CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE/NIKE VERSUS ADIDAS - Sport's superbrands battle for football ownership. Adidas and Nike compete again to win fans during a World Cup

As the world gears up for the onslaught of football mania, the race is on for brand supremacy in the 2002 Fifa World Cup. And the battle to own football is likely to be a bloody one.

Against this ultra-competitive background, Adidas, an official sponsor, last week unveiled the global campaign it hopes will see off its arch-rival Nike. The campaign, by 180, features scientists at the Institute of Footballitis conducting experiments on football stars' obsession with the game.

Although the campaign follows the usual formula of casting big name players, its directors, Traktor, have ensured the players' enthusiasm comes across as a genuine love of the game. In applying humour, Adidas is attempting to make itself more accessible.

"It is tempting when you're involved to feel the need to be superior and on a pedestal,

Neil Simpson, Adidas' head of global brand concepts and advertising, says. "But we are a sports brand at the event. We shouldn't take ourselves too seriously. The sport is the most important thing."

The ads are in contrast to Nike's "secret tournament

blockbuster by Wieden & Kennedy Amsterdam. It features Eric Cantona as a ringmaster to eight teams of three players competing in an elite tournament. In typical Nike fashion, it has slick performances and high production values.

Nike's approach treats football with reverence - designed to appeal to the game's diehards. But it's one which Adidas believes is too exclusive and distant from the average football fan.

Nike's advertising gives the brand an aspirational positioning. However, it uses local marketing activity, such as Run London, the launch of Nike Town and the Scorpion KO tournament, to give its brand a more approachable feel. It is said that 90,000 teams have now signed up for the Scorpion KO tournament.

"Secret tournament

was launched one month ago, some time before the real tournament starts. "In 1998, Nike came out early and stole a march,

Simpson admits. "But I think now they've come too early. The creative work isn't as innovative or original as it was in 1998. Because of that they won't have the lifespan to last until the tournament."

Four years ago, Adidas trailed behind Nike's 1998 World Cup global push, which saw Ronaldo and the Brazilian World Cup team playing their way through an airport lounge. The campaign's brief, "allegria", was to demonstrate the joy of football - as was Nike's "boys from Brazil" campaign showing footballers as they played on the beach.

In contrast to these light and infectious campaigns, Adidas' mainly black-and-white global push, "the wall

through Leagas Delaney, featured David Beckham and others kicking balls through a wall - a more serious and reverential affair.

But by Euro 2000, the brands began to evolve into their current positionings.

As if inspired by the fun of Nike's "airport

spot, Leagas Delaney deposited key Adidas players such as Beckham and Zinedine Zidane in Dam Square to play alongside a grinning public. Adidas' newly appointed 180 produced its light-hearted "makes you better

campaign with Jonah Lomu. Meanwhile, Nike went blockbuster with "the mission", a big-bucks epic featuring a gamut of megastars and shot by Tarsem.

Although football plays a promiment role in both brands' strategies, Adidas' global work over the past four years has indicated that it wants to be involved in a breadth of activities. Its 1999 "take what you want" campaign seemed to be the start of its attempt to build brand credibility across all sports by being more human and inclusive and its Olympics campaign in 2000 articulated this by saying Adidas makes equipment for 26 out of 28 sports.

By 2001, Nike temporarily dropped its blockbuster strategy and produced "freestyle". The work eschewed the high production epics to focus on the seamless artistry of sportsmen, choreographed to the sounds of bouncing basketballs and squeaking trainers. The campaign took the brand back to basics, showing raw, yet attainable, talent. And latterly, "tag

has also moved the brand back into the everyday arena.

The past four years have seen the rivals present their sports stars in markedly different lights. Nike positions its star players as aspirational and invincible superheroes, using a demonstration of their skills brilliantly filmed in seamless sets to get us to engage with them.

However, it has also dabbled with taking its players off their pedestals by shifting to a more empathetic approach - as shown in "airport", for instance. Nevertheless, with its slick production values and epic storylines, Nike's advertising supplies an aspirational positioning. Adidas prefers to show its human side.

Adidas has paid a small fortune to be an official World Cup sponsor - estimated at £30 million. Nike has not, but its football-centric advertising, which has provoked cries of "ambush marketing

from Fifa, will give it a strong association nevertheless. And while its centrepiece TV ads may remain epic, Nike strives hard through its integrated marketing to make the brand accessible to sports fans.

So who will win the brand war at the 2002 World Cup? Of the 32 teams in the tournament, nine are contracted to wear Adidas clothing, and six Nike. In terms of advertising, Adidas' work is fresh and will achieve stand-out and although Nike's will please the hardcore football fan, it does feel less inclusive than its 1998 ads.