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Feb 8, 2013

The sweet taste of failure

(Disclaimer: This piece does not contain product placement.)

There was a lot of talk about curses this week. "Germany overcome the France curse," headlined a wire report on Wednesday, after our national team had triumphed 2-1 at the Stade de France to register their first win on French soil since 1935. Meanwhile, a popular sports website declared: "Victory in Paris! Germans overcome their French curse!"

However, what the Paris win should have truly ended for good is the talk about an entirely different sort of evil spell - the Nutella curse.

For the benefit of those readers who now wonder where or who Nutella is, let me explain that, yes, we're talking about the chocolate hazelnut spread manufactured since 1964 by Ferrero, a company from Alba, Italy.

Nine years ago, ahead of Euro 2004, Nutella entered into a sponsorship deal with the German FA and launched a marketing campaign based around up-and-coming, young internationals. Soon the word on the street was that whoever the company chose to promote their sweet, sticky spread would find his Germany career in tatters.

The original Nutella boys are still the prime examples for the curse, as Ferrero picked Benjamin Lauth, Kevin Kuranyi, Arne Friedrich and Andreas Hinkel for the initial campaign. At the time, all four were highly promising and much-touted, but two years later only Friedrich, the oldest of the four, would even make the World Cup squad. Nutella then dropped Lauth and Hinkel and replaced them with Tim Borowski and Marcell Jansen - enough said.

When contracts ran out at the end of 2008, the company decided to make a fresh start with four new youngsters: Jermaine Jones, Manuel Neuer, Simon Rolfes and Tobias Weis. Neuer eventually came through, but the others didn't - Jones even opted to play for the USA instead - and Nutella's overall record now looked so bad that The Curse became a pet subject for bloggers, conspiracy theorists, columnists, esoterics, marketing men and hosts of late-night shows.

It certainly wasn't the first curse of its kind, not the first Evil Commercial Spell. There are, for instance, the well-known and well- publicised Madden Curse and the Curse of Gillette.

The Madden Curse is said to be cast upon any NFL player who graces the cover of EA Sports' "Madden NFL" video game. The first, for the 1999 edition, was 49ers running back Garrison Hearst, who promptly broke his ankle and didn't play a single game in the season he advertised.

The next, a year later, was Barry Sanders of the Detroit Lions, who abruptly quit the game soon after. He, too, didn't play a single minute in the season he was supposed to represent. However, EA Sports reacted quickly and replaced Sanders' image with that of Dorsey Levens. But the Green Bay Packers player was haunted by a dodgy knee and so the face of "Madden NFL 2000" played only five games in 2000 and was soon released by his club.

The Curse of Gillette is of more recent origin. It says that the men who endorse the Gillette Fusion razor suffer a decline in fortunes, not necessarily of a sporting nature (as Tiger Woods found out). It's hit Thierry Henry and David Beckham and when Roger Federer was knocked out of the 2010 French Open and Wimbledon in quick succession, the journalist Ian Stafford almost gleefully announced: "The Curse of Gillette is Complete!"

A few months earlier, Ferrero had announced their latest line-up of sweet young things: Manuel Neuer, Benedikt Howedes, Mats Hummels and Mesut Ozil. The Curse had gained such wide currency by then that Germany's biggest tabloid, Bild, was openly worried: "Let's hope that this doesn't prove to be the new generation's undoing!"

At first it seemed as if little had changed. Hummels and Howedes, both members of the Under-21 side that had won the European Championship in 2009, didn't make the final squad for the World Cup in South Africa. And Manuel Neuer was only the reserve goalkeeper, back-up to Rene Adler and possibly even third-choice behind Tim Wiese.

But less than two months before the World Cup, Adler broke a rib and had to miss the tournament. National coach Joachim Low made Neuer, not Wiese, his new No. 1 - and suddenly there were cracks in The Curse. Good news for Nutella.

For companies like Ferrero, Gillette and EA Sports, an evil-spell theory is probably not a problem in itself, because, as the saying goes, all publicity is good publicity. The problem, however, is that many athletes are superstitious.

In late 2011, Peyton Hillis, the poster boy for "Madden NFL 12" said: "No doubt about it, things haven't worked to my favour this year. There's a few things that happened that made me believe in curses. Ain't no doubt about it." And he wasn't even badly injured; he just didn't have a great year.

If athletes begin to believe that endorsing your product will jinx them, you're in trouble, because either you run out of faces to use on your posters or you have to silence people's doubts the old- fashioned way - by fattening the paycheque.

I don't know if this is what happened to Nutella, it may have played a bigger role but that Foodwatch (an organisation that does what it says on the tin) heavily scolded the German FA in 2011 for endorsing a product that isn't necessarily part of a healthy diet. In any case, Nutella ended their co-operation with the national team later that year.

Since then, though, things have begun to look very different. Ozil has become an international star and Neuer the undisputed No.1, while Hummels broke through during Euro 2012 and is currently the second centre-back of choice (after Holger Badstuber).

Even Howedes is now part of the Germany set-up again, as he started the two recent prestigious games and went the distance in both, which also means that three members of the final incarnation of the Nutella boys have now been part of a truly historic win.

Of course we'll never know if this means that the whole Nutella curse was hogwash to begin with, or if it was lifted by Nutella's decision to get out of football. Either way, German football can now focus on spreading joy and nothing else.

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