Look, I like soccer ads sometimes. I even like soccer ads that a lot of people hate, like the one during the 1998 World Cup that featured a Massive Attack song and some black and white shots of soccer players taking free kicks in what looks like one of those indoor mountain climbing gyms.
Well, I liked that one because I thought I liked the song at the time, until I found out later I didn't.
Anyway, Nike's latest effort has everyone going crazy. Like telling me on twitter it's FUCKING AWESOME (all caps, natch). But I don't like it much, and while there isn't a little contrarianism in that stance (call me the Christopher Hitchens of soccer ad critiques), I do have my reasons.
Part of the whole problem for me is that the release of a mega-conglomerate sweatshop football boots advertisement is now considered An Event. How do we know? Well, The Foreign Guy Who Makes Powerful Movies Sometimes With Foreign People and Sometimes with Hollywood People directed it. And it's a big enough deal for Paolo Bandini to do a proper write-up on it for the Guardian, mentioning previous Nike efforts as if this new one were a sequel of sorts. Bandini's piece even reads kind of like a movie review (a lukewarm review, no less).
The hyperbole is intended to echo some of the breathless media coverage of the World Cup. It's not a soccer tournament, it's THE SPORTING EVENT OF THE SUMMER, in theatres and pubs Starting June 11th (a Friday no less). Nike wants to be your chum in the excited build-up to the tournament by being manic and self-referential, dropping knowing references (although generally accessible ones) like a middle schooler peppering his conversation with asides lifted from Robot Chicken and Family Guy.
First we have Ivory Coast vs. the Blue Team That Is Italy, played in Johannesburg's famous (and apparently plastic pitched) Nike Stadium Brought to You by Nike. An immense Didier Drogba loops a shot over a defender, and various African announcers and villagers in nameless African cities across the Great Nation of Africa bang drums and adjust their aging TVs— there's Africa, sorted.
Except no! Fabio Cannavaro saves Italy's Proscuitto by doing one of those last ditch bicycle kicks to clear the ball off the line (out of position again, are we Fabio?). Then we get a shot of one of those ghastly Italian variety shows to celebrate Cannavaro's heroism, we're all in on the joke again—there's Italy, sorted.
It goes on like this, with England Rooney facing off against The White Team that is France, failing and then redeeming himself in short order. That allows Nike to showcase two alternate realities: first, a stock market crash and a harmlessly quick shot of English hooligans, with a bearded and presumably destitute Rooney in a trailer park looking on at a giant Ribery billboard (footballers living in poverty, what a gas!). Then after a decent side tackle, we get Wayne babies and a knighting from the same woman who played Queen Elizabeth in the Naked Gun. England, sorted.
It goes on like this. Ronaldinho—who isn't included in Dunga's squad—does a step over on Nike's plastic pitch of the sort that would make Garrincha weep with laughter, with Kobe Bryant imitating him (reference!) and YouTube views in the millions (reference!). Ronaldo has an enormous paper maché statue unveiled (reference!), has a movie made after his life starring Gael Garcia Bernal (reference!), and then nutmegs Homer Simpson (ref—ah, forget it).
Look, I know soccer boots are important (see Cruyff's Adidas versus Holland's Puma). And I think it's a good ad on its own merits. But it doesn't capture anything interesting about soccer. The tournament is about countries, rivalries, ordinary fans, not how fans go mad over the actions of individual players. That's what separates it from baseball. I get that the ad is supposed to be hyperbolic, but the strain it extrapolates from (obsession with individual players) doesn't really exist in the World Cup. Even with Maradona's brilliance, you still need Barruchaga, you still need those white and blue shirts, you still need France and Italy, not Ribery wearing a featureless blue shirt and Cannavaro wearing a featureless white.
I know Nike has the budget to do whatever they want, but I'm still mesmerized by those NHL History Will be Made ads. A key moment from old playoff games reversed in slow motion. Simple, inexpensive, oddly moving, and better yet, endlessly imitable. We have to watch this ad a million times between now and July 11th; some room for variety, and simplicity, would have gone a long way.