Men's Watches

In a league of their own

The beautiful game is the inspiration behind some of haute horlogerie’s most striking and sophisticated new timepieces. Nick Foulkes reports

January 24 2013
Nick Foulkes

I don’t pretend to know much about the perplexingly named beautiful game; I find it opaque and about as relevant to my life as the tribal rituals of the Borneo hinterlands. Beyond the fact that I bought George Best the occasional drink in Tramp, where he and I were regulars during the 1990s, I have managed to muddle through my 48 years without needing to acquaint myself with the game of two halves. But I may be about to learn more about it. It is not so much that I am discovering a mid-life liking for the game, but that I am interested in some of the watches associated with it.

This winter, watch lovers could not fail to have registered the new advertisements for Breitling. Having become accustomed to seeing John Travolta promoting the Swiss chronograph, even the least observant among us spotted that the star of Saturday Night Fever had started to look a lot like David Beckham. On closer inspection, it was beyond doubt the footballer himself, striking a moody pose in front of a small business jet, a Breitling Transocean Chronograph Unitime (from £8,060) visible on his wrist.

Beckham has appeared in advertising wearing a watch before: about 10 years ago it was apparently possible to see the profile of a Jacob on his wrist as he promoted a mobile phone. But a decade on, it is the watch that is centre stage, showing that a new era has dawned in the relationship between football and the watch industry. For Breitling, it could be seen as a break with the world of aviation, which it has been stressing in its advertising for years, but vice president Jean Paul Girardin counters that the brand’s slogan is “Instruments for Professionals” – and Beckham is indeed a professional. Moreover, as the jet in the background hints, he spends quite a bit of his time travelling; hence his endorsement of Breitling’s multi-timezone watch. Girardin would not confirm if there are any plans for a Beckham watch (although there is a precedent; in the past Breitling had made a Football Timer model featuring a 45-minute timer, with an aperture that changed colour to show whether the match had stopped).

Today, Beckham is far from being the only footballer to lend his fame to a watch brand. Last summer saw the launch of a limited-edition Audemars Piguet honouring Lionel Messi (from £21,300), while IWC counts Zinédine Zidane as an ambassador and has dedicated a Big Ingenieur model (£9,350) to him. But some of these associations are higher profile than others, so while you will find it hard to miss Beckham’s Breitling advertisements, you’d be extremely lucky to track down one of the Franck Muller Perpetual Calendar Bi-Retro Chrono CR7 timepieces made in honour of Cristiano Ronaldo. Featuring bi-retrograde flyback hands to indicate day and date, there are also a moonphase and chronograph; the only bit of shininess is the diamond encrustation on the numeral seven, while the back features an image of the player alongside his signature. Just seven were made and sold to collectors for what Muller HQ calls “an undisclosed price”.

Footballing associations aside, a perpetual calendar with retrograde indicators, moonphase and chronograph is a complicated piece of kit, and is indicative of the developed tastes that now prevail in soccer circles. Marcus Margulies has long welcomed footballers to his Bond Street showroom, Marcus Watches, and is forthright about the shopping habits of players. There are, he says, two types: those who come for the bling and those who want the complications. Although he declines to name his customers, he cites quite recondite brands such as Urwerk and MB&F as appealing to those players interested in what he calls a “highly sophisticated watch culture”.

Much like the renaissance of interest in mechanical timepieces, which began in Italy in the 1980s, it is from Italy that footballers acquired their taste for haute horlogerie. In a country where football is a second religion, a club watch is of almost as much importance as a team strip. Of all the Italian clubs, it is perhaps Juventus that is most woven into the national fabric of stylish living. Its link to Ferrari ties it in neatly to that other passion of the football star, and there is something of a tradition for the brand that supplies the Ferrari watch also coming up with a watch for Juventus. The late Gino Macaluso produced the Girard-Perregaux pour Ferrari range of watches for 10 years from the mid 1990s, while his second brand, JeanRichard, made the watches for Juventus. Now Jean-Claude Biver, Hublot’s chairman, produces watches for the car marque, and he has also taken up the role of making the Juventus watch with much enthusiasm.

The black-and-white-strapped Hublot King Power Juventus (from £19,000) that launched this January in Geneva is typical of the exuberant style of watchmaking Biver has developed at Hublot, which has, under his stewardship, become strongly identified with football. Yet the success of some of his soccer-specific pieces has taken even Biver by surprise. “The most successful was the Maradona watch,” says Biver. “I made only 250 pieces, but we had orders for 2,700 – everybody went crazy for it. Maradona agreed to sign 250 shirts and every watch came with one.”

Biver began sponsoring the Swiss national side shortly after he took over Hublot in 2005; he then backed Euro 2008 and has since gone on to sign a long-term deal with the Fifa World Cup. He also sponsored the South African tournament in 2010 and will be involved in Brazil in 2014, Russia in 2018 and Qatar in 2022. As well as the brand awareness that comes from such high-profile involvement, Biver was able to meet players and managers directly. “Many players came to my hospitality because I have cheese and champagne, and it is a little bit different to the hospitality that Coca-Cola offers,” he says. It was in this way that he met Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson. “Alex said to me, ‘Why not become involved with Manchester United? We are not just a football team; we are a myth, and our brand is so well-known in Asia you could use the club as an ambassador there.’”

This was the birth of the Red Devil series of watches (from £19,700). In an inspired move, Biver – not a man to let technical difficulties stand in the way of imaginative watchmaking – gave buyers the chance to wear a bit of Old Trafford ground on their wrists. “I thought, ‘Let’s put some of the pitch’s grass into tiny sapphire tubes and each one will act as an index,’” he says. “It was not easy; we had to stabilise and dry the grass and fix the colour with a special chemical process.”

In addition to design touches such as the Red Devil motif and the grass hour-markers, Biver has made his football chronographs with a 45-minute counter rather than the standard one-hour or 30-minute totalisers. “In 2008 we made a special chronograph that every referee was wearing,” he says. “It had a 45-minute counter, so at a glance you could see where you stood.” He is now working on an indicator for injury time and extra time, developing a special module for the chronograph, which Hublot plans to launch in 2014.

Those extra minutes in which the fate of a match can hang are particularly hard on the nerves of the manager, as Roberto Mancini can testify. Mancini is seen as one of football’s style leaders, and it has been said that his influence on British player David Platt in the 1990s was crucial in broadening the horological horizons of British players. Now he is the manager of Manchester City, and after last May’s match against QPR he is very familiar with the drama of extra time. “We were 2-1 down and it seemed impossible to score two goals in so few minutes,” he recalls. “After we got the second goal I saw we had just a minute and a half left – and then we scored again. I think it was the most important goal in 35 years for Manchester City.”

Those moments were still fresh in Mancini’s mind last summer when he invited Richard Mille to lunch at his home in Italy. “I get involved only when the sportsmen can wear the watches,” says Mille. “Footballers can’t wear them on the pitch, but the manager is like the 12th player. So I asked Roberto, ‘What is the information you are missing on your watch?’ He said, ‘Calculation of extra time.’” So Mille went away to devise a manager’s watch.

Until now, Richard Mille sports watches have been developed to deal with physical, rather than emotional, wear and tear. The watches made for Felipe Massa (from £75,000) resist vibration and G-forces; the Nadal watch (£424,000) is lighter and stronger than any other Mille timepiece; and the watch for polo ace Pablo MacDonough (£421,500) has an armoured case to cope with a hit from a mallet or ball. The Mancini RM011-01 (price on request), however, has been built with a different sort of stress in mind: in addition to the flyback mechanism that counts the 45 minutes of each half, it accommodates up to 15 minutes of extra time and five minutes of stoppage time.  

I have yet to understand the difference between stoppage time, injury time and extra time, but in counting up to 20 minutes more playing time, the new Richard Mille for Mancini shows that, with the right watch, football is much more than a game of two halves.

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