“Global sports are, somehow, containers of hope,” says Miguel Viana, the Lisbon designer who, while working at Brandia Central, designed the Official Emblem of Russia 2018: a World Cup trophy that swirls upward, in plumed panels of gold, red, blue, and black. Four-pointed stars twinkle in rounded blue portions of the trophy, symbolizing Russia’s achievements in space exploration. Other pieces reference the Red Square’s Saint Basil’s Cathedral. This can all be seen plainly in the logo, which isn’t a subtle piece of work. It can also be read about in the press release FIFA issued in 2014, after unveiling the logo with a light projection splashed across the entire facade of the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow.
However, Viana can’t talk about any of it, beyond acknowledging that, yes, he was the creative director. “It’s part of the contract we have with FIFA,” says Viana, who has since gone on to found Un—lock branding studio. “It’s not possible to talk.” FIFA representatives also declined to talk, citing a tight schedule. In lieu of that, the international soccer organization offered a 10-page media background document on the brand elements, pointing out ways the “magic ball” of the emblem “unites magic and dreams.”
The Official Look, an illustrated tableau with folk figurines and symbols for the 11 Russian host cities, and the posters for each of those cities, are in the document as well. As is a single page about the physical, gold-plated trophy that World Cup winners compete for: “The FIFA World Cup Trophy has become the most sought-after and recognised sports prize in the world and can be seen as a truly unique universal icon,” it reads. At the end: “As with all of FIFA’s event brand assets, the image of the FIFA World Cup Trophy is also subject to extensive intellectual property protection.”
And of course it is: FIFA earns most of its revenue from broadcast deals. In 2014, FIFA pulled in $4.8 billion in revenue; projections for the 2018 event hover around $5.6 billion. With each broadcast and ticket sale, the logo appears. The brand is an expensive one.
Tight-lipped creative directors and non-disclosure agreements abound in the design and branding world, but as recently as the mid-1990s, that wasn’t the case. Before 2002, the World Cup carried practically no traces of the FIFA brand. The quadrennial event came with posters and a tag with the year and the host country’s name. Usually, a slightly abstracted soccer ball graphic would run along with that text. Some of these rose to icon status: mid-century graphic designer Lance Wyman’s striped op art-like type work for Mexico 1970 remains a classic. The catch is that he didn’t create it for FIFA or the World Cup; the logomark riffs on Wyman’s brand for the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, contorting the same typography into a fraternal twin of a logo. “There was no overt FIFA branding in those identities and the logos,” says Andy Milligan, who at that time worked at Interbrand in London. “For many reasons at the time, that didn’t particularly matter.”
Then forces shifted: first, sportswear companies like Nike and Adidas — or perhaps almost exclusively Nike and Adidas — grew into corporate powerhouses. Through massive sponsorships, they dressed entire teams and their logos decorated stadiums. Milligan says many viewers at the time assumed that Nike or Adidas, or both, had an official hand in throwing the World Cup.
The second force was Michael Jordan. (Technically, it was American basketball as a whole. But from a branding perspective, can one really separate the two?) “By the mid-’90s the NBA had become a pretty well known global brand,” Milligan says. “And football” — soccer — “and basketball are possibly the only two sports that can be truly international, because they’re incredibly easy to play anywhere.” With the NBA gaining global recognition, fueled by the megawatt star power of Jordan and his contemporaries, soccer risked losing presence. “FIFA wanted to make sure that football remained the great world sport,” Milligan says.
So ahead of the 2002 World Cup, which Japan and South Korea co-hosted, FIFA threw its weight into becoming a globally recognized brand. The association hired Interbrand to build what Chris Lightfoot, currently the CEO of Whitestone International, calls the “the ‘FIFA World Cup Trophy’ strategy.” Onward from then, all World Cup logos would be tagged as a FIFA property, represented by a stylized twist on the shape of the physical gold trophy.
“The pivotal event in 2002…had to reflect and satisfy both co-hosts, and simultaneously engage two non-traditional football audiences,” says Lightfoot of the Asian host countries, neither of which were previously as involved in soccer or the World cup as European countries. For that logo, Lightfoot and his design team at Interbrand created an abstract swooping figure, postured like he’s doing a throw-in, inside a circle. The zeros in “2002” are an infinity sign. “The circle has been part of the Asian culture for many centuries, having symbolized the universe, the sun, the world and even life itself,” Lightfoot says. “A sector of the outer circle was deliberately left open to symbolize the route to the trophy.”
All of this, within the silhouette of the trophy. “With the Olympics you have a recognizable logo. You can’t just use those five rings — you’ve got to pay to use it. FIFA didn’t have that,” says Milligan, who has since gone on to launch his own branding agency, The Caffeine Partnership. But after 2002 it did, in the form of a protectable icon that could be reinterpreted to show off characteristics of new host countries while still retaining its shape as a copyright asset.
This approach has continued in the years since: Under Whitestone, Lightfoot and his team created the branding for 2006 World Cup in Germany, with an exceedingly goofy design: the same swooping figure from 2002, topped by three bubbling proto-Emoji cartoon faces. (Lightfoot says Franz Beckenbauer, the soccer legend and German coach at the time, wanted something radical.)
For the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, Switch branding agency created a brushstroke-like figure gearing up for a bicycle kick. Shards of orange, red, green, and black, loosely forming the shape of the African continent, are behind him. The little swooped man doing a throw-in appears again, in the corner. In an email, Switch creative director Gaby de Abreu said that a contract with FIFA prevents him from talking about the design process, but that he drew by hand all the type, “in a rock engraved style to give it an African personality.” With the overhead kick, “which is the most difficult kick to execute, and the most talked about kick if you can score a goal,” he wanted to revel in Africa’s panache on the field. After all, he points out, “the best and most skillful players from the continent play in Europe.”
The 2014 World Cup in Brazil marks a slight turning point. Like this year’s Russia mark, the logo more clearly looks like the trophy, formed from yellow and green hands reaching together to cradle, well, the trophy. The design criticism site Under Consideration links to a since-deleted FIFA press release that says the hands are an homage to an “iconic photograph.” Created by design agency Africa, the Brazil logo feels like a misfire: the hands look almost comically alien, and few markers of national pride shine through, as they did with the South Africa World Cup logo.
In this way, FIFA’s commissions from the past several years echo the design work used by the International Olympic Committee. The classic five rings aside, the Olympics these days are branded with loud, cartoonish icons. Everything feels like a play off Keith Haring. Same goes for the colorful, comic-strip-like World Cup designs. “There’s a certain amount of in-your-face potency to it,” says Mark Willis, founder of design shop Clean Sheet Co. “It’s not maximalism; it’s obvious-ism.” Willis, a soccer enthusiast, is part of what he calls an ecosystem of designers who create their own third-party posters and jerseys for the games — the kind you might buy in the parking lot. But he watches closely what FIFA presents every four years.
“FIFA has become an absolute marketing beast,” he says. Unselfconscious logos are part of that tightly coordinated branding effort. “They want to encourage the idea of whimsy or approachability, and they don’t want to seen as a cool brand as much as a fun or celebratory brand,” Willis says. Plus: “A lot of the World Cup is about bringing cultures together, especially ones that have not been at the forefront of modern conversation about branding trends.”
“If you look at the history of FIFA World Cup logos,” Lightfoot says. “They demonstrate a clear and distinctive sense of the times for which they were created.” Lightfoot said that in reference to the poster used for the 1930s World Cup was distinctly optimistic, and much-needed for the difficult time between World Wars and the Great Depression. It feels true today, too. A loudly nationalistic design that comes with a set of opaque bullet points explaining what the brand “means,” that’s the status quo from big organizations these days. There’s simply too much money at stake — and for FIFA, an organization still working through a massive corruption case, there’s simply too much scrutiny to fear.
Speaking generally, Viana says that working on identities for sporting events means emitting a positive message. These identities, he says, “represent a lot of messages of peace, of tolerance. They try to resonate on a global level, but at the same time can promote and identify the location.” Which is as good a reminder as any that when a kid in Egypt sees the World Cup Emblem flash up on a television screen before a game, a grandmother in Nigeria, or a group of friends in Mexico, will also see it, at the same time.
For a few very exciting weeks, everyone will be watching the same thing — brought to you by FIFA.