By Keith Weir and Emma Thomasson
LONDON/BERLIN (Reuters) - With the soccer World Cup only three months away, Adidas and Nike are squaring up for a marketing battle to match the fierce on-field rivalry of nations like Brazil and Argentina.
The sportswear giants dominate a soccer kit industry worth more than $5 billion annually. They vie for the title of market leader in the supply of hi-tech boots and jerseys to fans inspired by Argentine Lionel Messi, who wears Adidas, or new Brazilian idol Neymar, who is in the Nike camp.
A bootmaker since the 1950s and a World Cup sponsor, Germany's Adidas regards soccer as its territory and wants to avoid being overtaken by younger but larger American rival Nike, as has happened in other sports.
"Forget all you may have heard or written about a weak Adidas performance in football in 2013. We are leading this category that is so close to the Adidas DNA," Chief Executive Herbert Hainer said last week.
"2014 is a football year and it will be an Adidas football year," he added, targeting record annual soccer-related sales of 2 billion euros ($2.8 billion).
However, Hainer conceded that competition is fierce, with the top two brands sharing upwards of 80 percent of the market for many soccer products.
Nike has built its business swiftly, having got heavily involved in soccer only 20 years ago when the World Cup was played in the United States. It generates revenues of $2 billion from the sport and calls itself the leading soccer brand.
It will provide kit for hosts Brazil and a total of 10 of the 32 finalists this year - outscoring Adidas and Puma in that regard.
Nike Brand President Trevor Edwards said sales should get an extra boost from the fact the World Cup is in Brazil, the spiritual home of stylish soccer.
"We couldn't be more excited about the World Cup being in Brazil. It will resonate around the world," he told Reuters.
KNITTED BOOTS, BAREFOOT FEEL
Held every four years, the World Cup is a showcase for innovation in design of boots which the manufacturers claims will give players the edge in the big matches and hopefully go on to be big sellers throughout the rest of the year.
"With replica kits, you will suddenly see an uptick in terms of sales during a tournament but with boots it's more continual," said Nike's Edwards.
Nike last week launched its new Magista boot, based on the company's Flyknit technology in which the upper is made from knitted synthetic strands of material.
The technology has been used for Nike's running and basketball shoes and the aim is to create a lightweight product which is also durable. Spanish international Andres Iniesta and German Mario Goetze were involved in developing the boot and Edwards said players wanted a "barefoot with studs" feel.
Park players who want to emulate their World Cup heroes will have to dig deep into their wallets as the boot will cost $275.
There are only so many ways a soccer boot can be remade and new products from Adidas and Puma draw on technologies and ideas that don't appear to differ radically from what Nike is doing.
Adidas has already launched colorful "Samba" versions of its four main boots and will present its first "knitted" boot in mid-March. Hainer said the technology had the potential to revolutionize how and where Adidas produces shoes.
Puma, based in the same small southern German town as Adidas, wants the World Cup to underline a shift back to performance sports and away from fashion.
To that end, it has already launched a snug-fitting bright orange "evoPOWER" boot with yellow laces offset to one side.
"It inspired by barefoot beach soccer in Brazil," Torsten Hochstetter, Puma global creative director, told Reuters.
THE BALL THAT TWEETS
Technology is also being used in shirt design.
Adidas says its World Cup shirts are 50 percent lighter than previous ones. Eight teams will wear Adidas at the tournament in June, including world champions Spain, Germany and Argentina.
Puma launched shirts last week for the eight sides it is outfitting at the World Cup, including Italy, Switzerland and four teams from Africa. The tight-fitting jerseys feature built-in tapes designed to stimulate players' muscles.
"This is based on taping used by physios to provide compression and stimulation," Hochstetter said.
Just like team coaches, the big brands are deploying a variety of tactics to try to gain an advantage.
Nike used a Brazil friendly match against South Africa last week to model two kits, playing in the traditional yellow in the first half before switching to a new blue outfit for the second half.
Adidas has stressed the importance of social media to its marketing campaigns.
In a sign of the times, its Brazuca official World Cup match ball has its own Twitter account offering its thoughts in English and Portuguese. Unlikely as it sounds, the ball already has over 100,000 followers.
($1 = 0.7225 euros)
(Writing by Keith Weir; Editing by Giles Elgood)