It’s almost May and as of May 1st, we are 42 days away from the greatest sports spectacle in the world, the FIFA World Cup. I understand that soccer may not be everyone’s cup of tea here in the United States but it is undeniably the most popular sport in the world, viewed and played in more countries than any other. It is also my favorite sport. Recently, even in the US, the successes of the Men’s and Women’s National teams have taken the sport’s popularity to a whole new level. I would be willing to bet that even your friends and family who don’t care about soccer usually will be interested in this year’s tournament and seeing who comes out on top.
For the uninitiated, the World Cup has its own myriad traditions and spectacles outside of the game itself. Much like the Super Bowl or the World Series, players, fans, teams and outside parties have things going on that coincide with the World Cup before, during and after. Today I’m going to sit you down and give you a (hopefully) entertaining education on one of the greatest World Cup traditions of the last 20 years: Nike Soccer commercials. Yes, exactly like the Super Bowl, the commercials are a big deal. However, instead of annually watching 40 commercials only to be disappointed about 37 of them, soccer fans around the world eagerly await the 2-3 brilliant commercials…nay…short films from one of the sport’s biggest names: Nike. To do that, I want to tell you a little bit about why Nike and Adidas matter so much to football. The names of these two biggest gear sponsors have a high place, with significant influence. Unlike US sports, where a team’s jersey contracts are all encompassing, leading to infamous incidents like Nike paying Michael Jordan’s daily fine for wearing Jordans against his team’s contract, FIFA has separate deals for shoes versus every other piece of equipment. A team’s jerseys may be contracted to many companies, but players are free to wear their own shoes, with their own brands. Most of the sport’s stars are signed by the top three or four names as soon as their stocks begin to rise.
Nike and Adidas are the Twix One and Twix Two of the footballing world. Both huge names, each company’s marketing people are endlessly competing to one-up the other. Let’s face it, their equipment is the same. Whether you’re buying their $200 cleats or socks or jerseys, both make high quality equipment. Let’s not forget then that companies today are focused as much on branding as they are on product. On the surface, people know Nike and Adidas make similar products of similar quality. The difference is in the details. The difference is in brand loyalty, born of various reasons. Most people have a preference because they are inherently in competition. Nike and Adidas, Apple and Windows, Chrome and Firefox. Similar products, similar concepts, loyalty, sales and following built from the details. Nike’s star athlete is Cristiano Ronaldo, winner of the most recent Ballon D’Or (MVP of like every league). Adidas has Lionel Messi, winner of the previous three Ballon D’Ors. They both come in bright colors; they both adorn the feet of every player on every team. They both are more than adequate to play soccer in, whether you’re playing on Sundays with your friends or in front of 60,000 people.
These days, Nike and Adidas are on even grounds for most things. They have equally famous celebrities, similar gear and similar market share. There is, however, one place where Nike dominates Adidas. That place is the realm of soccer commercials. For two decades now, Nike has contracted some of the most recognizable names in the business for both the footballing talent and the filmmaking genius to create some of the most entertaining, engaging and talked about football commercials ever.
1) It all started in 1996 in preparation for the Euro 96 competition. Here, a team of Europe’s greatest stars are forced into a competition against some evil monsters. In a total Space Jam move, the demons play dirty and kick some major ass, demonstrating moves that make more sense in a Real Madrid v. Barcelona game or an MMA octagon. Suddenly, the dream team busts out the jukes and bring a nice free shot to Eric Cantona, a frequent star in Nike ads. The Frenchman delivers a phenomenal boot tearing through Lucifer and winning the game. Then they woke up. Or were dead the whole time. I don’t know it was sweet.
2) Back in 1998, Brazil had a team of some of the greatest stars in the game. The OG Ronaldo, Roberto Carlos, Rivaldo, Denilson and yes I know these names don’t mean much to you but these guys were my idols. To put it neatly, they were stacked and were the clear favorites going into the tournament. Brazilian football is also some of the world’s most beautiful football. Their national identity is tied into the sport. It is a national export. They create some of the world’s most intriguing, talented ball players like the recent star Neymar or the all-time great Ronaldinho. In marketing terms, they make fantastic subjects of commercials because they are magicians with a soccer ball. Nike capitalized on this with the commercial of the tournament: Airport. Here, the Brazilian squad deals on a flight delay by creating mayhem in the airport through an incredible pickup game. The tricks and set pieces of the commercial suggest a grand effort both creatively and financially. Additionally, the commercial started Nike’s eerie trend of predicting the outcomes such as when Ronaldo hits the post here, akin to Brazil’s eventual loss in the final to the French national team.
3) One of the most popular variants of soccer is futsal, or street soccer. It is a small game of 3v3 or 4v4 where the point is to use tricks, moves and guile to score into a small net. It is a sport born of tight spaces and urban restrictions. It is also beautiful. In 2002, Nike capitalized on futsal by throwing together a “tournament” of superstars in groups of three in a freighter. Eric acts as referee to some of the most beautifully choreographed games ever. Check it out.
4) Guys, do you remember when Kobe jumped over the Aston Martin, and how many people thought it was real? Ok so think back about 10 years. YouTube was just starting to become a thing. Viral videos were just starting to become a thing. The internet’s propensity to photoshop and fake everything hadn’t quite extended to videos yet, at least in the mind of most people. It was the golden age of the “real or fake” viral videos. Well this was the original video. Ronaldinho, who in 2005 was at the pinnacle of soccer, was given a new pair of Nikes to try on. He started by effortlessly juggling the ball for what seemed like hours, as he is wont to do, and then started blasting it into the sky. At this point, the camera pulls back and he kicks at the top crossbar, catches the return on his chest and kicks it at the crossbar again. I’m explaining this to you calmly because 24 year-old me knows it’s fake. 15 year old me at the time thought this was the greatest thing since sliced bread. If you’ve never seen this video before you will say, “How did people ever believe this?” That’s because back then this was completely new. No one knew what to expect. Nike literally changed the game.
5) Euro 2008 brought us the manic, incredible Guy Ritchie short film “Take It to the Next Level” where an unnamed young player goes from being noticed and signed by Arsenal to deciding the game for the Netherlands at the Euros. Be warned, this video is in first person so if you’re motion sick, make sure to appreciate the camera work with a doggie bag nearby.
6) For the World Cup in 2010, we got one of my favorite soccer commercials of all time, “Write the Future.” Here, the world’s superstars ruminate on glory versus ruin in the time it takes to flick the ball. Other sports stars like Roger Federer and Tiger Woods make cameos in what is the most entertaining movie of them all.
Now we are in a World Cup season again and Nike is stepping up their game with two big spots thus far. First, in honor of the WC being held in Brazil, Nike’s “Dare to be Brazilian” ad imagines the game from the various perspectives of the Brazilian National Team squad.
Finally, Nike takes the sport and incorporates the imaginations of children by transforming street pickup kids into modern day stars in “Winner Stays.”
It is clear that this company’s football division has got its marketing figured out. Though Adidas has had some choice ads in the past, they have never come to the quality of the Nike ads. I hope you’ve enjoyed this look into the world of soccer commercials. Stay tuned to find out what other magic Nike pulls this year before the World Cup starts on June 12th.