Now is about the time when the official sponsors of the 2006 Fifa World Cup and their marketing teams will begin to shift nervously in their seats. Having paid from $30 million to $50 million to use Fifa's trademarks in their own marketing around the world, and for exclusive promotional opportunities inside football stadia, these big brands are braced for their rivals to try to piggyback the event and make it their own.
Ambush marketing, or "beating the offside trap" as industry wags like to call it, first attracted media attention during the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. There, Kodak raised the hackles of the official partner, Fuji, by sponsoring television broadcasts and the US track team.
Since then, there have been plenty of examples where World Cup sponsors have been infuriated by the spoiling tactics of their competitors. At the 1998 World Cup in France, Nike persuaded more than a quarter of a million people to visit its People's Republic of Football event, opened by the Brazilian squad. Not only that, but the famous "swoosh" logo seemed to be plastered on every billboard in France, and six competing teams wore Nike strips. Despite the fact that Adidas, the official partner, was the kit sponsor for the eventual winners, France, Nike gave its rival a hiding in brand awareness scores.
At the 2002 World Cup, Nike, with its "secret tournament" campaign, and Pepsi (against Coca-Cola) were among the brands accused of ambush marketing with football-themed ad campaigns.
PepsiCo felt the wrath of Fifa's legal team when it was forced to end a campaign in Argentina that used the phrase "Tokyo 2002".
Since then, Fifa has been tightening its regulations, mainly at the request of its 15 official partners, and its lawyers are on red alert for infringement of Fifa's trademarks. The organisation has produced a list of 12 examples of where unauthorised use of event logos and "wordmarks" such as "Fifa", "World Cup" and "Germany 2006" would lead to prosecution. These include their use in a way that would give the impression a brand has an official association with the tournament, and their inclusion in any football-related promotion. "This is also about protecting football's integrity and credibility," a Fifa spokesman claims.
In a bid to help its sponsors stand out in the fog of advertising clutter surrounding the World Cup, Fifa will reduce the number of official partners from 15 to six in 2010 and 2014.
By March, Fifa had followed up around 1,200 infringement cases in more than 60 countries. In February, McDonald's was pleased to hear that Fifa had won an injunction against Burger King Israel barring it from running a competition to give away tickets to the World Cup.
Other official partners looking over their shoulders include: Avaya, Anheuser-Busch (Budweiser), Continental, Deutsche Telekom, Emirates, Fujifilm, Gillette, Hyundai, MasterCard, Philips, Toshiba and Yahoo!.
"These big brand advertisers spend a huge amount of money to be a sponsor," Simon Rines, the director of International Marketing Reports, which analyses the sports marketing industry, says. "They are under enormous pressure to leverage the rights effectively. This is not just about creative advertising but includes everything from corporate entertainment to internal communications."
Despite Fifa's tough stance, it does not "own" football. There are still ways for non-official brands to exploit the World Cup. Nick Johnson, a partner at the law firm Osborne Clarke and a member of the UK's Advertising Law Group, says Fifa can't do anything to stop advertisers linking with individual football associations and players. "This is an area the official sponsors would like to see tightened. But that is unlikely to happen, because the teams and players have their own commercial needs," he says.
This approach works for England's kit supplier, Umbro. Its "one love" ad campaign, organised with the experiential agency RPM and the creative agency Exposure, features photographs from around the globe that show how football is the one true love that unites the world.
"Our involvement with England means we get visibility without having to pay millions to be an official Fifa sponsor. Our activity is non-aggressive towards Fifa because we are building on our relationship with the game of football," Umbro's head of UK marketing, Adrian Cory, says.
Other opportunities advertisers are looking to exploit include mobile promotions at the grounds and advertising as close as possible to Fifa's marketing boundaries around each stadium.
In October, the European Sponsorship Association published a policy report on ambush marketing insisting it should be treated as a civil, rather than criminal, offence. ESA was angry that for the Winter Olympics in Turin, legislation was introduced to criminalise ambush activity.
David Foster, the managing director at the marketing agency Raisley, is in discussions with a number of brands that are not official partners but are planning football-related activity.
He warns that any company considering using the World Cup to its advantage must be extremely careful. "Fifa may have a reputation for being clumsy in how it protects its image and rights, but it does not hesitate to use the law," he cautions.
Of course, cynics would argue that if Fifa was not under so much pressure from its official sponsors, it would not be baring its teeth quite so often. After all, any brand that is indirectly promoting the World Cup is raising awareness of the event - not that the most popular sporting event on Earth needs much extra publicity.
Fifa will certainly clamp down on ambush marketing, but it is ultimately the responsibility of the individual sponsors to make the most of their official status. If they don't, they cannot blame their rivals for stealing their thunder.
BUDWEISER v CARLING
Budweiser has been a World Cup sponsor since Mexico '86, but does that make it a credible footballing brand? Its global six-a-side tournament and World Cup Trophy Tour, launched in 2002, comes to the UK, China and the US this summer. But a bitter trademark dispute with the Czech brewer Budvar over which company owns the "Bud" name has seen the US brand barred from pitch-side hoardings in Germany.
In the UK, Carling has strong links with football through its sponsorship of the League Cup and its heritage as a former sponsor of the Premiership.
Carling's ads, such as "big match" by The Leith Agency, celebrate the brand's ties with "real" footie fans, while Budweiser's advertising, by Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R, is a self-parody of its US roots.
Richard Buchanan, the head of corporate branding at Corporate Edge, says: "As a football fan, I see straight through Bud's message. They understand beer, but they do not understand what football is really all about. They have an interesting strategy, but Carling has much more to work with."
Who'll win? Carling (2-0), the more credible footie fan's tipple.
ADIDAS v NIKE
Who could forget Nike's flicks-and-tricks epic in a giant cage four years ago? And who can remember Adidas' "Footballitis" wheeze?
The French footballer-turned-thespian Eric Cantona returns for Nike's World Cup series (by Wieden & Kennedy Amsterdam) to "make the game beautiful again". No flashy effects this time. Instead, Mark Hunter, W&K's creative director, says the approach is "lo-fi, natural and true". Stars such as Wayne Rooney, Thierry Henry and Ronaldinho demonstrate how to joga bonito ("play beautiful" in Portuguese).
Meanwhile, Adidas, which has just splashed out $350 million to sponsor the World Cup until 2014, has devised a funded programme called +10, with 180 Amsterdam and Drum PHD. In the Channel 4 show, top footballers such as David Beckham and Steven Gerrard will trawl the country to build their own teams. Andy Fackrell, the executive creative director at 180, says: "We have plenty of things still up our sleeves."
Who'll win? Draw (3-3) "Probably be a draw," Simon Rines of International Marketing Reports muses. "Both will spend a fortune and both have image rights to some of the world's top players." Adidas has the kudos of official status - and matches will be played with an Adidas ball. But Nike has made an early run to surprise consumers with its "real" take on the beautiful game.
McDONALD'S v BURGER KING
A comfortable home win for the Golden Arches, International Marketing Reports' Simon Rines predicts. "Burger King does not have any top properties, so cannot create a strong football link," he says. "McDonald's is a much more experienced sponsor, and Burger King would have to take a completely different tack to make an impact." Falling foul of Fifa's lawyers in Israel last year for trying to give away tickets for this year's World Cup was not the sort of exposure Burger King would have wanted. Besides some expected local activity in Germany, Burger King has - unsurprisingly - no plans to use football in its advertising this summer.
McDonald's is repeating the Player Escort competition it ran in 2002, where children win the chance to walk on to the pitch with a top player.
Its World Cup campaign, by Leo Burnett, is likely to continue in the same vein as its recent football work, celebrating the funny side of football under the "I'm lovin' it" banner.
Who'll win? McDonald's (4-0).
Burger King would need to spend heavily on advertising in Europe even to come close.
COCA-COLA v PEPSI
Coke's involvement with the World Cup stretches back some 70 years.
In 2002, it created the Coca-Cola 2002 Fifa World Cup game with EA Sports, and produced 25 different TV commercials featuring "Leggsy", a curious cartoon footballer with three legs. Its World Cup heritage, sponsorship of the Football League and stadium branding could give it an advantage, but as public opinion sways towards healthy eating and sales of Coke's Classic brand continue to sag, ads will emphasise its Diet Coke and Powerade brands.
Pepsi is again linking up with the likes of Beckham, Henry and Ronaldinho, but this time they're joined by the stars of yesteryear in an ad (by Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO) in which footballing legends become star-struck at the sight of ordinary fans. This is supported by the Pepsi Max World Challenge, which offers teenagers around the globe the chance to play alongside their heroes.
"The key for Pepsi is to make the most of its opportunities before the tournament," Nick Propper, the practice group director at Ketchum, says, "because Coke will dominate once the first ball is kicked."
Who'll win? Draw (2-2). Two marketing goliaths that know how to tap into consumers' love of football.
YAHOO! v MSN
In an age when you can access real-time match updates or player profiles at the click of a mouse, Yahoo! has stolen a march on its rivals: once again, it is producing and hosting the official website, Fifaworldcup.com.
MSN's idea of getting seven footballers - including the England striker Michael Owen - to publish their World Cup diaries online is an interesting counter-attack. But it's not without risk: players could get injured, or their teams knocked out early. Owen, who is recovering from a broken foot, has promised (in his MSN diary): "I am expecting to go to Germany 100 per cent fit and confident of scoring goals."
Yahoo!'s ability to stream match highlights on the Fifa website should make it a sticky destination for football fans this summer.
"Yahoo! has realised what is there for the taking is the provision of official World Cup content on a global basis," Ketchum's Nick Propper says. "The World Cup is a great platform for new-media companies, but they must ensure what they create is not perceived as too artificial."
Who'll win? Yahoo! (2-1).
On the official Fifa website, Yahoo!'s image will be seen by millions as they clamour for news.
MASTERCARD v VISA
In March last year, the consumer watchdog Which? attacked MasterCard for forcing fans outside the European Union to use one of its credit cards to buy World Cup tickets or face international bank transfer surcharges.
But this hasn't left much of an opportunity for Visa, which is waiting until 2010 to enter the fray, when it replaces MasterCard as the World Cup's official credit card.
More of the same is expected of MasterCard's "priceless" campaign. "Fever", by McCann Erickson, shows fans from all over the world in the throes of football-induced hysteria. It will appear in 39 countries.
"MasterCard has become expert at campaigns around the World Cup," Jonathan Hall, the global client managing director at Added Value, says. "It always creates a separate creative team, which means the World Cup is valued internally."
Who'll win? MasterCard (3-0). "Priceless" may be ancient, but a familiar idea in a splurge of marketing clutter will stand out.
PHILIPS v SONY
The delay to the spring launch of PlayStation 3 is like England going to Germany without Wayne Rooney. Any advertising for the PS3 must now wait until November. Even so, Sony's cachet with younger audiences and PlayStation's Uefa Champions League sponsorship will give it a youthful edge this summer. As for Philips, a sponsor since 1986, excessive clutter and a drive to focus more closely on its 33- to 55-year-old ABC1 core audience has meant that the 2006 World Cup will be its last, its head of sponsorship, Andy Knee, says. Its World Cup activity began last year for its new Ambilight TV under the strapline: "Your Fifa World Cup starts here." Knee explains: "Television democratised the World Cup: millions of fans all around the world would not be able to embrace the event as they do without television."
Philips' "Sense and Simplicity" global brand push is expected to play on the idea that football is a simple, elegant sport through a series of TV ads.
"Philips is a great company. But it has not been able to crack the brand credibility issue in the past around the World Cup," the Corporate Edge's Richard Buchanan says. "But it has the official deal in place and is addressing the branding issues, so it should come out on top."
Who'll win? Philips (1-0). The Dutch electronics giant will make the most of its sponsorship at its final attempt. Sony has shot itself in the foot with the PlayStation 3 debacle.