Saturday, July 08, 2006

The town that was divided by sneakers

BY BILLY WITZ, Staff Writer
Inside SOCAL, Los Angeles Daily News

HERZOGENAURACH, Germany - Walk through the gates of the town cemetery, turn right, and a dozen paces down the footpath is the gravestone of Rudolf Dassler. Turn around and head for the opposite corner of the graveyard, climb stone steps up several terraces, and there lies Adolf Dassler.

That the two brothers are buried at the far ends of the cemetery is no coincidence.

For more than 50 years, the feud between Adi and Rudi has played out not just in this small northern Bavarian town, but on playgrounds, shoe stores, and ad campaigns around the world through the shoe companies they founded: adidas and Puma.

While the manufacturing plants in town have long-since closed, both adidas and Puma are still headquartered here. Naturally, they are separated by the Au Rach river that runs through town.

"The town is really famous because of them," said Helga Schlemmer, 66, a lifelong resident. "People don't know where Herzogenaurach is, but they know where adidas and Puma are."

The World Cup being in Germany has focused extra attention on the two companies as well as the 23,000-population town about 15 miles north of Nuremberg.

Adidas won FIFA's sponsorship rights. The balls being used are adidas and it has produced striking ads, such as the one of German goalkeeper Oliver Kahn stretched out over a road near the Munich Airport, his feet anchored on one side of the road and his hands with the ball on the other side. Puma has also benefited, thanks to the sponsorship of 12 teams, more than adidas (six) or Nike (eight).

Puma and adidas hope the exposure of the World Cup will help them gain ground on Nike in the soccer apparel industry.

The German shoe companies, which combined to sell more than $10 billion in merchandise in 2005, arose from humble beginnings.

The Dassler brothers helped earn money as boys by delivering clothes for their mother's laundry business. In 1924, they converted their mother's washroom to a shoe factory and focused their new venture solely on sports shoes.

They began with track and soccer shoes, and in 1936, they received a boost when American Jesse Owens ran and jumped his way to four gold medals with spikes manufactured by Dassler brothers.

After World War II ended, the brothers had a falling out that, depending on whom you believe, was over a) an affair, b) dipping into the till c)getting credit for creating the first screw-in soccer studs.

In any event, when Rudi returned from a stint in an American prisoner of war camp in 1948, he left the Dassler Brothers Shoe Factory and founded Puma. Shortly thereafter, adidas - short for Adi Dassler - was created; and the feud was on.

Soon the town was split into two camps. If you worked at adidas, you didn't socialize, date or marry anyone from Puma. Herzogenaurach has been described as "the town of bent necks" because locals wouldn't talk with anyone until they looked to see what shoes they were wearing.

The brothers' feud wasn't limited to splitting the town. They frequently sued each other, often over such picayune things as adidas' advertising claim that it sold "the best sports shoes in the world."

If Adi scored a coup helping Germany win its first World Cup in 1954, then Rudi had his turn when Pele, just as a World Cup final was about to kickoff, bent down to tie his shoes. The TV cameras followed, showing the world his Pumas.

Horst Linke, a photographer who grew up in Herzongenaurach, remembers his first holiday job as a teenager at the adidas plant, where his mother worked. He showed up for his first day wearing brand-less shoes.

"Adi looked out a window and said in his best Franconian manner," Linke said, referring to the region's people, who are known for their gruffness. "What kind of ... shoes are those? Somebody get that boy some shoes.

"My first pair of adidas came from Adi himself."

In the 1960s, few Germans could afford more than one pair of sports shoes. Thus, it was one or the other.

"Almost everybody had one pair, and you wore it until it fell off," said Gundi Mueller, a docent at Sneaker Culture, an exhibit in town that documents the shoe companies' histories. "My aunt worked at Puma, so we had Pumas."

Now, Mueller said, she and her husband wear whichever feel more comfortable.

The us-or-them attitude has softened for a variety of reasons. The brothers have been dead for more than 25years, more people can afford to wear both and the two companies, which nearly went bankrupt in the early 1990s, are now run by business people, who are busy fighting the bottom line.

The families have stepped to the background.

"They are still fighting, but it's not the families," said Edith Kern-Miereisz, a reporter for the Nuremberg Presse, who lives in town. "The uncles and nephews and grandsons leave it to the speakers at the plant to fight."

In fact, the two have even worked together to crack down on bootlegged gear made in China, she said. That sort of cooperation, which may leave Rudi and Adi turning in their graves, would never have happened in the past.

Now, as uncomfortable as it might be, Puma and adidas understand how it feels when the shoe is on the other foot.


  1. ....a trivial cultural note is that here in Romania, the normal Romanian word for "tennis shoe" is "adidas" (pronounced ah-de-dahs), sort of like how we use the words "xerox" or "kleenex" as generic. They say "I need a new pair of Nike adidas."

  2. That's fascinating. Adidas must have been really popular over in Romania.