Carbon Athletic: The Aussie duo protecting the stars at home and abroad
The Socceroos flew the flag highest for the country at the World Cup. Australian company Carbon Athletic influenced their performance in Qatar, with their increasingly popular carbon fiber shin guards protecting several of Graham Arnold's stars and many other big names at the tournament.
But it all started in 2018 when Sydney-based duo Ben Cortese and Anthony Vallelonga started Carbon Athletic. It is the home of world football's number one-rated carbon fiber shin guard. According to customer reviews, they have gathered the most five-star reviews for carbon fiber shin guards.
Ben Cortese (left) and Anthony Vallelonga (right), the duo behind Australian company Carbon Athletic. (Carbon Athletic)
That shin guard is the ProGuard, the company’s headline product. It has been making its mark on footballers worldwide and has amassed thousands of customers.
However, it took a while for Cortese and Vallelonga’s business to take off. Having started it at 22, the duo have been operating for almost five years. They felt a gap in the market needed to be filled with better protection for footballers on the pitch.
“We’ve been going for about four and a half years now, and we both got in business together, both as friends,” Cortese said.
“We both played semi-professional here in Sydney and saw a need for protection in the market. It was something that we thought could help with the performance of the players.
“There [are] products that are really high-priced for carbon fiber. We thought that if we could try and make something at an affordable price to consumers, then we could really focus on the protection side of the product and try and get it to as many people as possible.
“It does reduce, for children and players, the chances of fractures and severe lower leg injuries. At the same time, there’s still the performance aspect of them in the sense that for professional players, they want to use them for not just protection but also attributes of them [being] really light and thin as well.”
Vallelonga also explained how witnessing lower leg injuries in the past and the often ineffective standard plastic shin guards contributed to the business being established.
“I haven’t had a major injury to my legs playing football. I have seen lower leg fractures in the past, so that has definitely contributed to it,” Vallelonga said.
“But I also come from a background as a chiropractor, so I’ve seen many injuries in the clinic as well. I know the importance [of] shin guards in limiting or negating an injury.
“So that’s kind of where it came about. They (plastic shin guards) protect you a little bit, but they’re very flimsy, and they don’t protect you too well against major injury. They protect against bruising, but if you get hit really hard with a slide tackle, it’s not going to protect you too well.”
As opposed to plastic, the ProGuards are made from carbon fiber, providing much better protection. The carbon fiber front shell on the shin guards has a much higher strength-to-weight ratio than plastic.
The ProGuards, Carbon Athletic's headline product. (Carbon Athletic)
Thus, the ProGuards were developed to reduce the likelihood of severe leg injuries on the pitch. According to Carbon Athletic, lower leg injuries result in the highest admission rate to hospitals for football-related injuries in Australia.
Cortese explained how he and Vallelonga were aware of how game-changing the carbon fiber shin guards could be for consumers in Australia. The point of difference from other products was to make it affordable.
“In relation to the carbon fiber, we were quite aware. You see it with race cars and different things in that field; they use a lot of carbon fiber for performance, for the lightweight and the high strength of it,” he said.
“We happened to come across carbon fiber shin guards as well…there were previous products, but there was nothing in the sense that it was affordable for a consumer.
“A lot of other companies you’re looking at anywhere around $200 – $350 for a pair of shin guards, and for an average football player, they’re not going to be dishing out that sort of money unless you play in the professional leagues.
“We have produced the ProGuards at a more affordable price…but it is still a premium product; it does come with a higher price tag than normal shin guards, [but] it’s still in that reasonable affordability price group.
“We give a three year quality guarantee on the shell of the shin guards because we’ve been going for five years now, and we haven’t really had any reports that the shin guards have broken.
“We’re confident in the quality of the product, hence why we can market it with that guarantee.”
The ProGuards have proved a worthwhile product. You only need to look at the list of current top footballers worldwide wearing them to understand Carbon Athletic’s global reach. One of football’s most decorated players, Dani Alves, Arsenal star Gabriel Martinelli, and the reigning Ballon d’Or winner Karim Benzema all headline some of the global stars who wear the ProGuards. Meanwhile, Socceroos Cameron Devlin, Andrew Redmayne, Martin Boyle, Joel King, and Nathaniel Atkinson are also on the list.
Arsenal star Gabriel Martinelli pictured with his ProGuards. (Carbon Athletic)
Cortese and Vallelonga have used social media to acquire players to wear the ProGuards. Alves was one of the first stars they secured and in a matter of time, players reached out to them instead of the other way around.
“First, we went with some players in the A-League, and we got a very good response. The next step for us was to reach out to these international players in other leagues around the world.
“We got in contact with Dani Alves when he was at PSG. From that, he got the product, and then we got other players and their agents, like Thiago Silva, messaging us [and] reaching out. They saw the product and the quality of it, and they figured this was something [they] could use for performance aspects as well.
Vallelonga even found it somewhat amusing that players plying their trade in more prominent leagues overseas were keener on the product than in Australia.
“We’ve done all the contact ourselves. It first started with the A-League then overseas. We hit every team we could, and then from there, we started to get players from overseas reaching out to us,” he said.
“We found that players in the bigger leagues with millions of followers would reach out to us and would be happy to try our gear, where as some of the up and coming footballers in Australia were not keen to try it, so it was quite amusing in that regard.”
Not all communication has been done via social media, though. In a sensational turn of events, Cortese and Vallelonga were invited by two of their high-profile clients to meet and deliver them a pair of ProGuards. First, Dani Alves asked them to Sydney ahead of Barcelona’s meeting with the A-League All-Stars in May 2022. Two months later, Manchester United’s Diogo Dalot met the duo ahead of his side’s friendly with Melbourne Victory at the MCG.
Cortese (left) met Brazil and Barcelona legend Dani Alves (right) back in May 2022. Alves is one of Carbon Athletic's high-profile clients. (Carbon Athletic)
Cortese opened up about the experience of meeting Brazil and Barcelona legend Alves and the relationship the 39-year-old has with him and Vallelonga.
“It was unreal (meeting Alves). These are the players that you watch on TV and idolise, and we have had a lot of contact with him over the last four, five years. It’s crazy to know that we are on a first-name basis, not only with him but other stars around the world,” he said.
“He’ll reach out to us, send us messages when he needs stuff. We’ve spoken to him for a long time. For us, we of course know who he is, but for him to put a face to our names as well is humbling in that sense.”
Along with its growing and impressive client base, Carbon Athletic have looked to innovate its ProGuards to set itself apart from other companies. They also design custom shin guards that have proved a hit, worn by their Socceroo clients and Arsenal’s Martinelli, to name a few. Vallelonga explained the reasoning behind designing the custom shin guards, citing the importance of keeping up with trends in the market.
“We kind of saw the trend over the last few years with customisation, not just in the sporting sense but with other goods. There were a few different brands killing it in that space,” Vallelonga said.
“So then we thought, ‘you know what, if we can do it on shin pads, why not?’ People like to put their names on things, their numbers, initials, [and] photos. So we gave it a go, and that was actually another way that allowed us to start conversations with footballers.
“All the professional players like custom things, not just the boring stuff, because they get enough of it.
“So if you can customise it, they’re more likely to try it out or to speak to you. It worked pretty well because they’re all loving it now.”
Cortese and Vallelonga have successfully approached some very well-established names in the game.
As Cortese explained, wearing a specific shin guard can often be up to a player’s preference.
“Yes and no (on whether they have encountered contract issues with players). But predominantly speaking, shin guards are one of those things where it is up to the player’s preference; they don’t necessarily have endorsement deals with boot sponsors,” he said.
“A lot of the time, the players want to have a photo of their kids or their wife with them during the games, so that’s why we found they love our custom shin guards.”
The custom shin guards Carbon Athletic designed for their Socceroo clients. (Carbon Athletic)
Alongside the players, consumers love the Carbon Athletic brand, particularly the ProGuards. Although they have reached great heights by developing relations with stars abroad, the duo are not surprised by the business's current position. Vallelonga explained how jumping into the financial and marketing side of the company paid off in the end for him and Cortese.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a surprise, to be honest. We’ve done quite a bit of work [in] the last four to five years. The first few years, the results were sporadic; we didn’t really know what we were doing, to be fair,” Vallelonga said.
“We just kind of jumped into e-commerce, and gave it a go. The sales were slow at the start; we needed to build a brand and an image; we didn’t have any.
“Like any new business, we found it was hard for consumers to trust us and purchase with us, but then as we started to build more brand equity and more of a presence online, naturally, the sales increased.
“Now it’s quite obvious to consumers that we’re a legitimate brand in the sporting space, and that’s why we’re starting to finally see more results coming through these last one to two years.”
As Vallelonga touched on, the past one to two years has seen significant growth for Carbon Athletic. The ProGuards are now well and truly their crown jewel product, whilst they also sell grip socks. They have established relationships with several big-name footballers abroad and provide customised ProGuards for some Socceroos. Despite all of this growth, Cortese hinted that there are plans to release more products for the Australian public soon.
“I’m sure we’ll be bringing out other products in the near future, but we can’t tell at this stage,” he said.
Carbon Athletic’s ProGuards retail for $99.99 per pair and have been sold in over 30 countries. Those interested can find the product here.
Click here to read about how South Australian company Peats Soil and Garden Supplies also had an influence on the recent FIFA World Cup in Qatar.