By Rook Campbell

As a professor of sport diplomacy and former professional athlete, the idea of an art museum putting its hand in the fervently ritualized, mass cultural happening of sport grabs my attention. Upon learning of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s exhibition, “Fútbol: The Beautiful Game,” I was both quick to view the show and to incorporate the exhibition as a curricular component in my graduate seminar, Sport Diplomacy.

Recently, among the ongoing debates that my students have grappled with, one issue that has distinguished itself is money motives and profit incentives behind sport diplomacy projects. Do certain funding sources and/or types of actors presenting sport as a technique for social engagement taint the social goods and even, possibly the game itself? Can there be positive, lasting community engagement and real social good through corporate-driven sport diplomacy? These debates present real struggles for authenticity.

Throughout a recent semester, one student who I will call “Xavi” distinguished himself as the class’ so-called “sport purist” by consistently being the most loyal to and vocal about sport traditions. For Xavi, the likes of Nike, Adidas, and Puma on the pitch and around the game at large was and could only be about one priority: profit-making.On the other side of the academic encampment was a student who I will call “Corey,” who was wholeheartedly committed to a corporate diplomacy project. Corey was serious about re-imaging and proposing new directions for community engagement for the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) global community outreach campaign, NBA Cares. The classroom dynamic that semester was on fire in a positive way, as students engaged in dynamic debate.

When Xavi was absent from class, the other students did not know what to do. They needed his perspective and his skepticism that had, at first, felt like jabs of criticism. To make their arguments or further open the discussion in new directions, students would point to Xavi’s empty chair, and offer a question or comment on behalf of him. In witnessing these changes in the classroom community, I realized my students needed Xavi’s nostalgic bent and desire to keep sport’s commercial elements in place. The classroom camps–the cultural traditionalists and the commercial, corporate-friendly­–came to realize that we live, play, act, and operate fully in these co-mixed, contradictory spaces.

Often, we struggle to have a conversation about sport without ruining it. The same is true of art. Do our messaging devices (e.g. sport, art, diplomacy) and ends threaten to quash the freedom of our cultural relations and expressions? These cautions are, perhaps, all the more relevant when attempting to employ sport and art for a variety of social causes.

Among many formally beautiful, playful, and provocative pieces I observed in the exhibition “Fútbol: The Beautiful Game,” I discovered one painting that continues to fascinate me as an important and complex diplomacy subject. This piece is American portraitist Kehinde Wiley’s larger than life, 72” x 60” oil on canvas portrait of footballer (soccer player) Samuel Eto’o.

Wiley’s portrait of Eto’o makes for an academically rich case study,as this work involves a non-state actor’s diplomacy effort to use cultural media–sport and the arts–to engage publics and facilitate cooperation on a transnational basis. Beyond mere symbolic expression, this piece is enmeshed with funding streams, partnerships, and highly-articulated messaging strategies that raise questions regarding the nature of conflicting diplomacy and financial interests. I offer this analysis because of the important general diplomacy tensions and challenges it both raises and may help resolve.


Photo 1: American portraitist Keninde Wiley's 72" x 60" oil on canvas portrait of the Cameroonian footballer (soccer player), Samuel Eto'o (2010) as displayed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) from February 2, 2014- July 20, 2014. Photo by Ben Hooper

Photo 1: American portraitist Kehinde Wiley’s 72″ x 60″ oil on canvas portrait of the Cameroonian footballer (soccer player), Samuel Eto’o (2010) as displayed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) from February 2, 2014- July 20, 2014. Photo by Ben Hooper

Kehinde Wiley’s portrait, Samuel Eto’o (2010), depicts Eto’o with a masculine, majestic gaze, arms crossed, popping with veins that seem to pulsate through the painting’s fore-and backgrounds. This footballer’s vascularity continues behind and around his standing figure in a pattern of what appears to be flattened footballs or spherical globes whose panels seem comprised of green land and blue sea masses. These globes are framed by a pattern of clay-colored keys that both loop together and de-ring, a device by which Wiley pares down the painting to one layer.

A light blue jersey announces Eto’o’s number as “10.” Just above the number, centered between his pectoral muscles, appears the Puma logo: the leaping Puma cat. Above his heart, left of the Puma, is a circular insignia of two hands interlocking across an outline of the African continent.

For the avid football fan, these jersey emblems may be more easily read (and perhaps even dismissed) as “typical” components or advertisements on professional sportswear. Yet there is more at work here: the Puma brand represents more than a simple shirt sponsor.

This Cameroon player is one of Puma’s “top cats,” iconic and valuable beyond his nationality. Not only has Puma crowned Eto’o as a Puma Football Ambassador, but Puma also acted as the financial backer of Wiley’s painting. His portrait of Samuel Eto’o is one of four“Puma Unity Portraits” that Puma commissioned to portrayAfrican togetherness and the universalizing, common human aspects of the game.


Who is Samuel Eto’o? A global powerhouse and offensive striker on the football pitch, Eto’o represents Cameroon in football’s national sport model game, the game of World Cup-linked and driven competitions.[1] However, his sport talent also enriches football’s global commercial–not nationally organized–sport model, the game of corporate clubs. In this way, Eto’o’s sport prowess extends well beyond Cameroonian, or even African, borders.  

Eto’o entered football’s transnational labor flows in 1997 as a minor, when he accepted an invitation to enroll in Real Madrid’s youth academy. Since then, his talent on the field has been allied with top teams in the world’s most prestigious football leagues–Spanish La Liga, Italia Serie A, and English Premier League.

It was during his time playing in Spain with Barcelona FC (2004-2009) that Eto’o came to acquire a Spanish passport. This dual citizenship offers a particular and valuable distinction for Eto’o and other elite transnational footballers like him. Dual citizenship acts as a subterfuge by which teams can wiggle around sport governance rules that require compliance with quota allowances for “foreign” players (now, since the infamous Bosman Ruling, called “homegrown talent”[2]). On the one hand, Eto’o counts as a European citizen with his Spanish nationality working nicely in service to the commercial game. On the other hand, Eto’o continues to call upon his Cameroonian nationality while representing his country in nation-state qualified competitions, such as the Olympic Games, the Africa Cup of Nations, and the World Cup.[3]

Eto’o’s biographical details, as well as the access to power that he holds, make him fit for Puma’s ambassadorial delegation.[4] Eto’o is a global good: his celebrity has global currency. Though, draped in national colors of Cameroonian pride, Eto’o remains mobile, empowered, and privileged as a cosmopolitan. It is the combination of these characteristics that qualifies him to serve as an ambassador at both local and global levels.


How are we to understand Puma’s relationship with the arts, football, and the African continent? As Wiley aestheticizes Puma’s endeavor to celebrate its relationship with sport on the African continent, should we look askance? Is this art, or high art? Is this diplomacy?

Unmoved by the potential tainting of high art’s status by dipping his hand into commercial art enterprises, Wiley makes his subject, Eto’o, a masterpiece. This portrait is about an intentional engagement with the arts, pop culture, and diplomacy. Transparent in his full embrace of both the arts’ and sport’s corporate and money motives, Wiley creates a hyper-realistic portrait that exists in and in spite of the presence of conflicting interests.

Seeing art as a technology for social transformation, Puma’s art diplomacy endeavors to strengthen civil society beyond nation-state borders. Commissioned with the intention of producing a world exhibition tour entitled “Legends of Unity,” Wiley’s art offers a tool to affect positive change by facilitating cross-cultural dialogue and in gathering publics into the shared cultural space of a gallery.

In Wiley, Puma identified a culturally savvy, radical, yet consumer-friendly artist. Wiley only dabbles in the bold, confident, and powerful. Whether painting portraits of celebrities the likes of Samuel Eto’o or painting everyday people encountered on the street, his subjects become seemingly immortalized in trans-historic portraiture. Wiley subverts art’s rules of who matters,and thereby (re)declares what cultural spaces and doings ought to be valorized, ought to be canonized in permanence, and ought to be ordained as “high art.”

In Wiley’s work with Puma’s Unity Project, a clear art diplomacy enterprise has emerged. Wiley’s work has become paired with a specific and direct engagement for affecting change. The very issues of race, status, diaspora, colonialism, and power that Wiley’s work frequently raises are concretized in actual, on-the-ground communication campaigns that aim to give real-life meaning to notions of togetherness and unity in Africa.

Having briefly considered some of the fundamental backgrounds of converging art and sport diplomacy deployments, I now return to examine the artwork, Wiley’s Samuel Eto’o, as a way to better understand the piece’s conflicting political and economic interests.

Eto’o wears the Puma Unity Kit, a kit intended to be used in common as the third kit by twelve African national teams sponsored by Puma: Ghana, Cameroon, Côte D’Ivoire, Algeria, Angola, Egypt, Mozambique, Togo, Tunisia, Senegal, Morocco, and Namibia. Wiley has painted Eto’o from the waist up, incorporating changes in hue from the Puma Unity Kit’ssky blue into bronze-brown. Though not entirely visible in Wiley’s painting, the jersey that Eto’o wears is made to pair with a short tinted in proprietary “Puma Pantone,” a bronze-brown, earthen color created from the actual blending of soil samples from Ghana, South Africa, Ivory Coast, and Cameroon. This Puma project articulates a clear diplomatic agenda.

Though I am examining Wiley’s football portrait as a singular work—as I first saw it in LACMA’s “Fútbol: The Beautiful Game”—the portrait exists and should be read alongside Wiley’s individual Puma Portraits of John Mensah of Ghana and Emmanuel Eboué of the Ivory Coast, as well as Wiley’s portrait Unity, which depicts all three footballers, Eto’o, Mensah, and Eboué, hand-in-hand and hand-in-arm, together. In each painting, the players share the same number, “10.” This numerical equivalence is not a card stock issuance of a generic jersey, though it may be the result of an artistic or diplomatic contrivance. Rather, these players are on-the-field equivalents, albeit opposing equivalents.This common denominator, number 10, represents each player’s status and team role. The number 10 indicates each player’s greatness, vision, and ability to read and thus lead the game. In football, the number 10 makes things happen. This numerology is about status: the number 10 has currency for players and fans. Yet, as Wiley’s work carries these idolized footballers far off the field, the footballers become repositioned and read in an entirely different space, a museum space.The number 10 registers differently in this changed context: it becomes rendered more or less as uniformity, a standard sameness. We might read this as a transformative declaration: “We are all number 10!”These are the visual elements and messaging components communicating Puma’s corporate diplomacy campaign.

Football joins people together. But does football’s presence and potential tend toward solidarity or unity-building? Puma Films’ documentary, Puma: Of the Same Earth, describes the sport and art projects that Puma has set forth to better achieve the positive, universalizing aspects, the human aspects, of the game. The Puma Unity kit matters: according to footballer John Mensah, “It’s not easy for the different countries to wear the same colors.” If these celebrated players can wear the same jersey before their very separate fans, then perhaps change is possible. By embodying Puma’s graphic design, these star players help bring people around the world together.

In this way, Puma offers a visual thread by which to better unite nations of Africa, to foster post- or transnational identities and new possibilities of cooperation. Yet intertwined with this kit’s diplomatic mandate stands a solid marketing and brand extension campaign. The recruitment of the likes of Eto’o as a Puma Brand Ambassador, the commissioning of Wiley, and the production and showing of such formally beautiful art help reach and foster a brand community—to wit, Africa.

There are commercial interests in expanding brand recognition. Puma stands to gain in profits from selling replica jerseys, as well as its Kehinde Wiley-designed lifestyle sport apparel line–though these profits are shared with Puma’s partner, the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP), to support biodiversity in Africa.

In another light, Puma’s corporate diplomacy might be seen as an effort to compete as a global lifestyle sport brand. In the late 1990s, the globe was heavily branded by Puma’s rivals, Nike and Adidas. Only Africa remained as under-chartered territory. Less benignly narrated, in this version of corporate diplomacy vis-à-vis brand extension, Puma said, “Let’s own something”–and thus they went to Africa.

A real difficulty emerges in assessing Puma’s sport and artistic engagement. This specific sport and art corporate diplomacy case brings up a common challenge of evaluating diplomacy actions by a for-profit entity: is this opportunism?

Perhaps we might give this corporate diplomacy action negative marks for its temporary, short-lived nature. Even as the Puma Unity campaign’s messaging seems timely and well-calibrated, the Unity project may fail to continue over time. The Unity project, including the commissioned Wiley art and Unity kits, emerged in the run-up to the 2010 South African World Cup. After the World Cup, the presence of the campaign seemingly disappeared.

Puma’s strategy might be assessed more favorably in terms of its integrated marketing communication, which demonstrates substantial intentionality, commitment, and perhaps even reciprocal responsibilities with its brand community. Puma’s brand relationship with Africa has been deliberately linked with social causes. In response to xenophobia and a number of attacks against immigrants and refugees in South Africa, Puma refused to be a silent corporate actor, and instead jumped into the fray through its introduction of the Puma Peace Ball (2010).[5] This transnational corporation has the rapport and means to communicate effectively and powerfully with massive populations.


As I consider how to articulate the potential lessons learned, I recognize an uncanny and important similarity between this corporate diplomacy action and the topics that most perplexed my recent graduate students of diplomacy.

Notions of authenticity, prim versions of non-commodified sport or art, are by and large illusions. The stories of corporate diplomacy and marketing that converge in this case study hit at central cultural diplomacy tensions. Standing before Kehinde Wiley’s Samuel Eto’o in the museum, I was struck by how Wiley, despite the presence of seemingly conflicting interests, seems to offer a way forward.


1. In football, the national sport model is primarily focused on the World Cup, as this is the most sought-after and coveted prize in a footballer’s career.  The Olympic Games are organized on the same nation-state basis for eligibility to participate, even though these games hold less prestige than the end-all, be-all World Cup.

2. Union Royale Belge des Sociétés de Football Association v. Jean-Marc Bosman, European Court of Justice, (Case C-415/93).

3. Cameroon won the Olympic gold medal in 2000.

4. Though distinguished by a rather regal title, Puma Football Ambassador, this footballer-Puma relationship might simply be thought of as individual athletic sponsorship. To be sure, Puma demands a more active, reciprocal, attaché relationship from its endorsed athletes than many other corporate athletic sponsors.

5. Puma’s Peace Ball, introduced with non-profit partner Peace One Day, sought to raise awareness and change attitudes through a simple device—a basic football ball branded with Peace One Day logos—and an on-the-ground and film community engagement envoy. Puma’s strategic presence and commitment to community building and peace extends globally. In 2010, Puma was awarded the Best Corporate Social Responsibility Initiative at the prestigious Peace and Sport Awards.

Rook Campbell

Dr. Rook Campbell is a visiting professor of political science and diplomacy at the University of Southern California. Her sport research on security focuses on transnational criminal networks and global polity issues of sport integrity, corruption, match-fixing, money laundering, and financial market integrity. Questions of cultural politics and a discourse of freedom and rights carry through much of her work and largely inform her approach in looking at the regulation of global sport. She is author of “Staging Globalization for National Projects: Global Sport Markets and Elite Athletic Transnational Labour in Qatar” (International Review for Sociology of Sport, 2010).  Her current book manuscript is entitled Global Governance of Sport in a Digital Age: The Political Economy of Sport Integrity Regulation.