From Best to branding to billionaires

Back in the Swinging Sixties, ‘Gorgeous’ George Best enjoyed good looks and a playboy lifestyle. He advertised Fore aftershave, and, in his own words, “spent a lot of money on booze, birds [women] and fast cars – the rest I just squandered".

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In 1968, he made history by becoming the first football player to earn £1,000 a week. One estimate puts his value in today’s market at £250 million, comparable to Maradona and above Ronaldo and Bale.

Former player/manager Kevin Keegan and boxing champ Henry Cooper joined forces in this early Seventies ad for Brut 33, “the deodorant with muscle”.

Fast forward to the new millennium, and one sports writer recalls: “I went to Alexandria, Egypt, in 2009. It’s a major city with a 10 km coastline stretch. That stretch was plastered with billboards of Cristiano Ronaldo in a T-shirt, advertising a deodorant. All I could think was, How much must he have been paid for that, for crying out loud?!”

Ah, but does he remember the name of the deodorant?


(Original image by Getty for CR7)

These days, Ronaldo advertises his own CR7 range of… practically everything, really, including deodorant. He’s just become the world’s first and only footballer billionaire.

He’s also the guy whose name got called out first in a straw poll at a Spanish bar for favourite footballer off-pitch. “Cristiano!” yelled a teenage delivery rider, with older punters nodding agreement. Why? Because apart from his sporting skills, he’s always been a giving person who contributes to multiple causes and helps individuals without making a song and dance about it.

So yes, he smells pretty good, despite the unpleasant whiff from that tangle with Spanish tax authorities which also affected Neymar and another top favourite, Lionel Messi.

Many would argue that Messi’s iconic personal brand was tainted by this 2018 Mastercard campaign promising to deliver 10k meals to Latin American children in need for every goal he or Neymar scored. But is that justified? “Messi signed up for it so he must have been all right with it,” says a lawyer, with strong practical sense. “It may seem distasteful to our western sensibilities, but what company gives away money with no ROI? Messi’s an icon in Argentina, he probably just wanted to see some money go back to kids in his own country. Hungry children won’t care who signed which contract.”

Did Mastercard redeem itself with this amusing 2019 effort around good neighbourly behaviour, featuring Messi, Neymar and several other sporting personalities?

There are plenty of people who see the monetisation of inspiring behaviour or generosity as cynical manipulation of the multi-billion-dollar industry: It keeps the money tide high but doesn’t really change anything in society for the better.

Sometimes there's an individual move - often by a young player - that cuts through the crap in such as way as to make us see the bigger picture, like when (then) 19-year-old Kylian Mbappé (left and top picture) gave his 2018 World Cup earnings to charity.

"He's young but such a tremendous influence in modern football," says a student the same age as the PSG player. "He's hard-working, resilient, he's stolen the hearts of all of us who love the game."

Looking good while doing good

With their tax affairs arousing as much interest as the US president’s, and their socio-political pronouncements perhaps even more, footballers have transcended that rare double-whammy of mass target markets who both want to look at them and look like them, to reach demographics who want to be like them. Or be governed by them: in the 2018 Egyptian elections, so many people wrote the name of Egypt's star national player Mo Saleh on ballot papers that he would have come second if he'd been an official candidate.

Player-turned-broadcaster Gary Lineker, renowned for his Walker’s Crisps ads, got behind this Big Issue campaign last year, and recently hit headlines by offering a home to a refugee, stirring criticism of his humanitarian leanings for this ‘Britain wouldn’t be Britain without fish and chips’ campaign for the International Rescue Committee.

Many of the top-earning players have their own foundations as well as being cultural role models and swinging enormous commercial weight. They often like to get personally involved in campaigns, making it hard to distinguish between genuine do-gooding and a bit of occasional image repair or just branding.

“The players are well-intentioned, sure,” says a respondent. “The African players, particularly, know where they’re coming from, but at the end of the day, nothing really changes, it’s cosmetic.

The agents are more guilty than the players, in my opinion. It’s the system. It’s very Victorian. Wealthy industrialists building workhouses out of profits.”

A fine body of work

There can’t be much David Beckham hasn’t sold, from luxury real estate to H&M underwear, but he’s also renowned for his promotion of good causes. This 2019 anti-malaria campaign saw Becks teaming up with artificial intelligence (AI) techniques to ‘speak’ nine languages.

As a UNICEF brand ambassador, the father-of-four put his tattoos to good use to raise awareness of violence against children in this campaign.

Real Madrid and Spanish national captain Sergio Ramos was stripped of his 40+ inkings last year in this eye-catching effort for Budweiser, while tatt-free Ronaldo explains that he avoids the needle because he donates blood regularly.

“Success is a blend”

Favourite football ad suggestions show that teamwork, humour, and fast-paced action rank high, as in Nike’s Secret Tournament classic, Adidas’ Create the Answer, and bwin’s ‘Who Stole the Cup?’, in which even Maradona takes a hand.

Most recently, we enjoyed BT shaking and stirring Carlo Ancelotti, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Marcus Rashford, Gareth Bale, Rio Ferdinand and Jamie Vardy when they hear about 'Unlimited subs', in a welcome return to humorous ads after the disruptions of COVID-19.

So when all’s said and done, maybe it’s just that ‘success is a blend’, as Man U players illustrate in this not uncontroversial Chivas whisky ad.

Nothing wrong with footballers being featured in all kinds of advertising as all things to all people. Right?