing inspiration from the cheetah, Nike designers reconfigured the stud placement with the 360 to improve agility and provide extra traction at high speeds. The boots texturized upper, which comes courtesy of advancements in Nike’s ACC technology, results in a highly durable boot that is softer to touch than previous releases in the series.

Almost two decades since its launch, the Mercurial has constantly evolved, but Nike’s goal has always remained the same; to create a boot that can unleash the raw pace of a player. And they’ve absolutely nailed it. From the lightweight Vapors to the revolutionary Superfly, the Nike Mercurial legacy goes on.