There are few areas where you find as many mavericks and rebels as in sports. The best athletes in the world often have a knack for being different. That’s part of what makes them the best.
But even among this different breed, one athlete stands out.
The Defiant Moment
At the 74 World Cup final, all players were wearing Adidas uniforms. All except one. Johan Cruyff refused to wear a kit with three stripes. It might be the most prominent example of player marketing power in history. It was a move that risked his whole career and ultimately changed how the sports industry works today.
Welcome to Athletic Interest and the story of Johan Cruyff. Our story begins in Amsterdam, at the Johan Cruyff Arena. There is a good reason for its name. Johan Cruyff was born just a few miles from here and became the most celebrated Dutch footballer ever.
Football Revolution: Total Football
He led the great Ajax and Dutch teams of the ’70s; he invented the so-called ‘Total Football.’ In 73, he joined Barcelona for a world-record transfer fee. He won La Liga in his first season and was named European Footballer of the Year. And then came the World Cup.
Maverick in Kit Choices
Cruyff had always been a football kit maverick. He chose to wear the number 14 whenever possible, although wearing any number outside of 1-11 was very unusual back then. But his famous two-striped shirt at the World Cup might be the most memorable commercial dispute in football history.
Clash of Brands: Adidas vs. Puma
The 74 World Cup final between the Netherlands and Germany was not just a clash of opposing football philosophies. It was also the meeting of two teams wearing Adidas uniforms: two teams, minus one stubborn Dutchman.
Cruyff had removed one stripe from his shirt, and Adidas was unhappy about it. The brand had signed its first kit deal with the Dutch FA before the tournament. However, Cruyff had an exclusive contract with Puma. And he refused to wear Adidas.
Power Play: The Third Stripe Saga
He argued that while the kit may belong to the Dutch FA, its head sticking out is still his. Take a moment to think about how bold this is. Imagine Messi refusing to wear a Barcelona shirt and stitching three stripes. From today’s standard, it seems ridiculous.
Puma's Delight and Cruyff's Savvy
Puma loved it. And they capitalized on it. They said Cruyff hated Adidas and chose Puma because it was in his DNA…and not because of money. ‘The rebel brand and the rebel player.’ It shows how considerate and business-savvy Cruyff was already back then.
Peak of Power and Influence
In the four years leading to the World Cup, Dutch teams had won the European Cup – Ajax alone three times in a row. Add his world-record transfer to Barcelona and winning the Ballon d’Or, which means that Cruyff was at the peak of his power. And very aware of this.
Triumph of Personalization
That’s why he got his way and eventually was allowed to remove the third stripe. And ultimately, this is what it was all about. Power. Specifically, it is a battle for control between athletes, teams, and brands. It’s a battle that runs through the history of sport.
The Business of Sports Marketing
We must break down how sports marketing deals work to understand their significance. It all starts with visibility. Nothing can capture people’s attention around the globe as reliably as sports. And the athletes who play it.
At some point, savvy businessmen realized it would help their sales pitch if they could point to those athletes and say, “This guy is wearing my product.” If people see the best athletes in the world wearing it, chances are high that they want to buy the same product for themselves.
Conflicts of Interest
Ultimately, this leads to conflicts of interest. Because it raises the question of who owns all the valuable real estate that can be found at a sporting event. Are the banners at the World Cup owned by FIFA or the host city that holds the stadium?
Sporting Identity and Ownership
Is the interview wall owned by the broadcaster or also by FIFA? And what about personal stuff? Who owns the right to the shirts, shoes, and underpants? All these questions eventually need to be settled in contracts and court cases.
And since the sports industry is still comparatively young, there are some hilarious stories to tell. Everyone wants to spread a different message; some belong to Jesus, some want you to keep calm, and some ask serious questions.
Arsenal's Sleeve Directive
There’s a long-standing tradition at Arsenal that the rest of the team must replicate the choice of the captain to wear long or short-sleeved shirts. This is a directive Arsenal players have respected since the 1920s.
Flamini's Scissors and Nike's Mask
Until Mathieu Flamini decided to take a pair of scissors to his shirts, it got even more controversial when players and brands combined their forces. Like Ian Wright with this Nike-sponsored goal celebration. And what’s up with players thinking they are superheroes?
Aubameyang's Masked Celebration
In 2017, Aubameyang celebrated in a mask to promote the Nike campaign ‘The Masked Finisher.’ Dortmund bosses were furious, calling the behavior unworthy of a big corporation, and fined Aubameyang with 50,000 euros. Because Puma sponsors Dortmund…
All these disputes are just regarding shirts and masks. We didn’t even get started on shoes… we’ll save those stories for another video. But here’s a little appetizer.
Stan Bowles: The Boot Mix
Stan Bowles of the Queens Park Rangers. In 1974, Bowles had been selected for England and was ready to collect his £200 bonus from his boot supplier, Gola. However, before the game, he was approached by Adidas to wear their boots for £250. So Bowles did the only logical thing. He played with a Gola boot on one foot, an Adidas boot on the other, and £450 in his back pocket!
Cruyff's Ultimate Power Move
Even among those crazy examples, Cruyff has the ultimate power move. His two striped shirts showed how business-savvy, strong-minded, and assertive Cruyff was at his prime – but, likely, we will never see something similar again.
The fact that he was allowed to remove the stripe and Dortmund fined Aubameyang for wearing a Nike mask shows how times have changed. Back in the day, Cruyff could get away with that extra treatment. Nowadays, he wouldn’t even be allowed to leave the dressing room.
The Story Lives On-The Legacy
Although this happened almost half a century ago, the story continues today. In 2014, Adidas threatened to take legal action against Cruyff’s sportswear company unless replicas of the legendary two-striped kit were removed from its store. Cruyff answered that the two stripes belonged to him.
He later said, "Rembrandt and van Gogh weren't understood either…people go on bothering you until you're a genius."