It was the money shot for which big brands pay big bucks to bankroll big events.
Cristiano Ronaldo, the big star of the European Championship, sitting behind two bottles of Coca-Cola as he prepared to hold court ahead of the opening match of Portugal’s defence of their crown.
So, it is not hard to picture the scene at the world’s biggest soft-drinks company when the 36-year-old moved both bottles firmly out of view before declaring: “Agua (water)”.
The footage inevitably went viral – turbo-charged by an endorsement by Super Bowl icon Tom Brady – and $4 billion (£2.8bn) was subsequently wiped off the value of Coca-Cola.
Then, the following evening, Paul Pogba removed a bottle from one of Euro 2020’s other biggest sponsors from another press conference after seemingly deciding being pictured alongside alcohol-free Heineken did not conform with his Muslim faith.
Both acts have reignited the debate about the troubling relationship between sport and unhealthy food and drinks brands.
In March, the British Medical Association led calls for a ban on junk-food advertising within sport amid clear evidence linking the UK’s record coronavirus death rate to obesity.
That was after an investigation by Telegraph Sport found that the Football Association, Premier League, English Football League, Fifa and Uefa all had fatty or sugary food or drink sponsors – as well as 17 out of 20 Premier League clubs.
It’s almost like the veterans know what they’re doing…. @Cristiano @TB12sports https://t.co/pJ0y1BtCRt
— Tom Brady (@TomBrady) June 14, 2021
It also found those firms’ share of the UK market had risen during the coronavirus crisis.
Professor Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, cited the findings of that investigation during a lecture in which he accused the promotion of such brands of undermining the UK’s battle of the bulge.
But even someone who has become one of the faces of the pandemic cannot compete with the reach of two of the most famous men on the planet, who between them boast hundreds of millions of followers on social media.
It is why experts in obesity and alcohol abuse are now calling for more players to join Ronaldo and Pogba in publicly disowning Coca-Cola and Heineken at Euro 2020.
After all, Marcus Rashford proved the power footballers now wield when he forced the Government into more than one about-turn over free school meals for children.
Fast-food sponsorship deals
And it is only political intervention which will ultimately force sport to wean itself off its addiction to unhealthy food and drinks brands.
It is almost exactly 17 years since McDonald’s’ then-director of worldwide marketing, Jeff Wahl, told The Guardian the company’s sponsorship of the Euros was a great way to “build brand loyalty with kids”.
The intervening years have seen Britain impose a ban on adverts for junk food – or products high in fats, salt or sugar (HFSS) – during children’s television programmes and a sugar tax on soft drinks amid an epidemic of obesity that has led to more than a third of pre-teens and almost two thirds of adults becoming overweight.
But the coronavirus crisis, in which clear evidence has emerged linking Britain’s record death rate with obesity, is now seeing the Government take its strongest action yet against junk-food adverts. The obesity strategy it launched last summer included a 9pm television watershed and the threat of a total ban on such ads online.
But it is under pressure to go further and follow in the footsteps of Amsterdam, which eight years ago banned junk-food sponsorship, including of sporting events, leading to a 12 per cent cut in childhood obesity.
Recent studies suggest Britons have eaten and drunk their way through more unhealthy snacks during the pandemic than their peers elsewhere in Europe and that more than half of the nation’s schoolchildren have failed to meet recommended daily activity levels.
According to analysis by SportBusiness Sponsorship, that has coincided with a rise in the proportion of fatty or sugary food and drink sponsorships in British sport.
Premier League and Championship clubs are already facing the threat of a ban on gambling firm sponsors on football shirts that would leave them with a £110 million black hole to fill at a time of unprecedented financial crisis, a shortfall which similar curbs on junk food sponsors would further compound.
But as Tam Fry, chairman of the UK’s National Obesity Forum and co-founder of the Child Growth Foundation, put it: “There are enough people around from whom you can get sponsorship.”
Cristiano Ronaldo is a corporate creation – but it would now be more valuable for him to back a social cause
By Oliver Brown, Chief Sports Writer
As a man who earns more posting on Instagram than he does playing for Juventus, Cristiano Ronaldo has a subtle conception of power and its uses. The vast reach of his CR7 brand rests not just on his otherworldly talent, but on an ornate portfolio of endorsements that has spanned everything from Egyptian steel to Japanese electronic muscle manipulators. Every pout, every pose, every post-goal pirouette that lands with his name and shirt number squarely aligned with the nearest camera: all carry some subliminal level of commercial calculation. The same applies to his decision to remove two bottles of Coca-Cola from a table at his Budapest press conference, an act that within hours had wiped £2.8 billion off the drinks giant’s market value.
Only Ronaldo can explain his exact reasons for disdaining Coca-Cola and urging his audience to drink water instead. On the surface, it seems a straightforward fitness choice: at 36, and with a body fat percentage that would be the envy of tour cyclists, he has little appetite for the almost 10 teaspoons of sugar that go into the average Coca-Cola can. But it also smacks of a conscious rethink of how he wields his influence, positioning him as a champion of a healthier lifestyle. In the same way as a 43-year-old Tom Brady has carved a fresh niche evangelising about his daily electrolyte intake, the veteran Ronaldo clearly sees a value in selling the virtues of optimum hydration.
Whatever his motives, Ronaldo has shown this week that he remains a trendsetter without peer. Barely 24 hours after his anti-Coke performance in Hungary, Paul Pogba was emulating him in Munich, removing a bottle of Heineken from view and placing it on the floor. The trigger was different: Pogba, as a practising Muslim, appeared not to be fully comfortable with the idea of promoting beer – even if the offending Heineken was the alcohol-free variety. Ronaldo, clearly, is the trailblazer when it comes to athletes’ gesture politics.
A fascinating power struggle looms if this pattern continues. On the one hand, Uefa is understandably protective of its sponsors, having added lucrative Euro 2020 tie-ups with TikTok, Qatar Airways and Vivo. It needs those relationships to flourish if its flagship international tournament is to continue to expand. But on the other hand, it is the event’s superstar players on whom the event’s corporate cachet ultimately depends. And if Ronaldo and Pogba indicate that they want nothing to do with Coca-Cola or Heineken, the two longest-standing Euros partners, on whose side will Uefa come down?
Ronaldo is being lauded by anti-obesity campaigners for his stance against Coca-Cola and, by extension, all that junk-food products represent. It is a stretch, though, to depict him as any kind of anti-corporate crusader. The architecture of self-promotion around Ronaldo is quite bewilderingly intricate, with his image used to hawk everything from online poker to the CR7 selfie app, screen protectors to hair-transplant services. The notion that he is more concerned with remedying society’s ills than with burnishing his own mystique does not, if you will forgive the expression, hold water.
For example, in a 2015 interview with CNN intended to spread the word about his latest range of headphones, he walked out when the reporter dared to ask him about the Fifa corruption scandal. “I don’t give a f—,” he shot back. “What do you want me to do? Speak about product, he speaks about Fifa…come on.” Few in the pantheon of modern sporting greats have sung for their suppers quite as dutifully as Ronaldo. It is his self-mythologising, coupled with his social-media profile, that explains why he collects an estimated £970,000 for every Instagram message. In the past fortnight, he has used the platform not to offer any telling character insights, but to provide mentions of a live scoring app and a hotel that he is soon opening in Madrid.
As a public-health advocate, he may yet discover his most powerful voice yet. Before his Coca-Cola-for-water stunt, he was advertising a book by his friend, Dr Pinto Coelho, on the secret to a healthier immune system. For when you support Ronaldo to extremes, you are buying not merely into an athlete but into his entire way of life. You can wear his fragrance, visit his museum, subscribe to his gym, even sleep in a monogrammed CR7 blanket. So powerfully has his latest gesture resonated, it will not be long before you are drinking his own branded water, too. For where Ronaldo goes, everyone else follows.