Football: Ads multiply for Ronaldo

Jon Culley reports on the lengths sponsors will go to win their own World Cup
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The Independent Online
ENGLAND'S friendly in Switzerland last week may be best forgotten but for armchair viewers the evening did yield some moments of spectacular action. Regrettably for Glenn Hoddle, they came during the commercial breaks. And the setting was not a football field but an airport.

This unlikely backcloth witnessed an extraordinary exhibition of skills performed by the Brazilian national side - Ronaldo, Romario, Juninho and Denilson among them - who run and pass their way through the ticket desks and baggage checks, into the departure lounge and out on to the tarmac, jaws dropping all around them.

It is the latest in a series of eye-catching ads for Nike, a sequel to Eric Cantona's penalty against the devil and his appearance with Ian Wright on Hackney Marshes. The Frenchman has a cameo in this one, shooting disdainful looks from the window of an incoming flight.

Nike like to be flash and expensive. To have the world champions endorse their name cost pounds 250m, a world record deal that entitles them to provide Brazil's kit - and make replicas - until 2006. After that they were hardly likely to skimp. To direct this production they hired John Woo, whose Hollywood credits include Broken Arrows and Face/ Off. The story is that Cantona, the budding luvvie, agreed to take part not for the money but for the honour of working with Woo. It is a romantic notion. For Nike, however, art is not the driving force. Timed to coincide with Brazil's match against Germany in Stuttgart (in which their star client, Ronaldo, scored a brilliant winning goal), the ad is part of a battle for supremacy off the field that is intensifying even 10 weeks before this summer's World Cup finals begin.

The protagonists are not the nations of the world but their kit suppliers, for whom France 98 represents a sales opportunity second to none, broadcast to 195 countries with potential audiences of 500 million per match.

Squaring up among others are Adidas and Nike, the former one of 12 official tournament sponsors. Adidas control 22 per cent of the UK boot market. Nike have only six per cent and, having invested more than pounds 600m in football since the last World Cup, do not care to be cast as also-rans, which is why they are rumoured to have budgeted pounds 20m in a bid to make their name the one audiences remember. They employed a similar strategy for the Atlanta Olympics, where saturation advertising and exploitation of star names largely eclipsed the official sponsors. This summer, Nike will pump Ronaldo's soaring stock for all it is worth.

Nike play down the image of ruthless commercial warfare. "Listen, we do not own Brazil, we are their kit supplier," their spokesman, Graham Anderson, said. "Why do people assume we are up to something sinister? If we are taking a higher profile it is because we now have a boot we can say is the best on the market. Ronaldo helped us develop it. Naturally, the best thing for us would be if Brazil won the World Cup but the perception of us as some dark force is absurd."