Nike’s latest World Cup ad is a predictably grand production. The Footballverse, they call it. A scientific quest in a Swiss laboratory to decide once and for all who can be considered the greatest of all time.
All of Nike’s greatest hits – past and present – are there in a stylish film spanning four minutes. The original Ronaldo and Ronaldinho are brought back from their prime to compete with modern-day greats Kylian Mbappe and Cristiano Ronaldo, before Virgil van Dijk, Kevin de Bruyne, Alex Morgan, Leah Williamson, Carli Lloyd and Sam Kerr are all teleported into a disorderly kick .
Conspicuous by his absence, however, is one of the World Cup’s biggest Nike athletes.
Vinicius Jr., Brazil’s pride striker and emerging force, is nowhere to be seen in the BOK experiment. Not even for a cameo, like the one given to Phil Foden in a distant cafe.
The new Nike World Cup ad has dropped and it’s a work of art 😍 pic.twitter.com/mUpgiW5aDV
— World Cup Updates (@wc22updates) November 16, 2022
Vinicius was also an unusual omission from Brazil’s pre-World Cup kit launch. Rodrygo, Richarlison and Allison all modeled the Nike shirts in promotional videos released in August, but not Vinicius, a forward who won the Champions League final with Real Madrid in May.
However, there is no longer a happy union between Vinicius and Nike. Far from it. As first reported by Brazilian outlet UOL this week, the 22-year-old has begun legal action ahead of the World Cup to end a sponsorship deal with the sportswear firm that would run until 2028.
There is said to be no turning back for Vinicius, who refused to discuss his strained relationship with Nike when he appeared in front of the media on Wednesday to watch Brazil’s World Cup quarter-final against Croatia. The forward believes that he has not been given the necessary prominence in Nike’s commercial activities and sees a bigger future with another brand.
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Adidas and Puma are both reported to have shown an interest in adding Vinicius to their own stable of elite footballers if a separation agreement can be reached over the coming months. Both would have him in a heartbeat.
It’s an awkward predicament for Nike, the longtime kit suppliers to Brazil’s national team. One of world football’s rising stars wants to break an association that dates back to when he was a 13-year-old in Flamengo’s youth ranks.
That Vinicius is currently choosing to wear an outdated range of Nike’s boots, as opposed to the Mercurial XV, only highlights the bad feeling simmering at a tournament Brazil are favorites to win.
“Nike will not want to lose Vinicius,” said Ehsen Shah, founder and CEO of sports marketing agency B-Engaged. “One because he is in the Brazil team and two because you want the biggest names in an Adidas team, like Real Madrid.
“If you go back a few years, it was Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar, Gareth Bale and Luca Modric. They were the five that everyone would talk about as the elite level players.
“Vinicius will be part of that next group with Kylian Mbappe, Erling Haaland, those types of guys. We see Phil Foden get recognition, Jude Bellingham too. There is a young group of players coming through who will be the big names for the next generation.”
This World Cup effectively represents a commercial changing of the guard. Messi and Ronaldo are both taking part in their final international tournament, while Neymar has also indicated he may not be in 2026.
In Mbappe, already a World Cup winner in 2018, Nike has the natural poster boy to fill the void of Ronaldo, but the loss of Vinicius will sting. He was supposed to be a Nike athlete for at least another six years.
Those close to Vinicius have suggested that the motivations for leaving Nike are not financial. His reasons for calling in the lawyers are instead focused on the frustrations of not seeing his profile grow.
“You have Brazil at a World Cup final, where they are one of the favourites, and they haven’t used Vinicius,” added Shah. “They went for the older Brazilian players (Ronaldo and Ronaldinho) rather than the current ones. It can be seen as a kick in the teeth. A World Cup ad, where Nike usually uses Brazil, but Vinicius is not used.
“With Brazil and Brazilian players in particular, the focus is always around World Cup tournaments. If they produce in a World Cup then it blows up immediately. That country follows their national team so religiously through a World Cup that if you perform on that stage, you’ll do so well from the back.”
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Nike did not respond to requests for comment, but has clearly chosen to put others at the top of their marketing strategies for this World Cup.
Mbappe, Cristiano Ronaldo, Van Dijk and De Bruyne are all World Cup veterans and therefore more recognizable to a global audience. The Brazilian Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Edgar Davids meanwhile bring a splash of nostalgia to the latest exciting advert. Nike has used Eric Cantona in the past for the same purpose.
“It’s very difficult to get to the top of the tree in terms of who appears in the global campaigns,” says Tim Crow, a sports marketing expert. “You need global appeal if you’re going to be showcased as a global asset. Great achievements are what generate coverage and prominence in that business.”
Vinicius is not yet considered to be at that level of global appeal, but the legal process he has started suggests he feels undervalued by Nike, which has typically had strong ties with Brazilian footballers in recent decades to their long-standing association with the national team.
Nike has already parted ways with the most famous face in this Brazil World Cup squad. Neymar was dropped by the US firm last year after he “refused to cooperate in a good faith investigation into credible allegations of wrongdoing by an employee.” Those allegations, which date back to 2016, have always been denied by Neymar, who said Nike had “betrayed” him.
Neymar is now a Puma athlete, one of seven in the current Brazil squad. Adidas meanwhile account for nine, including Raphinha, Gabriel Jesus, Gabriel Martinelli. Vinicius is one of 10 Brazil players backed by Nike but not, if legal action is successful, for much longer.
This matters because common logic has always pointed to Vinicius being world football’s next big thing. A boy wonder signed by Real Madrid as a 16-year-old for £38m in 2017, at the age of 21 he already has two La Liga titles and a Champions League winners’ medal, and is flourishing again this season.
This is a first World Cup with Brazil, but Vinicius is already a star of Tite’s flamboyant squad. He has excelled in South Korea’s last 16 matches and will once again carry his nation’s hopes when they face Croatia on Friday.
Already considered a star in South America, Vinicius brings in a host of commercial partnerships. EA Sports and Pepsi are among 10 brands that the youngster has used in marketing campaigns.
“As a brand, you would ask ‘Who is the most attractive player for us to be associated with?’ and if you can’t get the best, who’s next?” said Shah. “If you can’t get Neymar in this squad, then the next one you want is Vinicius. It would make sense why he has many commercial partnerships.”
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They see value in a player who has already built up an Instagram following of nearly 27 million. Another 16 million can be found on Facebook and Twitter.
Those numbers are small for Mbappe, who boasts 75 million followers on Instagram, not to mention fellow Nike athlete Ronaldo, unrivaled on the entire platform with 509 million.
But Nike tied Vinicius up to 2028 for a reason; he was among those considered most likely to inherit the golden thrones that had belonged to Messi and Ronaldo for so long.
Perhaps the biggest fish out there to be landed by the sportswear giants is Haaland, who has worn the boots of Adidas, Nike and Puma so far this season as a Manchester City player, but Vinicius will certainly be in demand. Especially if he is part of a Brazil squad that is reclaiming a trophy it last won in 2002 next weekend.
“Mbappe and Haaland are going to be up there with the greats of the game,” says Crow. “These are tremendous stars, but we can see from this World Cup that there is an incredible generation coming through in every country now, whether it’s Bellingham with England or a great young Brazilian team emerging.
“If Vinicius wants to get more attention, he has to let his performances speak for themselves.”
(Top photo: Manuel Reino Berengui/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)