The World: BBDO makes La Boca beautiful for Nike football

Adidas may sponsor Argentina's Fifa World Cup team, but Nike has targeted its footballing soul. Robin Hicks investigates.

A few months ago, the locals say, a stroll beyond the small tourist beat of La Caminito in the tough Buenos Aires barrio of La Boca would doubtless involve your being relieved of your wallet. But thanks to a project by Nike, a bigger part of the area is now bustling with curious visitors.

The project, dubbed Barrio Bonito (beautiful neighbourhood) by its creator, BBDO Argentina, has seen one of the world's most football-obsessed neighbourhoods transformed to bring Nike's "joga bonito" strategy to life five days before the World Cup kicks off.

La Boca is home to Argentina's reigning domestic champions, Boca Juniors.

It is the spiritual home of Diego Maradona; a place where fearsome clashes between Boca Juniors fans and their fierce local rivals, River Plate, at their La Bombonera stadium are the stuff of sporting legend.

But La Boca is also known for its art and bohemian culture. The district boasts the highest concentration of painters and sculptors of anywhere in South America, and its scruffy buildings are a hotchpotch of pastel colours, brought over in the ships of the early Italian and Spanish settlers.

BBDO's idea was to combine the twin claims to fame with a series of football-related art installations. Each is a play on the five values Eric Cantona has been telling the world it needs to "play beautiful" in Nike's global TV campaign since February: joy, heart, skill, honour and team spirit.

The project, officially opened by the mayor of Buenos Aires on 22 May, runs past La Caminito, extending the tourist strip by three blocks. As extensive as it sounds, BBDO was conscious it should not turn the neighbourhood into a glorified Nike theme park. "La Boca is a fiercely territorial district, a city within a city known as 'La Republica de La Boca'. There's no way we could have got away with plastering Nike logos everywhere," Carlos Perez, BBDO's president, says.

"The installations are by local artists, and blend in with the traditional colours of the barrio," he insists. "We have renovated and repainted rundown buildings; doing work that the government doesn't have money for. There are benefits for local tourism as well as for the local people; it improves the streets and gives the neighbourhood a recreational character."

Attitudes towards advertising are especially liberal in Argentina. Brands can flash their logos without warning during the hugely popular telenovelas, and ads are often streamed along the bottom of live football matches.

But getting Barrio Bonito off the ground was a different matter, Perez says. Once Nike's Portland headquarters had given the green light, the Argentinian government, local council, artists, police, security officials, NGOs working in the area and the malveros (local hardmen) of La Boca themselves had to be consulted individually. Negotiations began last August and had to be restarted after a fire in a local nightclub, which killed 200 people and led to local council heads being sacked.

The installations themselves took less time to plan and put up. To represent alegria (joy), giant collages of footballers in the throes of goal-induced hysteria were made from shredded newspaper (throwing handfuls of paper into the air is a football celebration in South America) and erected on walls visible from the other side of the barrio. Images of Brazil's Ronaldinho and Argentina's Carlos Tevez by the local artists Antonella Semaan and Manuel Parreno, painted using only the artists' feet, are a tribute to habilidad (skill).

So are the faces of Nike stars made from marks left by a paint-soaked football kicked against a wall, supposedly by the players themselves.

Visitors are encouraged to interact with Nike's vision of the beautiful game. One popular feature (although probably less so with English tourists) is a courtyard converted into a football pitch where visitors can dribble around life-size statues of England players to re-enact that goal scored by Maradona in the Mexico 86 World Cup quarter-final.

A figurine of Tevez by the iconic local artist Omar Gasparini stands on a balcony near other sculptures he has produced in the same style.

A "footprints museum" featuring casts of Boca Juniors stars' feet, and specially made courts for the finals of Nike's nationwide three-a-side football tournament, complete La Boca's makeover.

At a cost of around $500,000 (taken from a budget separate from the above-the-line "joga bonito" campaign running across Argentina), the project does not come cheap in a country whose economy collapsed in 2001. And yet the aim, Perez asserts, is not to shift sportswear immediately but to "associate Nike with the local football culture of La Boca, which isn't something you can measure".

Even so, it is nice to upstage Adidas so close to the World Cup and in the sports manufacturer's own backyard, Gino Fisanotti, Nike's marketing manager for Nike South Cone, says. "Adidas is an official World Cup sponsor, and it's the sponsor of the Argentinian World Cup squad," he admits. "But we are sponsors of La Boca, the soul of Argentinian football."

While much of the artwork will come down soon after the World Cup, some of the larger structures will remain, Perez says. At least, that is the idea. Importing a concept based on the language ("joga bonito" is Portuguese), players and spirit of Brazil, Argentina's bitter South-American rival, is a considerable risk. "I'm praying the locals leave the art work alone," Coco Mujica, the account director for BBDO Argentina's brand activation arm, 361 deg, says. "So far, so good. But if Brazil start doing well in the World Cup, the images of Ronaldinho could soon look less attractive."

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