adidas Challenges the Sale of Johan Cruyff Two-Stripe Jerseys

Dutch soccer legend Hendrik Johannes "Johan" Cruyff died this past week, according to an announcement from his official website. While such news is not typically within our purview, there is a particularly interesting bit of information associated with the late Cruyff – one that speaks to the duty of an endorsing party and that also ties in with adidas’ recent bout of lawsuits in connection with its 3-stripe mark.

As noted by an array of publications on the heels of Cruyff’s death, leading up to the 1974 World Cup in Germany, the footballer now very notoriously stood up to the national Dutch football team and Adidas in regards to wearing the brand’s three-stripe logo. For the World Cup, the Netherlands national football team, as captained by Cruyff, joined with adidas, which sponsored the team and served as its kit supplier. The problem: Cruyff personally was sponsored by German sportswear brand, Puma (which supplied him with their iconic Puma King boots). Because of his existing relationship with Puma, Cruyff – one of the most influential figures in football history – was unwilling (and potentially, unable) to wear the three-striped Dutch national jersey and instead, insisted that adidas make a custom two-striped version just for him.

In hindsight, we know that Cruyff got exactly what he demanded. According to Howler magazine, “The Netherlands national soccer association had little choice but to honor the wishes of the world’s best player, and Dutch officials eventually persuaded adidas to design a separate jersey just for Cruyff: two stripes running along the sleeves, not three.” So, while all his teammates wore orange shirts with adidas’ three-striped logo running down the sleeves, Cruyff’s shirt had two.

THE AFTERMATH

Maybe even more interesting, however, is the aftermath of the 1974 World Cup jersey debacle. Fast forward forty years later, when adidas threatened to sue Cruyff in connection with the same jersey. In 2014, Cruyff took to his weekly column in De Telegraaf newspaper to describe the revived controversy with Herzogenaurach-headquartered adidas. He noted:

"My sportswear company received a letter from Adidas's lawyer this week, stating that it should immediately stop selling my 1974 World Cup jersey. I don't understand this. That jersey has been made to avoid advertising Adidas, where I did not have a contract at the time. I had ordered a Netherlands jersey with two stripes and Cruyff Sportswear thought it was a good idea to make a replica jersey forty years later with the logo of my brand and the No. 14 on the back. Those two stripes belong to me, especially when they are combined with the No. 14. They are part of my identity and they do not belong to Adidas, but only to me. I hope this issue will blow over, because no one thinks this shirt is an Adidas jersey."

In his 2014 column, Cruyff touched on a particularly timely issue, given adidas’ recent bout of trademark-motivated lawsuit filings. You may recall that the German sportswear giant has been on a bit of a litigation-spree over the past year or so in connection with the unauthorized use of its three-stripe trademark. While some of the lawsuits the sportswear giant has filed have been arguably very straightforward – with the defendants, such as Marc Jacobs, Skechers, and Forever 21 using the three-stripe mark in its entirety – others have been less clear cut. For instance, adidas filed a trademark infringement lawsuit against Belgian footwear company, Shoe Branding Europe BVBA, alleging that its sale of sneakers bearing a two-stripe trademark amounted to trademark infringement, as the two stripes were confusingly similar to adidas’ 3-stripe design.

Last month, the General Court of the European Union ruled in Adidas’s favor in that case, holding that the German sportswear giant alone has the right to its famous "three stripes" trademark amongst its 28-member nations and that Shoe Branding Europe BVBA’s use of two “parallel stripes placed on the side of sports shoes” was, in fact, infringing the adidas three-stripe mark.

This recent ruling comes after a 2008 case, in which an Oregon jury found that U.S footwear retailer, Payless, willfully infringed adidas’ 3-stripe trademark by selling sneakers bearing 2 and 4 stripes marks. According to adidas’s complaint, Payless’ sneakers not only contained 2 or 4 parallel stripes on the sides of Payless’ products, but many of Payless’ sneakers looked very similar to certain adidas designs – which certainly helped bolster adidas’ case.  The jury awarded adidas over $300 million in damages, but ultimately reduced the amount to $65 million.

As of now, it seems that Cruyff Sportswear has not backed down following its receipt of cease and desist letters from adidas regarding its use of the two-stripes on garments. In fact, Cruyff Classics – the e-commerce site associated with Cruyff’s official website – is selling at least two shirts and a pair of shorts that bear the two-stripe mark, along with the number 14, on them. While the recent ruling issued by the General Court of the European Union may prove problematic for Cruyff Sportswear, maybe the company will be as successful in its demands at the late Cruyff was in connection with his 1974 World Cup jersey. Stay tuned …