Companies pay dearly to sponsor the World Cup. There’s no event more widely watched than soccer’s premier tournament—over 3 billion people tuned in in 2014—and FIFA, the sport’s governing body, is expected to generate around $1.6 billion in revenue from marketing this year’s cup.
But instead of paying to emblazon its logo on match-side billboards, Apple took a different tack—and it may not even have been on purpose.
Players from around the world have been seen wearing Apple’s AirPods wireless earbuds, and Beats headphones, which Apple also owns, before matches, disembarking planes, or even returning to their home countries in defeat.
FIFA has pretty strict rules around what it calls “ambush marketing,” where a brand pays players to wear or use its products before or during World Cup games, even though that company has not paid to be an official World Cup sponsor. It’s why any player you see wearing Beats headphones before a game, for example, has the company’s logo taped over.
But both Beats and AirPods have a distinctive look that is difficult to mask, even with the branding obscured. While covered-up Beats were a big marketing win for Apple at the 2014 World Cup, just months after it had acquired the company, AirPods are a more subtle sell this time around. The minuscule $160 earbuds are one of the few Apple products that don’t have any Apple branding on them at all. But when you see them on a player, it’s almost impossible to mistake them for anything else.
Apple doesn’t break out headphones sales, instead lumping them in a category called “Other products” on its earnings reports, which also includes Apple Watch, iPod, and sales of other accessories. But by all accounts, AirPods have been a success since they were first released in late 2016.
Apple wasn’t immediately available to comment on whether it was working with specific players at the World Cup, although it definitely has worked with soccer players in the past to market its Beats headphones. Perhaps coincidentally, Apple has been running an advertising campaign during the World Cup entitled, “How to shoot Football on iPhone X.”
Here are a few shots of players donning Apple products at this year’s cup:
Mexican goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa, landing in Russia, sported AirPods.
As did his teammate Javier Hernandez.
German midfielder Julian Draxler also stepped off the plane with Apple earbuds on.
Belgian striker Romelu Lukaku preferred a pair of taped-up Beats.
England’s Jesse Lingard showed up for training before the team’s semi-final match in AirPods.
As did his teammates Kyle Walker and Danny Welbeck.
Although their compatriot Marcus Rashford preferred to wear Beats.
The Argentinian team showed up in a combination of Beats and AirPods, although Lionel Messi, arguably the world’s greatest player, chose to wear nothing.
Similarly, Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo only had earrings in his ears, although his teammate donned some AirPods as they disembarked in Russia.
After a disappointing showing at the World Cup, Brazilian star Neymar prepared to return home, wearing AirPods.
His teammate Willian, however, seems to be fine with Apple’s more traditional wired earbuds.
Thanks to reader Martin Soler for first pointing this out to Quartz.