In the lead up to the 1966 World Cup, Umbro founder Harold Humphreys visited every participating country’s football association and offered to supply kit to them. According to Rick Banks’ Football Type book (CR Oct 13) all but the USSR accepted his offer. However, the deal may well have passed supporters by: photos from the time reveal that although Umbro might have made the kit, players’ shirts remained free of any branding.
In fact it wasn’t until the 1974 tournament, in the then West Germany, that overt branding appeared on national team shirts (and balls, see p30) in the finals. The Dutch team’s vibrant orange shirts sported the three stripes of Adidas (two in the case of Johann Cruyff so as not to conflict with his Puma boot deal), though their opponents in the final, West Germany, remained logo-free despite being Adidas’s home country.
England’s FA first allowed a logo to trespass upon the pristine white of the national team jersey in a controversial deal with Admiral signed in 1974, the upshot of which was the first commercially available official replica England kit. Suffice to say, things have moved on apace since. Nike’s plans for the 2014 World Cup, for example, are a far cry from Harold Humphreys’ road trip. As soon as the world’s last great multinational sporting event finished – the 2012 Olympics – Nike’s Martin Lotti was switched over to lead the company’s design activities for Brazil 2014.
Lotti had been Nike’s global creative director for the London Olympics. There he was responsible for a classic piece of ambush marketing. All 3,000 Nike athletes were kitted out in the company’s neon green Volt range of shoes. And they were impossible to miss.
It was, he says now, “A very deliberate act. Since we were not Olympic sponsors, we had a limited amount of tools in terms of what we could do so the product itself had to do the talking.” And talk it did with news outlets rapidly picking up on the plan. According to Lotti, the shoes were deliberately designed using “the most visible colour to the eye” taking into account the backgrounds against which the shoes would be seen. There was also an emotional argument for choosing the colour: “We had [US athlete] Allyson Felix wearing a speed suit, and saying that not only did it make her physically faster but that she felt faster too – [that was] due to the colour-blocking of the suit. The fastest moving parts of the body are your lower legs and your forearms which move twice as fast as the rest of the body, so we colour block those areas which creates a psychological effect.”
“I would say that a good Nike product has performance, style, soul and sustainability,” Lotti states. This combination is the goal for all the products his team has been creating for the World Cup. Lotti is vice president and global creative director of Nike Football which, to many, would sound like a dream job. For Swiss-born Lotti it’s the culmination of 17 years at Nike, following a degree in industrial design. He began as a shoe designer at the company before heading up Nike’s women’s training division and then the London Olympics activities. Now he works with a footwear design team based in Portland and an apparel team in Amsterdam, both of which are composed of a variety of nationalities. “I don’t see it as a job at all, I love what I do and hopefully that comes out in the products,” Lotti says.
One of the more outrageous ideas Lotti and team have come up with for Brazil is the Magista, the new boot that Nike-sponsored players will be wearing. Its somewhat bizarre design is based on insight from Nike’s players. “We will not start a project without the input of the athlete,” Lotti says. “There won’t be a meeting with [founder of Nike] Phil Knight where he won’t remind you to listen to the voice of the athlete. It makes the job of designing much easier. A lot of people believe we are just using athletes as advertising billboards – yes of course we are, but the more important part is to get insights from them and know what to do better.”
When his team asked players what their ideal boot would be, Lotti says, they asked for socks with studs: that’s pretty much what the Magista is.
“It was truly a fun project – to create not just a shoe but an extension of the body,” he says. Players pull on the boot just like a sock. Like the Volt range, the Magista is made using Nike’s Flyknit technology which creates the upper as a single piece. “Flyknit is a designer’s dream because you can design it down to the millimetre,” Lotti says. “A normal shoe is almost like a puzzle piece where you cut it out and everything that’s left becomes waste. Then you have to stitch it together, or glue it together.” Flyknit makes the whole shoe in one. “Where you need stretch you can design stretch, where you need support, you can bring in support, all manufactured as one piece,” Lotti explains. “It goes literally from thread to the shoe, there is no translation. There’s a true athlete benefit to that [because of the fit] but there’s a sustainability benefit too [due to the lack of waste].” The boots are made from recycled plastic water bottles – Nike claims to have used 2 billion such bottles since the introduction of this technology, bottles which would otherwise have ended up in landfill, it says.
The kits that Nike-sponsored national teams will be wearing in Brazil are also made using material derived from recycled plastic bottles. Like the Magista, Lotti says their design was influenced by the players, who wanted an emphasis on the crest of their country. “They were holding the crest saying ‘this is what I’m fighting for’, so the goal was to keep everything else really simple, while the crest is ornate,” he states.
This and the other features which Nike hopes will help its players perform at their best in Brazil were somewhat overshadowed at the time of our conversation by the price of the new England kit. Earlier that day, ‘£90 England shirt’ had been one of the top trending terms on Twitter and politicians and press soon got involved in the ensuing row. Lotti points out that the company has been offering two grades of replica shirt for some years – a ‘match’ version that is exactly what the players wear and a cheaper ‘stadium’ version cut to accommodate the average fan. The ‘match’ version is produced in very small numbers with most shops only stocking the £60 ‘stadium’ shirt. Nonetheless, it feels like a considerable own goal for Nike as the next day’s papers were to prove. Personally, I’d never realised that the £60 shirt wasn’t the one worn by the players; if it doesn’t have that authenticity, what’s the point of buying it above a regular T-shirt many parents might wonder? Lotti draws a parallel with the boot range where there are premium models as worn by the players and cheaper ones for the rest of us, but I’m not sure that’s quite the same thing.
One other area where Nike products (and those of its competitors) have been drawn into controversy in previous tournaments is in the way in which boots have become ever-lighter, offering scant protection to players whose opponents are now far heavier, faster and more muscular than in years gone by. England fans will remember the drama over (Nike-wearing) Wayne Rooney’s metatarsal injury in 2006 when his whole tournament was put in doubt. Surely it’s a risk making boots so light?
“It’s not ‘lightweight’, it’s ‘rightweight’ that we go after,” Lotti claims, admitting that there is a balance to be struck between the demands of the players for greater feel and ensuring those valuable bones are protected. “Just to make something light is extremely simple – you just remove things – but you still need to deliver fit, touch and traction. In the Magista, we were not chasing weight.” Instead, he says, the focus was on those three key attributes. “The fit was from using Flyknit, for touch we applied an ACC [All Conditions Control] skin over the Flyknit which means you always have the same ball to foot contact no matter what the conditions and which prevents the foot getting wet, and for traction we have a new stud pattern.”
Nevertheless, you suspect that each time a Nike-sponsored player goes into a crunching tackle or takes a shot in Brazil, Lotti and his team will be holding their breath. Surprisingly, Lotti says that their players can choose whichever boot they want to wear at the tournament, so even though there will be a big marketing push around the Magista, he still doesn’t know how many players will choose to wear it. For his sake, I hope it’s not the one whose standing foot gives way just as he’s taking a penalty to win the tournament.