The 2014 FIFA World Cup is not only a stage where the world's best players proudly compete for their respective countries, but it's also the battleground upon which companies like Nike, Adidas and Puma go to war. Each of them arm their sponsored teams and players with their finest technology in the hope they win and showcase it to the millions watching.
But do coaches really care about the kit, or is it just another form of advertising that brings in another pay cheque?
Furthermore, could a team's choice of clothing really be the difference between winning and losing? As expected, the marketing literature of each company tries its best to convince you it really can, but looking at the science, it seems their claims may be less concrete than they would have you believe.
Firstly, which brand has the most technology in Brazil? It's mainly dominated by the big three: Nike has 10 teams, Adidas has nine and Puma has eight, with Lotto, Burrda, Uhlsport, Joma and Marathon all making smaller contributions.
You can check out every country's World Cup kits here.
However, despite having fewer teams in the competition, Puma seem the most aggressive in the marketing of their PWR ACTV clothing. They claim it will give Italy, Cameroon, Algeria and Ghana a technological advantage over the Adidas- and Nike-clothed competition. What's more, looking at the extremely slick and professional video that unveils the Italian kit, you almost become convinced.
So what makes Puma's PWR ACTV clothing so special?
According to NDTV, it's the unique way in which Puma combine compression-fit fabric and athletic taping within the clothing itself. Specifically, they claim the athletic taping on the front helps stabilise the abdominal muscles, which in turn helps the player balance while simultaneously relaxing the midriff for deeper breathing, which can then enhance endurance. To quote Rajiv Mehta, managing director of Puma India: "The tape on the back of the shirt is located on the shoulder blades and lower back, helping assist posture and increase stability."
But can some strategically placed tape really give you the balance of Lionel Messi and the endurance of Dirk Kuyt? While there's been very little published research conducted specifically on Puma's PWR ACTV clothing, the athletic taping used is very similar to a form of elastic therapeutic tape that's been used in sport and rehab for years.
Known as kinesio taping, it was first introduced in the 1970s by chiropractor Dr. Kenzo Kase as a way of supporting injured joints and muscles. It involves placing an elastic cotton strip with an acrylic adhesive to the body in certain areas that's designed to support and improve athletic performance.
Although over 30 years old, kinesio taping was only really made popular when it was donated to 58 countries and used by several high-profile athletes—like U.S. volleyball gold medalist Kerri Walsh—during the 2008 Olympic Games, according to The New York Times.
It's since been used in most sports from tennis to rugby and wrestling, and more recently it has been spotted at the World Cup as worn by Mexico's Javier Hernandez and Croatia's Ivica Olic. Plus, according to sports scientists from the Department of Kinesiology at San Jose State University in California, USA, this is all for good reason too.
Researchers set out to determine the effects kinesio taping had on trunk extension, flexion and lateral flexion. Put more simply, they wanted to test how the kinesio tape helped the flexibility and strength of the lower back.
Thirty healthy subjects were made to perform two tests that measured range of motion, both with and without the kinesio tape. Results revealed: "Kinesio tape applied over the lower trunk may increase active lower trunk flexion range of motion."
They did, however, also add: "Further investigation on the effects of kinesio tape is warranted."
Researchers from the Sports Performance Research Institute at the Auckland University of Technology in New Zealand echoed that opinion, acknowledging kinesio tape had an effect on muscle activity, but said: "It was unclear whether these changes were beneficial or harmful."
In conclusion, kinesio tape may have a small beneficial role in improving strength, range of motion in certain injured cohorts and force sense error compared with other tapes, but further studies are needed to confirm these findings.
Finally, and worth noting, scientists published a closing statement saying: "The amount of case study and anecdotal support for kinesio tape warrants well designed experimental research, particularly pertaining to sporting injuries, so that practitioners can be confident that kinesio tape is beneficial for their athletes."
Therefore, in summary, it seems there's not yet conclusive evidence to support the use of kinesio tape either as a performance-enhancing aid or recovery tool. This means there's even less evidence to suggest integrating it into the fabric of a shirt would "assist posture and increase stability".
That's not to say it won't work, and that's not to say it won't interfere with the result of the World Cup—even if just a placebo—but to date, based on the evidence, we just don't know. This also means future research is perhaps needed before Puma can really wax lyrical about their technological clothing advantage.