Get your kit on

With the world poised for another summer of football obsession, the real winners will be those who kit out the teams (and their fans). Liz Farrelly kicks off with the latest gear from two of the key players in the funny old game of football branding.

Even before the first whistle blows on 10 June for the opening match of FIFA’s 16th World Cup, it would appear that, on the design front anyway, there is already one clear winner of what is being billed “the last great event of the millennium”. Out of all the fiercely competitive players in the field of sporting goods, Adidas, with its simple, but effective, three-stripe branding, is set to clean up in what is the most lucrative sports market worldwide. Football is big business, and it’s set to get even bigger.

In the minds of people who are bothered, Adidas is the brand which most clearly understands football. Founded in the teens of this century by Adi Dassler, in the German town of Herzogenaurach which was a noted centre for shoemaking, Adidas’s reputation has been built on innovation.

Dassler himself was a tireless inventor, producing the first football boot with nailed leather studs in 1925, and in 1954 helping the German team to World Cup victory by way of replaceable cleats. The final with Hungary was an exceedingly muddy one, but Dassler’s latest innovation of a boot with removable cleats saved the day as the German team took to the pitch for the second half, sporting mud-free cleats. Their grip intact they must have literally run circles around the opposition.

In 1979 Adidas launched the Copa Mundial – the best-selling football boot ever and still a firm favourite with professionals and amateurs worldwide. And then came the Predator… but more of that later.

With such credentials it’s hardly surprising that – as well as being the first sporting goods company to be included in the premier league of World Cup “official sponsors”, along with blue chip brands MasterCard, Philips, Coca-Cola and JVC – Adidas holds “the most extensive licensing agreement ever” (according to its own press release). An estimated 37 billion viewers (twice as many as tuned into the last Olympics) will be treated to the sight of 12 000 officials and volunteers kitted out in Adidas gear. And of the 32 national teams (which is a substantial increase from the previous 24), Adidas is supplying strips to a number of the most watchable, notably Germany, France, Spain, Romania and Argentina.

Supplying a team, and obtaining a license to manufacture its strip for sale, constitutes a serious financial outlay for a manufacturer – we’re talking multiple millions of pounds. At between 40 and 60 a throw for a replica shirt, and with each team supplied with two, and often three different strips, there’s an awful lot of cash to be made back from what is, in effect, a lurid nylon T-shirt. If you’re interested, Umbro now provides the England strip, but probably not for much longer as the contract’s up for grabs after the World Cup.

The fact is that in these days of sports-oriented fashion (or is it fashion-oriented sports?), a brand which is closely associated with one sport, like Umbro with football, can’t hope to achieve the market profile necessary to attract substantial numbers of off-field consumers. Some brands will argue that they’re not really interested in kitting out the kids on the terraces as well… and whereas Nike is considered an interloper by purists, Adidas is in the enviable position of providing the genuine article in terms of equipment, and the fashion-victim’s latest must have “street-style” garment.

The double-edged appeal of Adidas may be due to its European roots – even though it is, in fact, global, with a US headquarters in Portland, Oregon, just over the river from Nike’s Beaverton “campus”. Likewise Nike has a European headquarters in Hilversum, The Netherlands. But, for US consumers the Adidas retains a certain old-school cachet. It puts that global reach to good use, realising that to design for a sport with a particular geographical stronghold, all those involved, from product designers to marketers, should be close to the source.

As European communications director Paul Seline explains: “We pinpoint the ‘heartbeat market’ as the place where a sport is part of the lifestyle so we can get inside the minds of fans and where the media backs that sport. So our basketball shoes are designed in the US, but our football boots are designed in Germany, so we can get inside the minds of those fans.”

When a brand name becomes synonymous with a sport, promotional opportunities abound. With high visibility, the name of the game in sports sponsorship, the real coup comes in the form of the white, bouncy thing upon which all eyes are focused. The invention of the concept of “ball as advertising hoarding” can be squarely laid at the feet of Adidas. Since the Mexico tournament in 1970, when the Telstar was made “official ball”, Adidas has provided that vital piece of equipment for every World Cup. In 1978, in Argentina, it launched the Tango with its distinctive pattern of circles dropped out of a coloured ground.

Since then the versatility of that graphic has been fully exploited by London consultancy Design Bridge, which, working with the Germans, has designed themed balls for a number of competitions. The Questra, launched for the 1994 US World Cup, featured shooting stars in reference to the Stars and Stripes and Yankee razzmatazz. The Questra Europa, used during the 1996 European Championships, incorporated some heraldic lions and a Tudor Rose, signalling that “football had come home” to Merry England. For this French excursion, Design Bridge has produced the Tricolore, with a graphic combining said flag’s blue, white and red with the traditional sporting motif of a cockerel and elements intended to denote a national obsession with speed, energy and futuristic design, abstracted from the image of a high-speed TGV. The final official seal of approval came when the design was incorporated into the France 98 logo. Nondescript as this logo may be, there’s no mistaking that the football-sun rising over the ubiquitous painterly-blob is Adidas’s Tricolore.

In the case of Adidas footballs, however, design is more than skin-deep. In the quest for a lighter ball with a better “energy return”, Adidas was the first manufacturer to experiment with synthetics, launching a World Cup-quality polyurethane and leather combo in 1982. This year the boffins at Adidas’s Global Technology Centre in Scheinfeld, Germany, have produced a ball made from 32 syntactic foam panels. The material is, in fact, a matrix of gas-filled micro-balloons which return energy in equal measure around the sphere, ensuring that the flight and bounce of the ball is predictable and accurate.

These days innovation in materials technology is crucial to ball design, but there’s still no better way of assembling the panels than with over 1000 hand-stitches. The majority of footballs manufactured around the world are stitched by home-based piece-workers in developing countries. The jury is still out on the ethics of home-work, especially taking into account the fact that smaller, ie younger, hands make better stitches. However, organisations such as Christian Aid warn against transposing Western perceptions of “exploitation” on cultures where families traditionally work together, each member contributes income to the communal pot, and where the home is an infinitely preferable environment to work in than most of the unregulated and therefore often highly-toxic factories.

Coming on to that other piece of essential footballing equipment – the boot – both Adidas and Nike are showcasing recent innovations at France 98. Calling it “the most technically advanced soccer shoe in the world”, the Adidas Equipment Predator Accelerator is the third incarnation of the Predator. Launched at the US World Cup, the Predator is the brain-child of the Australian ex-Liverpool player Craig Johnston. After he compared himself to his team-mates and realised he was “short on skill”, Johnston set out to develop a boot which would increase a player’s contact, control, grip and stability. Inspired by the rubbery surface of a table tennis bat, he produced a prototype complete with rubber fins and larger studs which he asked colleagues to test. After playing their videoed comments to Adidas management, the Germans offered to take on the project.

Then Johnston had to persuade FIFA that, instead of his boot constituting an unfair advantage, it would, in fact, improve performance and accuracy, speed up the game and create more goals. And more goals equals happier fans. It was convinced once he’d pointed out that recent innovations in golf and tennis equipment had enlivened those sports and increased their popularity with the viewing public. Adidas has held back from kitting out entire teams in the Predator, preferring to showcase its advantages on the feet of a select bunch of players. This latest incarnation will be worn by England squad members David Beckham, Paul Ince and Gazza.

New kid on the block Nike has also launched a shoe in time for France 98. The Mercurial, developed with the help of Brazil’s Renaldo – the “best player in the world”, according to Nike Europe’s PR manager. The boot weighs in at just 245 grams, which is extremely light and, coincidentally, the exact same weight as a Brazilian shirt! Nike is allegedly in trouble in the high street, having reached saturation point in the footwear market, so it’s no surprise that it’s looking to conquer the lucrative football market, a game with much wider international appeal than its bedrock sport of basketball. Rumour has it that it plans to blow the competition out of the water with its World Cup advertising campaign, which includes a TV ad featuring the Brazilian team, which, again allegedly, went a million dollars over budget.

One area where Nike is most definitely leading the way is in “apparel”. Its mix of radical colourways, hi-tech fabrics and body-conscious tailoring has guaranteed that innovations designed for track, field, mountainside and ski-slope translate into desirable garments. The swoosh may have attained critical mass, but Nike’s ACG (All Conditions Gear) label has retained its cachet with the street-fashion elite.

At France 98 Nike is outfitting the Brazilians, Dutch, Italians, Nigerians, South Koreans and (surprise, surprise) the US team. But, get this, the kit constitutes three match strips (home, away and colour-clash alternative), a warm-up outfit and a presentation warm-up outfit, travelling outfit, training package and, presumably, very big bags. The idea is that players can integrate layers to compensate for climatic and temperature changes. Nike designers in Europe and America have developed dry-fit, clima-fit and therma-fit fabrics which quickly evaporate sweat and rain, to keep players dry and cool, or warm and cosy. So, watch out for Wieden & Kennedy Amsterdam’s print and TV campaigns featuring Nike’s new products alongside a host of recently signed footballing endorsers!

Due to open on 5 June, in what may be perceived as a “coals to Newcastle” exercise, is Nike’s People’s Republic of Football. Sited on La Défence’s main plaza and billed as part of Paris’s Festival of Football, this playground of interactive games designed for children (of all ages) was put together by the team which designed New York’s Niketown. Whether kids need football lessons from Nike is irrelevant, with buttons to press and goals to score the techno-crazy French will love it, probably almost as much as they love Disney…

It’s got to be said that, despite its stinginess with ticket allocations, the French organising committee seems to be doing a grand job, particularly on the cultural front. Collaborating with the Paris City Council and the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports, the aim has been to make the event relevant and accessible to as wide a range of people as possible. In Nantes, host city to the Brazilian team, the “municipal authorities” have even built a replica of Copa-cabana beach, importing “tons of golden sand [to] transform the former home of the Dukes of Brittany into a citadel for football”. Now that’s what I call egalitarian and inspired marketing!

The official France 98 poster was designed by Nathalie Le Gall, a student at the Ecole Régionale des Beaux-Arts in Montpellier, and football-related events and competitions abound. With safety and comfort in mind, nine stadiums have been renovated and the tenth, the Stade de France in Saint-Denis, which will host the final, was built from scratch. Designed by architect Macary Zublena Regembal Costantin, it is the world’s largest multifunctional Olympic-sized stadium, complete with mobile, adjustable seating and a luminous disk suspended from 18 steel girders 30m up in the air!

It’s hardly surprising that so much hype surrounds such a crazy testosterone-fuelled sporting fest as the World Cup, with advertising, marketing and promotional endeavours fanning the flames. But why is it that these days every sporting event of any size feels the need to invent a furry mascot? OK, so it’s a tradition at football matches, but did we really need such an embarrassingly toothless cuddly English Lion to promote the European Championships?

France 98 is no exception. And even though this World Cup will feature some stunning examples of innovative and stylish product design, architecture and graphics, the French have definitely scored an own goal in the furry mascot stakes with their extremely uncuddly Foghorn Leghorn clone. Christened Footix (pardon me, did you say “F**k it”?), a name put forward by a consultancy which specialises in names but seems to be remaining anonymous, the French public voted for it in droves. Set to invade every screen, street or stadium, it’s guaranteed to squawk incessantly for the entire 33 days and 64 matches of the tournament. So, just sit back and enjoy…

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