Go to any shoe store or apparel website this summer, and you will almost literally be kicked in the head with options for World Cup-inspired footwear.
By my count, the big three international football manufacturers—Adidas, Nike and Puma—are offering more than 150 combined options for soccer cleats, flats and other footy footwear this summer.
As soon as you pick out your favorite pair of shoes from the Samba Pack or the Magista Collection, out come 15 more with "battle designs" or "snake venom" used as sewing thread or whatever crazy gimmick the companies can employ to get us to pay attention, buy more stuff and outclass our friends on the pitch.
It's no longer just Adidas and Nike either. Puma is going so rogue this summer that it is giving all its athletes two different-color shoes—one pink and one blue—to get people like me to pay more attention to those wearing Pumas. (Job well done, public relations cats.)
And yet, maybe not all that well done. During a recent MLS match, just after the United States roster was cut to 23 players, television announcers spotted Maurice Edu wearing the multicolored boots, leading those announcers to speculate if it was some kind of protest of the red, white and blue. (Pink and blue are close to red and blue, after all.)
Still, the gimmick got them talking and got people like me to yell on social media about how people like them didn't know their current football-shoe promotions.
And speaking of promotions—wow, are there a lot of awesome promotions, perhaps none better than Nike's playground pickup game that turns into an all-star extravaganza, where a boy morphs into the Incredible Hulk who morphs into American keeper Tim Howard.
("Hulk in a Nike commercial? I thought he wore Mizuno?" I know, me too! It's all very confusing.)
Nike has gone all in early, while it seems Adidas—creator of the official World Cup ball—is just getting started with the big World Cup marketing push.
Puma has decided to hold off until after the World Cup to try to capitalize on the brand push, with CEO Bjorn Gulden telling Bloomberg, “The car companies and credit-card companies have deeper pockets than we have. You die quickly," when trying to keep up with World Cup advertising. (Puma has been flooding social media with its players interviewing themselves, so it's not like it is doing nothing.)
Ultimately, though, it doesn't matter how many commercials the companies bombard us with during the next six weeks or even how many different colors, styles and textures each of the brands puts out this year.
What it will come down to for most players around the world looking to buy their next set of shoes is who they like and what they wear.
For many consumers, wearing Nike or Adidas is akin to telling the world you are fan of Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi. A fan of U.S. Soccer might be more inclined to shop Nike, but if Jozy Altidore is your favorite player, maybe Adidas is your move.
And with that, let's try to figure out which manufacturer will have the best team of player representatives at the 2014 World Cup. Which brand boasts the best 23-man roster? Which team would produce the best XI in Brazil?
Puma—A Resurgent Group
I did this exercise two years ago, pitting Nike's top XI against that of Adidas. While I had hoped to include Puma then, we didn't feel there were enough top players to make it matter.
Puma has a wonderful roster of talent wearing the pink and blue this summer.
While some of its players won't make the trip to Brazil because of team omissions—Edu, Mikel Arteta, Gael Clichy and Ibrahim Afellay are the most notable of the group—or because their countries failed to qualify—Nemanja Vidic and Tomas Rosicky are the most recognizable of that bunch—the players who will be in Brazil representing Puma are still quite impressive.
The issue with Puma is a sheer lack of depth, exacerbated by the loss of Radamel Falcao, who was unable to return from injury in time to lead the Colombians into Brazil. That's a terrible loss for the World Cup and a devastating omission for country and, in this case, brand.
It was already difficult to find enough players to fill Puma's roster, but the loss of Falcao made it virtually impossible to create a 23-man roster of those going to Brazil, especially if we were staying with the list of promoted talent on the official Puma website. Given the brand plans a post-World Cup push, don't be surprised if a few more names show up on that list by August.
Still, with 16 of Puma's top names heading to Brazil, it might be worth finding another seven players from the stands to put into this competition. The rest are that good.
The combination of Gianluigi Buffon and Rui Patricio in net is as formidable as any other. While losing Vidic as a center-back option hurts, Giorgio Chiellini and Dante are pretty darn solid themselves.
Bacary Sagna is stronger on the right, but of the three right-backs it was easiest to put him on the left side of the defense and leave the right to Joao Pereira and Stephan Lichtsteiner to battle for a starting spot (we gave it to Pereira).
And then comes all the real talent. The midfield and forward positions for Puma are simply wonderful.
Yaya Toure may be the most versatile player on the planet today. Marco Reus may be the best player 25 or younger—his birthday was May 31—playing in Europe today. He's that good, and he is only going to get better for Germany and presumably for Puma.
Reus would be backed by another young European star in Marco Verratti, who could probably start for this team if it weren't for Cesc Fabregas and Santi Cazorla fighting for the other attacking midfield spot.
And then come the forwards, Sergio Aguero, Mario Balotelli and Olivier Giroud as the man in the middle, taking the spot reserved for Falcao.
Even though Puma lacks World Cup depth, that starting XI might still be lethal together.
I mean that header in the nicest possible way. The public relations gurus at Adidas sent over a list of players heading to the World Cup, and the list is literally offensive...as in the number of offensive players connected to Adidas is so immense that it's impossible to put together a balanced roster of stars.
There are hundreds of players wearing Adidas, but there is no way we are building a World Cup roster without Luis Suarez, Robin van Persie, Thomas Mueller, Arjen Robben or a handful of other offensive players in the mix just to add a few marginal defenders.
So, we eliminated the center-backs completely and installed a 2-2-3-3 lineup, with two wing defenders, two central defending midfielders, three attacking midfielders and three forwards. Truly, wonderfully offensive.
And truth be told, with players like Xavi, Mesut Ozil, David Silva and Lionel Messi on the field, the likelihood of any other team controlling the ball enough to make a center-back necessary is slim to none.
This team is so good that there wasn't a spot for players like Edinson Cavani (the last player cut to make room for one more defender, just in case), Ezequiel Lavezzi, David Villa, Fernando Torres, Andres Guardado, Nani, Andre Schuerrle, Lucas Moura, Shinji Kagawa and Frank Lampard, with Riccardo Montolivo missing out due to a broken leg during camp. Ouch.
It's worth noting this roster is also without Gareth Bale, because for some reason Wales and England are considered separate for events like the World Cup but not for events like the Olympics.
With that, the keepers for this star-studded Adidas 23 are Manuel Neuer, spelled by Iker Casillas, with Dani Alves, Leighton Baines, Cesar Azpilicueta and Marcelo working the defensive flanks.
Installing Alves in the starting XI allows Philipp Lahm to move into a defensive midfield role in lieu of a traditional center-back, working alongside Xabi Alonso in the back. That group could be subbed for Italian Daniele De Rossi or Steven Gerrard, who benefited from Montolivo's injury to make this team and, like the Italian, is probably more of an attacking piece than a de facto center-back.
The attack is expectedly fantastic, with Silva, Xavi and Ozil starting over the German duo of Thomas Mueller and Bastian Schweinsteiger and young Colombian James Rodriguez, who slid onto the team just ahead of Schuerrle. (The German top six is just flat-out insane, isn't it?)
There is little room for more attacking players on this team with Suarez, Messi and Robin van Persie up top—and Arjen Robben, Angel Di Maria, Karim Benzema and Diego Costa as subs.
Feel free to swap RVP with Robben or Costa if you prefer. The team would not be any less dynamic, just different in an equally talented way.
There is little balance on the Adidas team, but who cares with how much offensive firepower it is bringing to Brazil?
The Nike list, like that of Adidas, was harder to cut down to 23 than it was to fill, with enough stars going to Brazil to build an effective team. With some help from the Nike PR office, we put together a list of players that, unlike Adidas, had a much more balanced feel. That doesn't mean the team is necessarily better, but it is certainly more balanced.
Before we get to those who made the cut, there are some big names left off the list. Sorry, Landon Donovan, but you have to be included in the World Cup to be included in this. And sorry too to Clint Dempsey, who did not make the final cut for Nike's squad.
Joining Dempsey on the outside were Jerome Boateng, Hugo Lloris, Robert Lewandowski and Yohan Cabaye, among dozens of others.
And Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Poor, poor Zlatan, who would obviously be the starting striker for this team had he been on a World Cup roster.
Enough about who isn't there; let's talk about who is. Thibaut Courtois gets the nod in goal over Tim Howard, if for no other reason than Howard let up the game-winning goal in that all-Nike pickup match to a little kid doing a Panenka.
Nike would employ a very Italian-inspired 3-4-3 formation, with Thiago Silva, Raphael Varane and Gerard Pique as the back three, supported by Sergio Ramos, David Luiz and Pepe. Frankly, of that group, Luiz might be a better option to start, but since we already had a Brazilian for PSG on the back line, who needs two?
The midfield is just as balanced as the overall roster. Starting nods were given to Luka Modric in the holding role and Eden Hazard, Andrea Pirlo and Andres Iniesta in more attacking positions, with options off the bench nearly as good at every spot.
Pablo Zabaleta is more of a wing defender, but with three center-backs there was no place for him on the back line, giving the Nike team the versatility to slide him in if it had a lead. Similarly, Michael Bradley could spell Modric and move up into more of an attacking role if needed.
Mario Goetze could play anywhere on the field, and Wesley Sneijder might deserve a starting nod over Hazard or even Pirlo when he's at the top of his game.
The forwards provide the most controversial decision, as Franck Ribery starts on the bench behind Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar and Gonzalo Higuain, with Wayne Rooney, Didier Drogba and Danny Welbeck as the other options. (Editor's note: A previous version of this had Arda Turan of Turkey on the list instead of Welbeck. The inclusion was an obvious oversight, mistakenly taken from Nike's overall list of players without removing those not playing in the World Cup.)
Should Ribery start? Probably, but that would have meant moving Neymar or Ronaldo into the middle, which didn't feel like the best use of Nike's top two stars. Higuain provides a target option, while Rooney would give a little more in terms of possession in a second striker-style role.
Drogba got the nod because, well—you tell him he's not invited to this party. Go ahead, I'll wait.
The Best of the Rest
There are other brands sweeping up players, including Joma, Diadora, Mizuno and, most notably, Warrior, which not only produces Liverpool's jerseys, but also sponsors the likes of Vincent Kompany, Marouane Fellaini, English transfer target Tom Ince and Australian legend Tim Cahill.
Maybe in four years, the New Balance subsidiary will give the bigger three a run for their immense amounts of world football money.
So Who Wins—Puma, Adidas or Nike?
This is a question we can debate for weeks.
This isn't just asking who is better between Messi or Ronaldo; this is asking who is better between Messi, Suarez and Xavi or Ronaldo, Neymar and Iniesta…or Balotelli, Aguero and Reus. And there are 20 some odd world-class players to add to those lists behind them.
Looking at it from a match standpoint, though, Puma clearly lacks the depth of the other two brands. If Falcao were healthy, it would have my favorite attacking six of any of the three. Even with Giroud in the starting XI, if Puma had even one more top defender going to Brazil, it might win the best XI.
And yet it doesn't, which leaves Adidas and Nike. It would be easy then to split the vote, so to speak. Nike has far more balance, so the 23-man roster would go to it, but despite the lack of a center-back anywhere in the Adidas universe, the best XI for the three stripes may just top that of the swoosh.
It's close either way, and it would be amazing if we could somehow make this match happen in Brazil.
You never know: There are seven rest days during the World Cup calendar. I'll call the public relations offices, and you guys start bothering everyone on social media.
Before that, let us know what you think. Which brand has the best team headed to Brazil?