The cage, the airport and football's greatest ever adverts

From Nike to Adidas, with Pepsi in between, brands have provided some truly memorable commercials over the years

7:00am on Thursday 29th October 2020
Martin Macdonald

Football ads provide us the opportunity to see players as we have never seen them before: their humour, their personality, their skillset.

Here, we look at the best adverts ever to be put on celluloid.


“Hidden from the world, 24 elite players hold a secret tournament, with eight teams, and only one rule: first goal... wins.”

When Eric Cantona takes over from the narrator to utter those last three words and we hear the first few seconds of ‘A Little Less Conversation’ by Elvis, we know this is going to be something effortlessly cool.

‘The Secret Tournament’, or ‘The Cage’ was produced by Nike as a promotional tool for the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea. It featured 24 of the world’s best (Nike-sponsored) players taking part in a fictional tournament aboard a freighter ship.

What Hollywood director Terry Gilliam put together would soon become a phenomenon, leading to absurd revenue for Nike’s new training gear, Elvis reaching No. 1 in 20 countries, and even an online video game.

Nike threw $100 million at this campaign and every dollar is there. From the direction, the location, the cinematography - this is every bit a Hollywood film, even if the longest version clocks in at just six minutes and 12 seconds.

The eight teams:

Triple Espresso: Thierry Henry, Francesco Totti, Hidetoshi Nakata

The Onetouchables: Patrick Vieira, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Paul Scholes

Toros Locos: Freddie Ljungberg, Javier Saviola, Luis Enrique

Cerberus: Edgar Davids, Lilian Thuram, Sylvain Wiltord

Os Tornados: Luis Figo, Roberto Carlos, Ronaldo

Funk Seoul Brothers: Denilson, Ronaldinho, Seol Ki-hyeon

Tutto Bene: Fabio Cannavaro, Rio Ferdinand, Tomas Rosicky

Equipo Del Fuego: Claudio Lopez, Hernan Crespo, Gaizka Mendieta

With a few notable exceptions such as Raul, David Beckham, and Zinedine Zidane, Nike undoubtedly had the superstar edge over Adidas back in 2002, and flaunted their roster accordingly.

Best Moment

The initial “first goal, wins” spoken by Cantona as the first beats of 'A Little Less Conversation' come to life.


While Louis van Gaal became somewhat of a joke figure due to his theatrics as boss of Manchester United, they were perfect for the 2000 Nike commercial, ‘The Mission’.

Here, the eccentric Dutchman leads a group of superstars on a heist to recover a special football from a highly-guarded state-of-the-art museum.


Because “IT’S ROUNDER!”

From then on the players (and Edgar Davids in particular) become the stars of the show. The Dutchman is featured heavily from start to finish, as it is his signature dreadlocks which trigger the alarm, resulting in a samurai robot army waking up to try and take him and his pals down.

From there, we see a host of familiar faces including Nakata, Figo, Totti, Thuram, Dwight Yorke, Pep Guardiola, Andy Cole, and, crucially, Oliver Bierhoff, whose volley would take out the lead robot to prompt a dramatic explosion and a jump into a helicopter.

Notable moments:

Edgar Davids’ signature spectacles being used to see lasers. It makes sense when you see it.


Of all the modern football adverts, none features a soundtrack that befits the action better than Sergio Mendes’ ‘Mas Que Nada’, the song that became synonymous with the Brazil national team.

The superstars of that side - Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Cafu, Romario and Roberto Carlos among others - all feature as board commuters looking to waste some time before their delayed flight is due to leave.

Cue Ronaldo deciding to have a kickabout, and we follow them all around the airport producing tricks and flicks while they evade security. As ‘Mas Que Nada’ gets into full swing, so do the players, with Ronaldo at centre stage throughout.

The choreography is spectacular, and even though that is exactly what it is you still get the feeling that this is just an impromptu Samba training session.

This is all about Ronaldo, but the humour is present throughout, with Denilson’s cheeky face after nutmegging a luggage trolley, to R9 hitting the post at the end with the open goal.

Best moment:

The irresistible soundtrack kicking in.


For this 2008 ad Nike took the bold step of not putting their array of superstars centre stage, instead telling their story from the first-person perspective of a young, impressionable player making his way through the ranks of professional football.

Directed by Guy Ritchie, the story follows the hero from amateur football, to the Premier League and the Champions League with Arsenal, to the International stage with the Netherlands. In one ad, we are taken on a brilliant journey, but it is by no means a simple showcase for Nike products; there are dramatic layers on display.

As the hero becomes more and more well known the pitfalls of fame begin to appear, such as the glamour of fast cars, partying, and attention from the opposite sex. We see 'him' vomit on more than one occasion as he desperately attempts to make the grade and the message is clear: Work hard and you can Take It To The Next Level (ideally featuring Nike products).

Some famous faces pop up along the way of course, with Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, Cesc Fabregas, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, William Gallas, Carlos Tevez, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Wesley Sneijder among the more significant appearances.

Best Moment

The first blistering on-pitch action at Old Trafford as we get a closeup of Rooney bursting past our hero.

GOOD v EVIL (1996)

The one that started it all.

In 1996 Nike produced a brand advert the likes of which had never been seen before in the sporting world. Yes, it looks dated now but the fact remains: without Good v Evil, there would be no Airport, no Cage, no Mission.

Nike's heroes take on a team of demons from hell. As the Devil, or whatever he is, summons a pitch made of hellfire and his demon spawn XI, we get a glimpse of our heroes - and its an eclectic bunch.

Alongside bona-fide superstars such as Ronaldo, Romario, Paolo Maldini, Rui Costa, Luis Figo, Patrick Kluivert, Edgar Davids, Ian Wright, is Mexican legend Jorge Campos and...Tomas Brolin.

The Swede had finished third in the World Cup two years previous, but in 1996 was in the midst of his ill-fated spell at Leeds United. As you can imagine, this isn't as slick as The Cage or The Mission, with it quickly cut together to show our players showcasing their talents.

The star of the show is, naturally, Cantona, who ultimately vanquishes the demon XI with a spectacular volley right through the chest of the opposition keeper.

Best Moment:

- Cantona arrogantly pulls his signature collar up before saying "Au revoir" to the demon goalie.


Ahead of Euro 2016, which Portugal would go on to win, Cristiano Ronaldo starred in an advert which tapped into the psyche of every young football fan in the world.

What if you could step into your hero's shoes? Even just temporarily?

Nike answer that question here, as young ball boy Lee switched bodies with CR7 after they collide with each other over the pitchside barrier.

Cue two parallel narratives - one with Ronaldo adjusting to life as a teenage boy, getting woke up by mum and playing on amateur pitches, and one with Lee, suddenly forced into the limelight that comes with being one of the most famous athletes on the planet.

Ronaldo must work his way back up to the big time, and does so to become an England International, culminating with a match between Portugal and England which sees the pair collide again, reversing the spell.

As both stores are told, we get a look at some other Nike stars, such as Harry Kane, Andre Gomes, and Raheem Sterling.

Best Moment:

Lee getting behind a CR7 supercar for the first time

JOSE +10 (2006)

No, not Jose Mourinho, but rather a young Brazilian lad picking his very own superstar XI for a kickabout - an Adidas-endorsed XI.

While Nike are the kings of sport ads in general and the dominant brand on this list, Adidas have produced gems of their own and none more so than in preparation for the 2006 World Cup in Germany.

The format is simple: Two young boys recruit players, old and new, to join their teams. This one was universally loved, for the reason that every single young football fan has done this against a friend. My XI versus your XI - who would win?

The superstars join in droves:

Zinedine Zidane, David Beckham, Jermain Defoe, Oliver Kahn, Lionel Messi, Frank Lampard, Arjen Robben Steven Gerrard, Shunsuke Nakamura, Joan Roman Riquelme Raul, and…

Franz Beckenbauer and Michel Platini! Even for an ad 14 years old, the CGI involved in putting these two veterans into the action as their younger selves holds up pretty well.

Best Moment:

“Beckenbauer? Hahaha”


Nike - Ole!

An ad which saw Portugal and Brazil facing off in the tunnel before a big game. Luis Figo nutmegs Ronaldo and exclaims “Ole!”.

Queue everyone forgetting about the game and attempting to outdo one another with their trickery. This started a schoolyard revolution.

Nike - Parklife

Before Nike shelled out $100 million on The Cage, they had to make do with a kickabout down Hackney Marshes.

Ian Wright and, again, Cantona make appearances, but the star of this one is the soundtrack of Parklife by Blur, which fits in perfectly.

Adidas - The Dream

The official 2014 World Cup ad from Adidas centred around a Lionel Messi narrative, with the Argentine texting his Adidas pals to find out how they were preparing for the World Cup.

He even messages Barcelona team-mate Dani Alves who simply responds with “Welcome to Brazil”. This was after Leo is given a charming ‘UP YOURS’ from a small Brazilian kid.

Pepsi - Medieval Fight

Pespi have often used players in their adverts over the years, but nothing beats this battle between some pillaging soldiers and a ragtag bunch of footballers, led by the stylings of David Beckham.

It may be Roberto Carlos who finishes off the enemy with an uncharacteristically accurate free-kick at the end, but this one belongs to Becks and his blonde locks.

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