It took José Luis Rivera 22 years to fully learn how to make a pair of handmade soccer cleats. He was taught by his father-in-law, who once made a pair for Pelé.
His wife’s family has made custom soccer cleats in Mexico City for generations. Rivera began as an apprentice to his father-in-law, David Rivas, who for more than four decades dedicated himself to making shoes that rose to fame in the 1970s on the amateur and professional soccer fields of Mexico. They were called Colmenero.
When Rivera married Rivas’s daughter, he was 20 years old and the 1986 World Cup in Mexico was approaching. With no job prospects, he began helping out in the Rivas family workshop. His first tasks were simple, like cutting patterns in the leather. But little by little he began to learn which textures were the best fit for each part of the shoe, and how to handle the sewing machine. The last skill to perfect was attaching the sole and the studs. Once he mastered that, he was finally able to fit a whole pair together himself.
“It was a job that required precision and, above all, the patience to learn,” Rivera said.
Now 52, Rivera still toils at his craft in a small workshop in the eastern outskirts of Mexico City, proudly preserving a vanishing skill. Mass-produced shoes have edged out most of his business, but after four decades in his adopted trade, he refuses to let his artisanal business die. It is, he admits, a fight that was always going to be difficult to win, especially in the face of fierce competition from international companies like Nike, Puma and Adidas that flooded the Mexican market with cleats after the signing of the North American Free Agreement in 1994.
Rivera is the last living heir to a tradition that began in 1960, when a professional player from Guadalajara, Eduardo Colmenero, grew tired of using cleats that hurt his feet. His solution? Make his own.
“He took apart some shoes he had and replaced the plastic with leather,” Colmenero’s daughter, Ana Gabriela, said in an interview. His first pairs were only for his himself, but soon after Colmenero retired from the game in 1966, he dedicated himself to the shoe business full time.
“He made them for players who had some irregularity in their feet,” Ana Gabriela said. “Like one foot wider than another, or one shorter than the other. He was able to custom-make everything to size.”
As demand for his specialized shoes grew, Colmenero needed someone who could help him produce them. He went searching for an apprentice along the streets of the rough Mexico City neighborhood of Tepito, where all the city’s shoemakers converged to buy supplies and use communal sewing machines.
There he found Rivas, recently was laid off from a shoe factory. Rivas and Colmenero realized they had an affinity for the same sewing machines and a shared vision for a business. They began a partnership that lasted 45 years, until Colmenero’s death in 2010.
Their workshop grew to five people, and during the 1970s and ’80s they were making 600 pairs a month, sometimes working through the night to complete orders. The fame of their brand grew among players.
During the 1970 World Cup, Rivas and Colmenero made shoes for Brazil’s Pelé and England’s Bobby Charlton. Later, they stitched a pair for the Mexican star Hugo Sánchez, Colmenero’s daughter said.
“At that time it was difficult to find good soccer shoes,” said Felix Fernández, a former goalkeeper for Atlante and Mexico’s national team who now works as a commentator for Univision.
Before Colmenero, he said, “even as a professional player, the only option was to buy black market imports in Tepito.” In those days, Mexico did not have access to the global market in the same way it does today, and the foreign goods that did make it into the country were prohibitively expensive.
“Those were different times,” Fernández said. “Now all of the brands are available.”
After NAFTA brought down trade barriers in the 1990s, cheap, factory-made cleats from abroad poured into Mexico. “The demand for our shoes fell,” Rivera said. With well-known brands in every Mexican mall, young players no longer wanted to wear the bespoke blackout shoes with no logo made by the aging men in Tepito’s market.
By the early 2000s, Rivas and Colmenero’s production had been cut in half — to about 300 pairs a month. By 2008, when Rivera, the apprentice, had finally learned how to masterfully assemble the perfect shoe, the business was on its last legs.
“We would get orders for five to 10 pair of shoes a week, or sometimes no orders at all,” he said.
In 2012, after Colmenero’s death, Rivas turned what was left of the business over to his son-in-law. The business is dead, Rivas told Rivera. Take all the machines to your house, they are yours. “If anyone calls,” he told Rivera, “then you can handle it.”
Two years later, Rivas was dead, too.
“I would say he died when he stopped making shoes,” Rivera said.
At Rivas’s funeral, Colmenero’s heirs asked Rivera if he would continue the business in their father’s name, and he agreed.
He continues to make about five to 10 pairs of cleats a month for a few loyal shoppers; they cost 1,200 pesos (about $62) a pair. The workshop is now next to his home in the working-class neighborhood of Valle de Chalco, along an unmarked dirt road. In the sparsely furnished room, he has a wooden table, a sewing machine and rolls of leather. It takes him about three hours to make a pair of cleats now, as he carefully works each shoe over a wooden mold with tools to tan and shape the leather. Each one is made to order, he stresses, ensuring that no two ever come out the same.
“They are like gloves for your feet,” Rivera said. “Unique. And we make them with a lot of love.”