It’s not, generally speaking, a good idea to read too much into a Nike commercial. Maybe if you’re Naomi Klein, seeking a way in to an examination of the dozens of interlocking injustices behind the brand’s bleakly glib brand of vicious uplift, but almost definitely not if you’re a sportswriter type trying to pin down why you feel weird on the first day of the largest sports event in the world. This isn’t to say that Nike commercials don’t have something (gross and weird) to say about sports on occasion, but relying on Nike’s reliably grandiose advertisements for anything other than a reflection of what makes Nike so squeamy is not necessary a good look. And yet: here I am, and here you are, and here is what is actually a pretty impressive and obviously hugely expensive long-form Nike commercial directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. It’s being hailed as one of the great commercials of all time, and it has been viewed over 14 million times. And while I can’t say it makes me want to buy Nikes as much as it makes me want to barf at the sadness of this crew of Special Economic Zone profiteers dropping $24 million on a freaking commercial, I have to say: the commercial does go some of the way towards explaining why I’m feeling more dazed than anything else as the World Cup begins.
Like most Nike ads, this one deals in weapons-grade overstatement. But unlike the new breed of Nike ads, which have disproportionately featured intense black athletes turning into monsters of late, Inarritu’s deals with a sports-related theme that makes sense. Instead of working the “that moisture-wicking workout gear looks fucking terrifying” marketing angle, Inarritu’s commercial gets at the outlandishly high stakes of World Cup soccer. This will be redundant if you’ve already watched the commercial-and you should, it’s a damn sight better than 21 Grams-but the ad’s general thrust is that each play in the World Cup could make or break both a player’s career and life and a nation’s spirit. While Inarritu kids the idea somewhat-a blown pass leaves England’s Wayne Rooney looking like a bearded Jason Statham and living in a trailer on some Knifecrime Isle heath; a converted free kick earns Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo a gaudy Michael Jackson HIStory promo tour-style statue in downtown Lisbon-the joke is one of degree, not of kind. This stuff matters a lot to a whole lot of people, is what I’m saying. Certainly a great deal more than I, personally, can comprehend. If it weren’t for the cameos by Homer Simpson and Kobe Bryant and Gael Garcia Bernal-$24 million, peoples-I’m not even sure I would’ve known the commercial was a joke.
I’m a serious enough sports fan that I’m supposed to offer some perspective on this particular lack of perspective. Lord knows I understand the sports fan’s lack of perspective well enough myself: I once wrote 1,200 anguished words on the New York Mets’ (former) fifth outfielder, and I’ll probably write something roughly that embarrassingly overwrought again soon enough. But when it comes to international soccer, I find myself on the outside and thus sadly and irretrievably in-perspective. I enjoy watching World Cup games well enough, and I love-because I’m one of those literary squeaker sports fans; if something goes horribly wrong, I could well become a George Will-type in a couple decades-the macro-scale stories of soccer-related uplift, unification, national aspiration, and so on. (Here’s a really good one.) But whatever haywire nervous response in my otherwise functioning brain makes me to go absolutely the-dinner-is-ruined apeshit over the humpy grab-bag that is the Mets bullpen has somehow decided to more or less sit out this grand-scale competition between nations in the most popular sport in the world. I can get into a middling tennis match or regular season NBA “action” with the quickness, I’ve watched fucking golf (albeit for work) and even kind of liked it, but I just can’t seem to get as close to the World Cup as I feel like I should.
Which is weird, because while I don’t play soccer and haven’t since I was in middle school, I really do appreciate it as a game. It can occasionally be slow going to those of us who don’t get the stylistic fine points, and it’s easy enough to make fun of, but the Beautiful Game is at the very least kind of pretty even for non-experts. The best soccer players in the world are as- or more-dazzling to watch than their counterparts in other sports, and the sudden transcendence of a brilliant goal-that instant and invisible shift from tense entropy to something graceful and remarkably different-is amazing stuff. As a relative soccer n00b, I’m constantly wowed by the otherworldly weirdness of what goes on at international soccer games, too. The 32 teams in the World Cup means that there are at least 32 different songs being sung during games, all game. During the 2006 World Cup, fans adopted a weird a capella version of the White Stripes “7 Nation Army” as a multinational fight song. The sport’s jargon is colorful, the team names even more so-Nigeria’s team is (are?) the Super Eagles, Australia’s are known as the Socceroos-and the sense of each play’s import translates pretty well even if you’re watching by yourself. The nonstop vuvuzela soundtrack you’ll hear in many games-plastic horns blown by fans throughout the match that add rush-hour-in-Karachi ambient noise to the proceedings-is annoying, but I can charge it to the game easily enough. It’s their game, after all. “They,” in that sentence, being “just about everyone in the entire freaking world.”
And while it’s not like “they” don’t want to share the experience, and while it’s not like the World Cup’s entire marketing scheme isn’t based on just the sort of We Are One uplift that should appeal to my goofily bleeding heart-they do want to share it and those World Cup ads might as well be a joint production between Benetton and the United Nations-there’s something self-conscious in me that can’t quite fully accept this (actually very generous) gift. It’s not like I want to be out here with the unbelievers, either-soccer skeptics are a sour bunch, split between know-nothing buttheads like New York sports radio colossus and human veal chop Mike Francesa and right wing anti-worlders who think soccer is socialist because America’s not the best at it or whatever. I don’t want to hang out with these guys, and I promise you I’d rather be doing some elaborate chanting thing with the hyped-up Paraguayans. I can’t quite manage either, though.
Soccer is one of the few sports I didn’t play at least for fun later into my life, and that may have something to do with it. And some American soccer fans can be kind of annoying, both in their corny know-it-all-ism and the occasional overreach of their conosseurship-soccer, somehow, is an elite sport in the U.S. and an all-things-to-all-people deal basically everywhere else. But I don’t think any of those things explain the distance I feel from the start of the World Cup relative to, say, the freaking-out-man excitement I get during the first days of March Madness.
The closest I can come to describing it, I guess, is to compare it to that feeling you get when you’re traveling somewhere extra foreign. Imagine that you don’t speak the language, that the traffic is heavy and loud, that the sidewalks are narrow and crowded and jostly. It’s hot, and men are arguing with each other, how good-naturedly it’s tough to tell. Weird fried street food for sale all over the fucking place. A square opens up around a corner and reveals a statue of a great national figure of some sort or another. People are taking pictures, local tourists posing solemnly in front of it-they took some crazy train ride from the other side of the country to get that photo taken. And there you are/here I am, staring up, flipping through the guidebook and trying to figure out just who the hell that even is up there. In this case, as in Inarritu’s Nike commercial, it turns out to be Cristiano Ronaldo. The hugeness of the statue and the crowd around it doesn’t make any of it any easier to feel what they’re feeling, but… yeah, it is pretty impressive all the same.
David Roth is a writer from New Jersey who lives in New York. He co-writes the Wall Street Journal’s Daily Fix, contributes to the sports blog Can’t Stop the Bleeding and has his own little website. His favorite Van Halen song is “Hot For Teacher.”