There was a time, perhaps, when the term "sponsor" was either misunderstood or mistrusted. Now the commercial partners have become part of the modern sports landscape. And the World Cup has helped lead the way.
Looking back at films or photographs from the World Cup finals of the 1960s or even the 197s, not to mention earlier, we are often struck by a subconscious feeling of something vastly different from today. Of course we realise that the players have changed their boots and hairstyles, but there is a noticeable difference about the stadium itself. The turf has always been green, and the pitch markings haven't changed, but there is something else, not essential to the game itself, that is missing...
A certain peak of perfection
The colourful panels that have become part and parcel of the modern World Cup stadium scenery were not there behind the goal-line as Geoff Hurst scored his Wembley hat-trick or as Gerd Müller grabbed the winner in Munich. They were there somewhere, rather haphazardly, in Mexico in 1970 as Pelé crowned his glorious career, but the smart, ordered appearance of today's stadia was still a few years away.
It is, however, only the most visible manifestation of a development within the field of World Cup corporate sponsorship that has steadily grown in significance over the past two decades, and which by now has reached a certain peak of perfection.
The story cannot be told, however briefly, without mentioning the first dabble at football sponsorship at the very first recorded attempt to organise a World Cup. That was as early as 1910 already, when the millionaire Sir Thomas Lipton, founder of the tea company bearing his name, funded the Lipton World Football Trophy in Turin, in which the English amateurs from West Auckland beat Juventus 2-0 in the final.
But the Lipton World Cup was quickly forgotten. When Jules Rimet introduced the World Cup in the late 1920s, no doubt the concept of sponsorship was the furthest thing from his mind; there is certainly no trace in the records of any thought being given to raising funds to pay for the new venture. Despite the shaky finances on which the inaugural event in 1930 was organised, the prevailing Olympic mentality almost certainly excluded the very notion of accepting (let alone seeking) commercial backing, even though there were several examples at that time of local sponsorship in football in England and elsewhere.
The initiative of Adi Dassler
The closest that anyone came, apparently, to sponsorship in 1930 was Romania, whose King Carol personally gave his royal patronage to the national team, going so far even as to picking the team himself....
One of the first inklings of commercial involvement in sport came not at the World Cup but at the 1936 Olympics, when Adi Dassler, founder of the adidas company, encouraged track athletes to wear his newly designed shoes with the characteristic three stripes - a ploy that the same company used with the West German team when they won the first of their three World Cups in Berne in 1954. But the offer seems to have been due as much to genuine enthusiasm to help the players themselves as it was to promotional genius.
The 1966 World Cup accounts make a single mention of publicity but only inasmuch as the boards improperly installed at the Sheffield venue annoyed FIFA's television partners in an early example of pirate publicity. But at least that year's finals broke new ground with the introduction of an official mascot : World Cup Willy became not only the first but probably also the most enduring and, it is sometimes claimed, the most endearing of all World Cup mascots. His successors may have progressively earned more dollars for their copyright guardians, but Willy was a graphic creation ahead of his time.
The accounts for 1970 record an income of USD. 1.5 million for the advertising that sprouted on the steeply banked terraces of the Azteca Stadium in Mexico City in a rather haphazard manner, partly because the organisers did not remove those that were already there. These days, World Cup stadiums have to be stripped bare of all commercial signage several days before the tournament begins, to ensure total exclusivity for the official sponsors' publicity.
The 1974 World Cup in Germany saw the first concerted effort to use its commercial potential. Although the perimeter advertising was still barely visible because it was so distant from the field of play, the space was marketed systematically by the Sport TV company and generated a major new source of revenue for FIFA : the contract was worth 20 million Deutschmark.
The end of tobacco sponsorship
The progress continued in Argentina in 1978, with the West Nally company as co-ordinators and Coca-Cola making a debut as a major player. But it was only in 1982 that the big leap was taken into the modern era of sports marketing, with West Nally again leading the way before being replaced, a few months before the finals in Spain. The group of sponsors then already contained several still present today : Coca-Cola, Gillette, Canon, Fuji Film, JVC. The Fiat truck division, Iveco, was the only European partner to share the American-Japanese awareness of television's unique capacity to bring an event to what the marketing people were keen to call "The Global Village" : a worldwide market for worldwide brands, accessible through World Cup advertising.
FIFA's new marketing partner, ISL, was created by adidas chief Horst Dassler after Spain 82, and immediately planned longer-term co-operation with the world body for a group of corporate supporters wishing to be associated with world football as a whole. The change of the 1986 venue from Colombia to Mexico did nothing to disrupt this new approach, even though the presence of Camel cigarettes was a contentious issue. The Mexican authorities agreed to make an exceptional ruling to permit the otherwise banned tobacco publicity, but the incident marked the end of tobacco sponsorship of any FIFA events.
A new agreement concluded between FIFA and ISL in 1987, covering the next three editions of the World Cup, formed part of President Havelange's determination to assure FIFA's longer-term financial security, simultaneously providing ISL with the basis for a more coherent marketing programme on behalf of FIFA and its major competition.
The group of sponsors has remained remarkably stable ever since, with only occasional modifications for specific reasons - such as the inclusion of Alfa Romeo in 1990 on home soil in Italy, an essential recognition of the domestic automobile industry's political significance.
As the marketing programme has grown in sophistication, the most visible element has tended, interestingly enough, to have receded slightly in relative importance. While the advertising boards are still the single most valuable element in a package which brings corporate names and images to an estimated minimum TV audience of 37 billion viewers for this year's finals, other privileges of the official sponsors have gained in appeal : above all, the exclusive association with the event itself in an increasingly competitive sponsorship market, and the opportunity to offer corporate hospitality at the event.
The future is assured
Not surprisingly, the success of the World Cup marketing programme has not been problem-free, in with unauthorised competitors seeking to undermine the position of the official partners by so-called ambush marketing, implying an association with the event or with FIFA that they do not have. Together with ISL, FIFA is deploying ever greater efforts to protect its partners' rights, not least in order to ensure the long-term viability of the sponsorship programme concept.
With a new agreement concluded between FIFA and ISL for the 2002 and 2006 finals, the future of that programme is assured. Nobody would claim that the World Cup could not take place without the sponsors - but it would be a World Cup of inferior quality, deprived of the financial and logistical support that they bring. For FIFA, the future means above all continuing to maintain the delicate balance between satisfying the demands of its corporate partners and preserving the dignity and the true character of the sport - a character which was largely responsible for attracting the corporate interest in the first place, many years ago.