Why are Germany and Adidas ending their iconic partnership? – The Athletic

By Raphael HonigsteinMar 26, 2024

Earlier this month, Adidas launched the Nationalmannschaft’s new home kit with a video that cleverly poked fun at the idea of some things being “typical German”. They juxtaposed stereotypes such as an apartment block full of people called Muller with the more nuanced realities of a multicultural society — the diverse make-up of the squad, for example, or fans supporting more than one national side.

The not-so-subtle subtext of the advert was that Germany wearing Adidas, the Herzogenaurach-based company that first started supplying them with boots before their triumph at the 1954 World Cup, was itself part of the football nation’s cultural identity.

Just how strongly people believed in that became apparent a few days later (last Thursday) when the German FA surprisingly announced that it would be switching to American brand Nike as its kit supplier from 2027 onwards. Social media brimmed with anger and sadness over the breakup of this 70-year-old iconic partnership over money.

This Adidas boot was used by West Germany at the 1954 World Cup (Rolf Vennenbernd/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Reports, unconfirmed by the German FA (DFB) and Nike, suggested that the new deal, worth €100m (£85.7m; $108.3m) per year, was nearly double the sum Adidas were prepared to pay. (A source close to the German FA, speaking to The Athletic on condition of anonymity due to confidentiality agreements, said those figures were “broadly accurate”.)

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Politicians across the political spectrum didn’t pass up the chance to jump on the bandwagon. Economy minister Robert Habeck (Greens) said he would have preferred “a bit more patriotism” from the football association and health minister Karl Lauterbach (Social Democrats) called it “a wrong decision (of) commerce destroying tradition and a piece of home”.

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Bavarian prime minister Markus Soder (Christian Social Union) — who hails from Franconia, the same region as Adidas — lamented the FA’s decision as “shameful”, warning that German football should not allow itself to be “a pawn in international corporate battles”.

Unlike Adidas, who had anticipated a (medium-sized) culture-war backlash over their new pink away shirt for the national team and addressed the faux outrage in a second, equally well-made video, the German FA seemed ill-prepared for this criticism.

It took them more than a day to follow up their initial, terse press release with a more detailed “questions and answers” piece that explained that the change of supplier was the result of a “transparent and non-discriminatory bidding process”, the timing of which — two years before the end of the existing contract with Adidas in March 2026 — was “in line with market practice”. Because of stock market rules, they added, it was necessary to go public with the decision as soon as possible.

DFB vice chairman Hans-Joachim Watzke said he understood the public’s strong emotional reaction but had little time for the populist intervention of politicians. “The difference in bids were so enormous that there was no other outcome,” the 64-year-old told Sky Germany, “I’m incredibly angry about their comments.”

Rudi Voller, in an Adidas kit, playing for West Germany at the 1990 World Cup (Frank Kleefeldt/picture alliance via Getty Images)

As a non-profit organisation that supports grassroots football and is short on money after building a national football campus and a series of tax scandals, the DFB had indeed little choice but to accept Nike’s offer. “If they had turned it down, the authorities might have started investigating them for financial misconduct,” the source close to the federation says.

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Things were different not so long ago. In late 2006, Nike made a sensational offer of €500m for eight years to the German FA, but bosses stuck with the far less lucrative Adidas deal at the time, citing a verbal agreement to extend the contract with their long-term partner, who also own a nine per cent share in the country’s biggest football club — Bayern Munich.

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Even though the outcome of that saga underlined the enduring links between Adidas and German football, it also signposted that Nike were not prepared to accept the existing status quo forever. They had already successfully challenged the German FA’s blanket ban on non-Adidas boots for international players after the World Cup in 2006, ending the absurd practice of Nike-sponsored pros like Jens Lehmann playing with taped-over shoes for Germany.

However, all three parties still seemed somewhat astonished by Nike’s winning bid. People at Nike, who did not have permission to speak for this article, regarded last Monday’s pitch in Frankfurt as ambitious and were surprised when the deal was secured.

Adidas, who had no matching rights under the existing terms of the deal, didn’t anticipate as much competition, a person familiar with the bidding process who spoke to The Athletic on condition of anonymity said.

Lastly, the German FA did not expect such a big deal following poor performances at the last three men’s tournaments and a general sense in the country of disenchantment with the national team in recent years.

While the impending switch was announced at an embarrassing time for Adidas — less than three months before the German national team will take up camp at Herzogenaurach for the Euros — there were good reasons for making the decision now.

A deal of this magnitude needs to be sanctioned by the German FA’s board, who tend to meet during international breaks. More importantly, the German FA wanted to steal a march on other competitors such as the French national team, whose kit deal is also up for grabs soon.

After this controversy dies down, which it will in due course, the last few days will ultimately be seen as a triumph for the German FA — and not just because of the commercial boost it will bring.

Toni Kroos wearing Germany’s current Adidas kit last weekend (Mustafa Yalcin/Anadolu via Getty Images)

The way the kit debate(s) monopolised the news agenda served as a powerful reminder of the national team’s importance for the country’s psyche. The Adidas “home kit” video was so well received that thousands of supporters have signed a petition for the soundtrack, a remix of Peter Schilling’s 1980s classic Major Tom, to become the national team’s new goal anthem to be played after they score.

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Traditionalists, too, should find solace in a closer look at history, since the nostalgia for a soon-to-be bygone era is partly lined with false memories.

Despite their association with Adidas, Germany in fact played in a variety of different shirts until the final of the 1980 European Championship, when the three stripes first made an appearance.

If the Nationalmannschaft can win another three trophies without the trefoil after 2027, as they did before 1980 — the 1954 World Cup, the 1974 World Cup and the 1972 European Championship — then nobody will mind.

(Top photo: West Germany before the 1990 World Cup final; by Bongarts/Getty Images)

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Munich-born Raphael Honigstein has lived in London since 1993. He writes about German football and the Premier League. Follow Raphael on Twitter @honigstein

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