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There are so many eyeballs watching the World Cup that, when it comes to branding, there are no losers. Some brands, however, win bigger than others — adidas went into the tournament as official FIFA sponsor, but it was Nike that left as the tsar of Russia 2018.
At the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, adidas came out on top. Not only did finalists Germany and Argentina wear the Three Stripes, but the Golden Ball (Lionel Messi), Golden Boot (James Rodriguez), Goal of the Tournament (also James), and Golden Glove (Manuel Neuer) were all awarded to adidas athletes. In Russia, however, the roles were reversed, with Nike dominating the latter stages of the tournament in particular.
For the first time in its history, Nike provided the kits for both finalists, France and Croatia. Furthermore, England defied all expectations and reached the semi-finals, meaning three out of the four teams at the competition’s business end wore Swoosh-emblazoned kits. Nike’s success on the apparel front felt preordained ever since the release of the internet-breaking Nigeria home shirt, and so it proved to be. (At least in terms of exposure: as of writing, sales figures have yet to be revealed by any of the brands represented at the tournament.)
It’s the players inside the kits who matter most, of course, and it was here where Nike really flexed its muscles. More than 65 percent of the players in Russia were wearing Nike football boots, scoring 100 goals. Most important of all, Beaverton dominated the end-of-tournament awards, with the Golden Ball (Luka Modric), Golden Boot (Harry Kane), Golden Glove (Thibaut Courtois), and Best Young Player (Kylian Mbappé) all going to its athletes.
Mbappé’s explosion onto the world stage is what will have Nike’s marketers most excited. If the French teenager was already a big name going into Russia, he left the tournament a bona fide superstar. In the quarter-final between France and Argentina, Mbappé comprehensively outshone the great Messi in what many deemed a symbolic passing of the baton, the apprentice becoming the master.
Such talk might be premature, but it now seems obvious where Nike’s football operation goes once Cristiano Ronaldo (another Nike athlete who enjoyed a decent tournament) starts to wind down his career. Even at 33, Ronaldo still has plenty of gas left in the tank, but having left Real Madrid for Juventus, it could be argued that the only way is down. Juve is still a blue-chip club, of course, but it isn’t on the same level as 13-time European champion Madrid — arguably no club is.
With his bewitching grin and likable personality, Mbappé, the youngster from the high-rises of Bondy in northeast Paris, seems primed to take over his childhood hero Ronaldo’s mantle as Nike’s poster boy (although Neymar might have something to say about that).
adidas, meanwhile, will be disappointed with the performances of Messi (a beautifully taken winner against Nigeria in the group stage aside) but will take heart from those of Paul Pogba, whom the Three Stripes signed to a 10-year deal worth $44 million in 2016. The larger-than-life Manchester United midfielder was a standout performer in Russia and finally looks set to realize his undoubted potential. Name another player who would have the audacity to dab with the World Cup?
An additional mention must be reserved for PUMA, which, despite being without some of its biggest teams in Russia (Italy, Ivory Coast), was given plenty of exposure by Uruguay’s strong run and the performances of France forward Antoine Griezmann. Hummel, too, will be buoyed by Denmark’s progression from the group stage, while Peru, despite failing to get past the first round, won plenty of admirers for its big-hearted performances and iconic red-sashed jersey, no doubt resulting in Umbro shifting a few replica shirts.
Still, it’s Nike that took the spoils in Russia, meaning adidas has to wait another four years until the winter World Cup in Qatar before it gets a chance to go toe to toe in the global arena with its arch-nemesis once more. Who the German brand’s main man will be in 2024 isn’t exactly clear, but with Mbappé tied to a long-term deal at Nike, adidas better bring the cavalry.