How Nike Lost Lionel Messi
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How Nike Lost Lionel Messi

Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, the world’s most famous athletes, were both signed to Nike sponsorships. Then one got away.

Mon, Oct 17, 2022 8:54amGrey Clock 7 min

When the World Cup kicks off next month, the two biggest stars in Qatar will be Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, the players who have defined the modern era of the world’s most popular sport and together achieved a level of fame normally reserved for popes and U.S. presidents.

The rivalry between a diminutive genius from Argentina and a preening superhero from Portugal has played out over the last 15 years as a tale of opposites, right down to the most important tools of their trade: their cleats. With billions of dollars at stake, Mr. Messi wore Adidas, while Mr. Ronaldo was Nike.

But before they were on both sides of soccer’s answer to Pepsi vs. Coke, Mr. Messi and Mr. Ronaldo once played for the same team. For one brief spell before the 2006 World Cup, Nike had both of them.

Through shrewd judgment, canny timing, and a bit of dumb luck, the company had spotted the two players at the dawn of their careers and tied them both to the Swoosh. The same way Nike would later endorse Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in tennis, or LeBron James and Kevin Durant in the NBA, it had managed to secure a pair of teenage talents who could soon call themselves the greatest players of their generation—only this time it was happening in the world’s biggest sport.

Then Nike lost one.

There are competing versions of just what triggered Mr. Messi’s switch to Adidas. In the end it was a combination of factors, all linked by the single thread of a father deciding that Nike wasn’t treating his son properly. Nike didn’t respond to a request for comment, nor did the Messi family.

The account of how that happened is based on dozens of interviews with former executives at both Nike and Adidas, as well as teammates of Mr. Messi and Mr. Ronaldo, coaches, and entourages—many of whom spoke on condition of anonymity since their relationships, and occasionally their livelihoods, hinged on discretion.

Good vs. evil

The craziest part of this story was that Nike ever had either one of Mr. Messi or Mr. Ronaldo.

Until the 1990s, like most Americans, the company’s executives in Beaverton, Ore. viewed soccer as an esoteric pursuit. Then, in 1994, soccer came looking for America. The World Cup landed on U.S. shores for the first time, smashing records for attendance and ticket revenue. Two centuries after the laws of the game were first written down in a London pub, it looked as though soccer was finally establishing a foothold across the Atlantic. Nike, ranked No. 7 by sales in the world’s No. 1 sport, realised it could no longer afford to sit on the sidelines. One former Nike executive said that people at the time didn’t take the company seriously as a soccer brand.

Changing that perception was the remit of a young ad man named Jelly Helm and a few co-workers as they huddled in an office block in Oregon late in 1995. True, they knew next to nothing about soccer. But they knew a lot about selling shoes. And so they resolved to crack the soccer market by turning to the one group of pitchmen who had sold more shoes over the years than anyone else: all-star teams. “We knew if we could assemble a team of all-star footballers,” Mr. Helm said, “European kids would f—ing freak out.”

European soccer doesn’t actually have all-star teams, but it would take more than that to stop Nike.

To make its vision of a soccer all-star team a reality, the company agreed to bankroll the most expensive commercial in its history. Soon, some of the biggest names in world soccer were jumping on chartered jets and pulling on Nike cleats. In the absence of an opposing team of all-stars to play against, Nike hired the special-effects crew from Apollo 13 to create an army of undead soccer demons, with Satan as their player-manager. The ad would be called “Good vs. Evil.”

The reaction to Nike’s blockbuster ad bordered on hysterical. The spot was denounced by FIFA, banned from movie theaters in Denmark, and later honoured at the Cannes Film Festival. Within six months of the ad’s debut, Nike had inked a deal to become the official sponsor of the Brazil national team, thanks to a 10-year, $400 million contract. It was the soccer industry’s disrupter before anyone knew what “disrupter” meant.

By the early 2000s, it was safe to say that Nike’s late entry into the game had been a success. Manchester United, Brazil, FC Barcelona, and a clutch of the world’s best players were all wearing the Swoosh. Crucially, Nike also had a longstanding relationship with Portugal’s national team, which is how it became aware of a kid born on the Portuguese island of Madeira in the middle of the Atlantic.

As half of Europe vied for Mr. Ronaldo’s attention, he soon joined the one team he would stay with longer than any club. After a brief flirtation and a few dozen pairs of boots, Mr. Ronaldo partnered with Nike in 2003. By then, Mr. Messi was on board too, after moving from Rosario, Argentina to Barcelona while he was still in middle school.

Mr. Ronaldo’s relationship with Nike proved so fruitful that in 2016 he became one of just three athletes to receive a lifetime deal following Michael Jordan and LeBron James. Mr. Messi’s association with Nike—like Mr. Messi himself—was a little shorter. He was gone in three years.

The golden boy

There never was an official answer inside Nike’s Beaverton headquarters as to how Mr. Messi slipped through the net. But internally, they had a saying, one former executive remembers—a slightly cruder version of, “success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan,” this former executive said.

In this case, the problem was one father in particular. For the first couple of years, Mr. Messi’s father Jorge, a former factory worker who doubled as his son’s agent, had been perfectly content to let his boy trot around in the same Nike gear that Barçelona had always supplied. Nike was more than content: the company felt it had a star in the making.

In 2005, it produced an ad cutting together footage of kids doing tricks on the streets of Barcelona. Right at the end of the 60-second spot, a shaggy-haired teen on a dark practice field sweeps a free kick over some dummies and into the net from 25 yards. He stares straight down the lens and puts the soccer world on notice.

“Recuerda mi nombre,” he said. Remember my name. “Leo Messi.” He’s wearing Nike from head to toe.

That was the year Mr. Messi turned 18. It was also the year that anyone who was anyone in soccer learned that he could no longer be ignored as he led Argentina to the 2005 FIFA World Youth Championship, a World Cup for under-20s.

“Lionel Messi will be my successor,” proclaimed the late Argentine legend Diego Maradona, considered one of the greatest-ever soccer players. “He will be the new golden boy.”

Everyone from Barcelona to Beaverton knew that Mr. Messi’s next stage needed to be the 2006 World Cup in Germany. Nike began getting its stars in order more than a year ahead of time. It arranged a photo shoot with Mr. Messi in Barcelona and had him perform all the tricks in his repertoire, over and over, from every angle. But early the following year, Nike received a call telling them to scrap all of it.

Mr. Messi was an Adidas player now.

Nike executives couldn’t believe what they were hearing. The company had been shipping boots to him since he was 14 years old, and it sponsored the only pro club he had ever played for. If ever there was a natural candidate for a lifelong bond with the Swoosh, Mr. Messi was it.

This flew in the face of decades of soccer dominance by Adidas. The company founded by two brothers in Bavaria had ruled the sport ever since inventing the first modern soccer boot in the 1950s. It later cemented that spot by sponsoring elite clubs, top players, and the World Cup for which it has manufactured every tournament ball since 1970.

But even with all that heritage, it was never obvious that Adidas would be able to pry Mr. Messi away from such a powerful competitor. How it happened came down to a combination of factors, all linked by the single thread of Jorge Messi deciding that Nike wasn’t treating his son properly. In one telling, Adidas had stepped up its game with ever-increasing offers to the Messi camp, reaching $1 million a year, while former Nike executives remember the money men in Oregon declining to go to war over a teenager.

Another person familiar with how Nike lost Mr. Messi remembers it coming down to something a little more trivial. Leo’s father had made a seemingly innocuous request for more athletic gear, only to find that neither Nike Iberia nor Nike South America was getting back to him. That was enough to sour the relationship. Nike, this person said, let Mr. Messi get away for a few hundred bucks worth of tracksuits.

In public, the company wasn’t going down without a fight. As far as Nike was concerned, there was a deal in place for many more years to come. “Nike has got a binding agreement with Lionel Messi,” a company spokesman told reporters at the time. It was prepared to take “whatever measures necessary” to enforce it.

Jorge Messi’s reply was that the dispute would be settled “wherever it has to be settled,” he said, meaning the Spanish courts.

The only problem for Nike was that there was no contract. A legally binding agreement had never (or no longer) existed. What the company had in place with the Messi camp was more of a commitment letter, which Spanish judges ruled over the course of several months wasn’t worth the fax paper it was printed on.

On Feb. 1, 2006, Mr. Messi trotted onto the Barcelona pitch for a Copa del Rey match in a pair of Adidas F50s.

Nike consoled itself with a single detail about the one that got away: compared with Mr. Ronaldo, one former executive remembers colleagues saying internally, Mr. Messi had next to no public personality.

A handful of executives inside Adidas headquarters in Germany privately worried about the same thing. While they had acquired the rights to one of the most talented soccer players in the world, they fretted that their new pitchman might have all the charisma of a silent film star. The shy kid who had bawled for the entire flight from Argentina to Spain at age 12 was now a shy 18-year-old who barely looked like an athlete. Left to his own devices, he fed himself with pizza and Coca-Cola. His jersey billowed around him like he had borrowed it. Mr. Messi hardly knew where the Barcelona weight room was.

Adidas CEO Herbert Hainer didn’t seem worried about it. Poaching Mr. Messi from Nike was a coup so momentous that he highlighted it in the middle of the company’s earnings call that May. Top of the company’s list of recent achievements, he said—ahead of selling 15 million soccer balls and 750,000 pairs of boots—was “the signing of the world’s top-ranked footballer under 21 from Argentina…who many claim has the potential to be the next Maradona.”

This article is adapted from the book “Messi vs. Ronaldo: One Rivalry, Two GOATs, and the Era That Remade the World’s Game,” by The Wall Street Journal’s Joshua Robinson and Jonathan Clegg, to be published on Nov. 1 by Mariner Books, an imprint of HarperCollins (which, like the Journal, is owned by News Corp).


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