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Marketing Decides Who Wins the World Cup


There I was. I had settled myself on the sofa, a drink in hand, and a potentially great game ready to start. All I had to do is sit through tons of advertising and from that point on my mind could ‘ease away’ from my job. No more marketing for a bit. Just football.

After weeks of tension built up it has finally started: the World Cup Football in Brasil. The almost four weeks of top football, the best players in the world and the best nations competing for the highest price possible in this sport had begun.

Off course I already knew I wouldn’t be able to escape the marketing aspect. Football is surrounded by marketing and advertising. I had already seen, some brilliant, but mostly stupid, marketing efforts to make the most out of the World Cup. But I tried hard not to look at the games itself from the marketing perspective.

Now it was time for just football. Not marketing.

Until the 70th minute of Brasil vs Croatia.

In that minute I saw the Brasilian Fred go down in the penalty area. He fell like a true actor in a war-movie. Arms in the air, a scream as if he was just shot in the back by the enemy that had snuck up to him.


Fred earned a penalty, which almost everyone except for the Brasilians believed was not deserved. Neymar consequently decided the match. But from that point on marketing was back on my mind, inside the game.

Because marketing had decided the game

Wait, what you say? Marketing had decided the game? Not Neymar? Not the referee? Not the Croatian player who ‘fouled’ Fred? Not Fred?

No. Marketing had.

Ok. It’s a bold statement. But when watching the Brasil game and then watching some other games in the World Cup I started to realize that the referee mistakes I saw were just a part of the deal, part of something much bigger.

Off course, we have seen mistakes from referees throughout history that had influenced the game. From a goal which shouldn’t have been a goal in the 1966 World Cup final to a ‘hand of God’ handball in 1986 and an Italian team that seem to not be allowed to beat a South Korean team in 2002. All referee mistakes that just exist in football but that at that time were decisive for the game.


(Image Sports Illustrated)

Those referees didn’t make those mistakes because of marketing. It wasn’t as if they had seen a commercial with a subliminal message before the game telling them to favor one or the other team.

But looking at the World Cup in 2014, 48 years after Geoff Hurst, 28 years after Maradona, I realized that, even though not directly but indirectly, marketing decides who wins the World Cup.

Let me tell you how.

The referee

Let’s start with the referees. As said, referees aren’t being manipulated from the outside through marketing directly. Who knows what goes on in the shady world of backrooms in the FIFA headquarters, but that is not what I’m talking about here.

I am talking about indirect influence. I’ll explain in a bit, but first let’s ask some experts. The marketing experts I asked mostly also have a feel for the game and they all believe that a referee in essence is not directly influenced by marketing:

Lee Odden of Toprank Marketing says:

“Referees are (supposed to be) professionals and accustomed to the excitement and behaviors of the crowd and immune to the influences of pre-game marketing. If a referee was actually affected by pregame marketing then I think that’s an issue of referee integrity more than being able to count on marketing to affect the result of a game.“

Dennis Goedegebuure of Airbnb also believes a referee isn’t directly influenced:

“I don’t think referees would get influenced by these, unless its the home team game they are responsible for. Remember, the referee still needs to be able to leave the country!”

However, there is something which might influence the referees.

Paul Madden (LinkRisk) believes modern day technology might influence the referee potentially a little bit:

“The ref now not only has to cope with the subconscious manipulation that comes from the crowd locally but also from the external influence of the online fans beyond that.”

With that he means that Social Media might influence fans in the stadium, who at their turn might influence the referee subconsciously. Madden continues:

“As the ability to gain wifi etc within stadiums increases this pressure will amplify, imagine a contentious decision like the Neymar yellow card or penalty being instantly available from any angle in HD on the phones of all the fans in the ground. They rightly prevent the big screens at grounds in the English Premiership from showing such decisions but its the small screens they cannot control. If you extrapolate that into traditional marketing we could find ourselves with opposing fans trying to seed each others fans with misinformation in an attempt to influence the atmosphere and the game.“

I agree with the above marketing experts that there is not a direct link to the referee when it comes to influence. However, there are definitely indirect links.

Let’s look at the circumstantial evidence.

A referee’s job has changed a lot because of the influence of marketing. In this modern day and age Football isn’t a game anymore, it’s a business. Which means a lot of money is involved. This also means the stakes have changed. Winning or losing means money going left or right. And not just small bits of money, lots of it.

This puts extra pressure on the referee. The decisions he makes are far more important than they were decades ago. This means they have to be a lot more stress resistant. And because they are human, chances are that at least some of them will ‘cave’ under the pressure and will make wrong decisions easier.

A wrong decision has a big influence on marketing budgets. Foul play in the end will result in less money going into the sport. Cycling is a good example of that. All the doping stories have lead to a huge decline of sponsorship money (which comes from marketing budgets) into the sport. If Football would be influenced too much by these mistakes, it would hurt the wallet of all those involved.

And this World Cup you can see the result of that, not just on a human level, but mostly on a technology level. In the France – Honduras game for the first time ever we saw that a referee decided on a goal for France based on technology. The goal line technology system said the ball had passed the line, so a goal was given. Something which might just have changed the game in 1966 if that would’ve been around.

A much simpler example is the little can with white spray that referees now carry. When they award a free kick near the penalty area they spray where the ball should be placed and they spray a line, which the players defending the free kick have to stay behind. The spray disappears after a while. The use of the spray resulted in some hilarious moments, but it does indeed help.


These two technology influences make cheating more difficult. And even though some might say it is part of the charm of the game to put the ball a foot more towards the goal or to take one step forward as a defender, it influences the game.

The fact that we are using these technologies is because of the marketing aspect. Since money has become so important and the marketing budgets of companies like Nike and Adidas are essential, FIFA has decided to implement these technologies. Without marketing, they might not have been there.

The players

The marketing budgets of Nike, Coca Cola and all the other companies, have another big influence on the game. Amongst others they influence the players.

And again, even though there is a lot of rumor about fixed games, that is not what I am talking about.

Although the players are paid well by their teams (at least the top players are), the most money they make is from sponsorship deals. Wearing a specific brand shoe, doing commercials and whatever more. This off course has a big influence on the players themselves. The more commercial they are, the more interesting they will also be for bigger clubs, the bigger club they play at, the higher the chance they will be part of a World Cup squad.

David Beckham’s signing at Paris Saint Germain several years ago raised some eyebrows, such an old player, what could he bring the Parisians? But the investment was pretty safe. Because the club knew that signing Beckham would mean they would sell a lot more team shirts. Which would pay for the transfer. Not just by selling the kits, also because the sponsor name on the kit with that transfer became much more valuable.

The players who play in a higher team and are worth more money are becoming more ‘objects’ and less players. This will definitely influence their game. Or even their ego as Dennis Goedegebuure points out:

“In this day and age, every star player in great teams who would have a shot at the World Cup have a giant ego, and hence giant advertisement contracts. The further they get, the more they will make in the next years. In this way, marketing budgets could give players their extra “Kwan” (Jerry Maguire quote).”


The Jerry Maguire analogy he makes is spot on. A player has to be in the big leagues to make the money. Which means being picked for the World Cup squad of your country is becoming more important and chances of that increase. But it also influences the behavior of players.

Take a look at the Brasilian player Marcelo. He scored an own goal against Croatia. Now don’t get me wrong, I am not saying he scored that goal because of marketing J. But Marcelo is a left back. He’s a good player, playing for Madrid, but the ‘older’ generation will realize that 20 or 30 years ago the players on the left back position were usually not the stars of the team. Marcelo however is one of those stars. Because of his personality. He is a ‘character’ and that shows both on and off the pitch. He definitely knows when a camera is pointed at him and he will act on that. He has become an actor, because he knows that the attention will bring him more money, more influence and even more playing time in the end.


Image source

The coach

Now this is a long shot, but it does seem as if marketing can play a role in deciding who plays. A coach will never admit this, also because he probably doesn’t feel it’s true. But a coach is influenced by marketing to play or not play certain players.

This is related to what I wrote above. Some players are ‘major league’ when it comes to sponsorships. In some cases this will make the players bigger than they are. A coach might subconsciously be influenced by the public opinion that certain players should play. And the public opinion as we all know is influenced a lot by who or what is visible. So the more visible a player is, the more the public opinion will want a player to play, the more a coach could be influenced.


There are examples in the past of coaches ‘caving’ for the opinion of others and putting a player on he otherwise might have ignored. Our very own Dutch star Wesley Sneijder once got in the team after a lot of pressure like that when he debuted 10 years ago and these days some players become stars much quicker and become internationals much quicker because of that. As soon as a brand ‘embraces’ a player his chances on playing in the World Cup increase.

The fans

Finally there are the fans. Us, the people at home and in the stadium. We are just a gullible group of people really. We rely on the information being given to us and we form our opinions based on that. In some cases based on marketing.

But our influence could be a lot bigger than we suspect, because we influence all of the above.

Lee Odden thinks there might be a small chance that fans can influence the referee:

“I think that marketing programs can be implemented that crowd source fan participation and involvement in behaviors during a game that could certainly add pressure to the opposing team and the referees. I believe Greece tried to do this with a fan crowd sourced chant. Whether singing such a chant could affect players and referees remains to be seen.“

And Paul Madden says:

“As the ability to gain wifi etcetera within stadiums increases this pressure will amplify, imagine a contentious decision like the Neymar yellow card or penalty being instantly available from any angle in HD on the phones of all the fans in the ground. They rightly prevent the big screens at grounds in the English Premiership from showing such decisions but it’s the small screens they cannot control. If you extrapolate that into traditional marketing we could find ourselves with opposing fans trying to seed each others fans with misinformation in an attempt to influence the atmosphere and the game.”

The atmosphere in the stadium can definitely put pressure on a referee. And as we said before, it shouldn’t, but they are human after all, so it might just happen.

The home advantage therefor could play a big role. The before mentioned South Koreans definitely seemed to have home advantage in 2002 and in 1978 Argentina seemed to have that advantage as well as Dennis Goedegebuure tells us:

“A home game advantage can be massive. Look at the WC 78, held in Argentina. There was simply no way the Dutch team could get away with winning from Argentina in their home country. The pressure on the fans, the team of Argentina and the visiting team trying to make it out alive, could have a huge impact on how people will play the game of soccer.”

Then again, looking at the results, since 1978 only one home team won the tournament (France in 1998). In total of the 19 World Cups played, 6 winners were the hosts, including the first two World Cups which was a lot smaller tournament than these days. So how big is the influence of the fans really?

Danny Sullivan, founding editor of Searchengineland says:

“I suppose marketing might help, but I’d also say it’s not guaranteed. There are plenty of sport examples where out-of-town teams have gone in to a “hostile” environment and perhaps without much home town support yet still have won.”

Whereas Paul Madden continues:

“In times gone by it has always been known that the home team gets a small advantage by the weight of feeling and atmosphere generated by the home fans, nowadays the passion and atmosphere exhibited by the fans is also influenced by the outside opinions of those not at the game via social media and traditional media.“

Fans create atmosphere and atmosphere influences the game. Not just the referees, but the players as well. A home team can get a boost from fans cheering or booing, whereas some teams will feel too much pressure from playing in front of a crowd which expects them to win.

Brazil v Spain: Final - FIFA Confederations Cup Brazil 2013

But the most important influence the fans have doesn’t lie within the stadium. It lies outside. These days Social Media plays a big role. And through Social Media we influence each other and maybe even indirectly we influence referees and players who know that their performance is being judged in real time.

But more importantly. The fans are the ones who are being targeted by advertisers to spend money. So they are the ones who in the end make that players make the big bucks they make and they are the ones who influence the public opinion.

In the end the fans are the target audience for the brands involved in the World Cup. They pay for everything in the end. So they decide, subconsciously by spending money, who gets the most money.

And the one with the most money has the most chance on winning.

Marketing decides influences who wins

So, marketing decides who wins the World Cup. Maybe not directly, but indirectly there at least is a big influence of marketing on the winner. As Dave Naylor of Bronco says:

“Yer sure it does , In today’s society people love to think they are different but in our hearts we all want to apart of the norm and no wants to be in the minority.”

Then again. In the end it’s still a game. Who would have predicted the 5-1 victory of The Netherlands over Spain? Was it really marketing that made Switzerland beat Ecuador in the final seconds of the game? And wasn’t it Messi’s brilliance helping Argentina win their first game?

Maybe there is some room for some nuance.

Our very own Gianluca Fiorelli, Italian Web Marketing Strategist, puts it in perspective:

“In Italy we are used to say something like “The ball is rounded”, meaning with that that football has something that makes it unpredictable, as when Denmark won the European Cup in 1992. And I think that we believe overly too much in the power of marketing in every aspect of life. 


It’s true that we could find a correlation between the level of stress marketing campaigns and fans exigencies can cause on football players, hence on their performances, but from there saying that a campaign can influence the result of a match is too much (apart corrupted marketing, like bribing). “The ball is rounded” and Fate may influence football much more than marketing.“

In the end I think you can say that marketing definitely has a big role in the game. Whether or not it’s a decisive role is debatable. But we can definitely see that marketing has changed the game. And that it’s a big part of the game.

I think you can safely say that marketing influences the game, and with that maybe the result. But in the end it’s the ball crossing the goal line or not which decides the game.

What do you think?

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Bas van den Beld is an award winning Digital Marketing consultant, trainer and speaker. He is the founder of State of Digital and helps companies develop solid marketing strategies.