Friday, June 11th, 2010

Me Against The World

I bet he kicks it!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."

39 Comments / Post A Comment

beer (#1,073)

FINALLY, the I'm-American-And-Don't-Get-the World-Cup article I've been waiting for. Oh wait, what?

At least this one, unlike the other thousandmillion every four years, delved ever so gingerly into the gross corporate profiteering that plagues modern sportZZZzzzzz…

doubled277 (#2,783)

Right. I'm so tired of those articles, especially since this year there actually seems to be quite a bit of american interest.

And to be clear, I don't consider this article to be one of the annoying ones. This was good.

Serious question: are you likewise ambivalent about the Olympics, another Every-Four-Years-Feelgoodery?

I play ice hockey, so I'm predisposed to get defensive about the lack of respect for the NHL in America blah blah blah.

Perhaps, as a result, I'm predisposed to get into the World Cup as well.

City_Dater (#2,500)

@ Clarence:

Because hockey is also excellent!

Understanding and liking hockey goes a long way toward enjoying soccer.

David Roth (#4,429)

Serious answer: you bet, although I enjoy watching the World Cup a lot more, as does seemingly everyone else in the world. The difference — besides the fact that I just like soccer more than, say, diving — is that I have a lot of friends who REALLY care about soccer, and a steady freelance gig that requires me to write about it. The Olympics feels kind of silly in comparison to the World Cup, and its feel-goodery is that much more contrived, but mostly I just don't care about the sports involved quite as much. I think I'm roughly as into the Olympics as the average sports fan, but I know I'm lagging when it comes to the World Cup.

Also, I'm in total agreement on the similarity between hockey and soccer. Two sports I appreciate a lot, but in a totally academic way.

Blackcapricorn (#4,791)

I think that even if you don't know the players or the histories I still get a "We Are One" sense when watching the games, giving how many people around the world are watching the exact same thing you are.

/typical "its the true 'world' championship, suck it semantically baseball, rant.

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

Ha. Well written, American boy. You are just about to get it: Americans are strangers on this planet. This is why I don't have any love for you people, but also why I don't have any hate for you either. Which you should feel pretty good about, because I hate almost everyone. Most of all my fellow Serbians. Especially if they embarrass themselves in this World Cup, like they did in last one. SRBIJA!

Abe Sauer (#148)

Oh my. Maybe the Serbs need to join all those ignorant Americans in a Futbol 101 class, especially the section on, you know, not touching the ball with your hands during play.

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

I have shut up. Leave me alone.

City_Dater (#2,500)

Baseball is like watching paint dry to many, many people, myself included. However, I don't worry about it, since I'm sure baseball fans don't give a shit what I think.

shostakobitch (#1,692)

but what about fans of paint drying?

LondonLee (#922)

I'm not sure what you're so puzzled about, you like basketball more than you like soccer football, end of story. It's not really part of the culture her.

I don't get why everyone here loves KISS so much either.

jetztinberlin (#392)

I LOVED 21 Grams. I am aware I'm the only one.

Also, the only reason I care at all is because if anyone Spanish, French, Turkish or German wins a match there will be extremely loud celebrations in my neighborhood until 4 in the morning.

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

Turkey did not qualify for this World Cup, so you are safe there.

Abe Sauer (#148)

Trying to see the world cup through the spectrum of Nike is the beginning of the problem; just for starters, Nike is a terrible interloper to the Cup, an ambush marketing cutthroat who doesn't feel it necessary to pay any sponsorship fees to be an official partner but then leverages everything else it can to connect itself to the Cup in every possible "Marketing is War" way with commercials like Write the Future… all the money goes to individual players and teams sponsored by Nike (i.e. THE ALREADY RICH ONES).. not the game itself. And is there anything more American than putting on a rhetorical show of support for something while at the same time doing the exact opposite behind the scenes?

Statler (#1,222)

The Adidasphere thanks you, and will gladly assimilate your remains, convert them to shoe leather, and wrap them around the feet of aspiring soccer rugrats the world over. Immortality–in a form of creepy, commoditized mummification–is yours.

tampopo (#4,736)

I am suggesting this gently – maybe you simply don't get into the World Cup because America isn't a big enough part of it. You don't, traditionally, have a team to feel pride in and that is very much part of the World Cup – every four years, the same hopes and passion, and the same (friendly) foes. In the Olympics, the USA dominates. You can feel pumped about it. I would note that for the rest of the world the WC inspires far more 'we are the world' than the Olympics does. Somehow (not sure why), it is a more democratic game, and there is the feeling of actually being amongst equals in terms of the other nations, no matter what's behind the scenes.

tampopo (#4,736)

Okay – I've been thinking about this for a bit and why your piece sort of troubled me and I am going to write something which, if I am wrong, I quite welcome getting shouted down over.

Maybe the 'extra foreign' example is a particularly apt – why not stop looking for reassurance, and for something familiar, and seek to simply be part of what is strange and unusual to you? It has often seemed to me that (many, but not all!) Americans travel abroad with the expectation that they will find the familiar somehow, and get traumatised when it's beyond their understanding. And at the same time, that they don't feel 'part' of the world the same way that others do, as if everything foreign should either immediately make sense and square in with their personal view of the world, or simply be an exotic or curious quirk (so that you can come home and say, 'When I was in Spain/England/France, we did this *insert delightfully foreign thing*, or this particular thing was so weird'). There is less of an ability to see foreign ways of life and culture simply as is – another way of doing things, equal and no worse and no better to home, just a matter of fact part of the diversity of nations, cultures and societies, and to simply adapt as such without exoticising it or treating it as unacceptably strange. In my experience, in particular immigrants from other countries and young people from other countries who travel around, tend to better absorb other cultures on their own terms, with less expectations from what they 'should' be.

I expect this is nonsensical as I'm not quite sure how I feel about this piece, but I think it says more about just your personal inability to like soccer/football, but also about general expectations (since it echoes other American pieces) about not being part of something bigger, and more global.

BeRightBack (#59)

I think you are completely correct. And much more diplomatic than my initial reaction, which is that nothing is more boring than someone narrating his feelings about encountering foreign-ness as if that's what really matters about whatever it is.

David Roth (#4,429)

"why not stop looking for reassurance, and for something familiar, and seek to simply be part of what is strange and unusual to you?"

I mean, that's it, that and the rest of your very eloquent comment: the difficulty of just doing all that (at least and only for me) is what I'm trying to write about, here. If it came off like I was complaining about all that difference — like somehow bitching about how it's not more like basketball or whatever — then I guess I didn't do my job right. I know there's an inherently lower ceiling on the here's-what-I-me-myself-feel piece, but it's not like I can give you a technical explanation of Dutch Total Football or whatever — or even an appreciation of it beyond that I think it's fun to watch — so I'm afraid that my (limited, parochial, neurotic) perspective is really the most I can offer.

But obviously I would love for my response to all this to be different, and I'd love to feel more a part of this gigantic, crazy, awesome thing that's happening. The resistance on my part is unconscious, or maybe more accurately self-conscious, and I really do wish it was otherwise, because this all looks like a lot of fun and I'm kind of hanging on the wall. I'm working on it. I think maybe some in-game beers will help?

tampopo (#4,736)

I actually read the piece again and realised that it was less 'why doesn't this include me' and more 'why can't I access this?' than upon my first and second reading. I do still feel though, that there is some uniquely American difficulty to all this, whether it is because of the USA's lack of national emphasis on soccer or partly because when you are from the world's superpower, somehow you have a different relationship with the rest of the world's nations than they have with each other, both in terms of how you view them and how they view you.

And now I wonder if perhaps the thing for you to do is to simply go to the next World Cup (assuming the USA qualifies for it)? I think Americans are in a good moment international-sympathy wise — the election of Obama sparked goodwill and a fondness and excitement not seen for a long time around the world for the USA — and, if things are the same in 2014, there is no better place than football-mad Brasil to go and soak up the excitement and blend in. Of course you have traveled before, and met people from other cultures and countries before, but maybe what you need to do is go as an excited fan, not a tourist/for work, watch the games in the day and cheer alongside everyone and drink beer at night with Brazilians and Greeks and Nigerians and Australians and Spaniards and the French and the English and whoever else happens to be there, and just feel part of it. Get into all the good-natured teasing and the unexpected random friendships and the cacophony. After all there's nothing like the actual atmosphere of a game being played in front of you, right?

paco (#2,190)

This piece will someday (soon) be seen as yet another swan song for America's resistance to soccer and the World Cup. As you know, things are changing in the U.S. The next generation will be much more into the sport and the World Cup.

Maybe it's a coastal thing, but here in L.A., there is no way one could say soccer is an "elite" sport. Here , soccer is often the most democratic and open sport, with kids and adults playing on any green public space that the authorities won't kick them off of, allowing strangers and passersby to join the game, etc. (See Griffith Park, MacArthur Park, etc.)

I agree with Tampopo — many Americans can't get into soccer because there's been no one to root for. But the U.S. team is good this year. I do think that if the U.S. team continues to improve (we beat Spain the other year, almost beat Brazil!), these types of "I just don't get soccer" pieces will begin to dwindle.

joshc (#442)

I relish the opportunity to be an ignorant early-morning soccer tourist every four years, but the nonstop vuvuzela sounds like the edges of my brain trying to claw its way out of my skull. I hope that I grow accustomed enough to it to make it out of group play.

LondonLee (#922)

That noise is driving me barmy, it's like there's a swarm of giant bees in every stadium.

carpetblogger (#306)

I watched a game once and it seemed like a lot of people getting very excited about things that almost happen.

beer (#1,073)

haha, Nice try Abe… since when is FIFA not a corrupt, money-grubbing organization a la IOC? And how, exactly, is Adidas any better than Nike just because they decided to shell out the "official" sponsor cash? Exactly.

Abe Sauer (#148)

FIFA, like ANY bureaucracy, is certainly is no glowing standard of virtue and like all giant entities is self-serving and concerned with survival. But are you suggesting the organization is fundamentally based on corruption? And are you suggesting that Nike's ambush marketing activities (which include events ranging from the world cup to the boston marathon – another corrupt event?!) is not a viscous business move aimed at getting something for nothing but instead a protest of FIFA's questionable morality?

beer (#1,073)

Well, no I wasn't suggesting that. Simply trying to point out that if we're going to pull our our moral measuring tapes, we'd be splitting hairs talking about Nike, FIFA, Adidas, Coke, or any other corporate sponsor.
Also, Nike's "ambush marketing activities"? Please. Like what, Sponsoring and outfitting half the teams in the tournament? Quite the ambush there. You didn't happen to mention what makes Adidas so much holier for ponying up the "official" sponsor cash to FIFA.
Point is, either way, neither's involvement in soccer, from a marketing POV is particularly vicious (manufacturing standards notwithstanding). they simply choose to spend their budget in different ways. One pays to be an official sponsor (Adidas) which gives them first refusal of exclusive ad time on worldwide TV feeds. The other, made a six minute long commercial hoping it would go viral, side-stepping TV for the most part. It happened to work. Not vicious. Not ambush. Just two standard practices used by two different brands.
As for "something for nothing," I'd say the amount of money Nike's poured into those teams is pretty significant and gives them the right to use the likeness of their sponsored players and teams in their marketing.
I'm not trying to defend Nike, just think you're delusional if you think any of the corporations who opened their wallets to FIFA are somehow morally superior to the swoosh.

Abe Sauer (#148)

Actually, Nike's move is the definition of "ambush marketing." And I never said adidias was morally superior in any way. You're the one bringing them up.

beer (#1,073)

Ugh. No, making a TV commercial starring sports folk you pay to wear your stuff is not ambush marketing. Even if you put an extended version online.
And yes, you did bring up Adidas by association when you suggested they as an official sponsor were giving more "to the game" by ponying up for FIFA. if that's the case, I'd be interested to hear just how that is.
I suppose I should've just saved a lot of word and simply said, I disagree.

beer (#1,073)

Ah, touche. Whatever you call it, I suppose what I disagreed with in the first place is your insinuation that being an official sponsor is somehow a morally superior position for a brand. And that the money paid by such official sponsors, like Adidas, helps the game any more than Nike's "terrible interloping" of sponsoring players and teams. My point is/was, it all comes down to six of one, half dozen of the other. I've still yet to hear/read how being any official sponsor helps the sport anymore than what Nike does.
Anyway, a pleasure politely disagreeing with you, good sir. I'm off to get booze for this afternoon's Germany/Australia match.. cheers

x^n (#5,476)

What the world cup needs is to replace the soccer players with scantily clad vixens running through a field of sprinklers.

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

You people have elected a Kenyan for president. It's a step in right direction, but next time you need to elect some long haired Argentinean or a well dressed Italian (Guido baseball fans don't count), and then things may start to really take off for you.

Erik Kroha (#5,702)

WOT DNR. Once again David, you've managed to over analyze and complicate the obvious. This time it is of all things, a commercial celebrating one of the planet's last glimmer of unity and jubilence, the World Cup. The Nike commercial is brilliant, it pokes fun of itself and the rest of the world with all of its flaws. Yes, global capitalizaton sucks, but for now be glad its not you and me, in sut eefrika mate – versus the lions – yea? Because that's when you'll actually have cause for alarm.

Erik Kroha (#5,702)

See above^. I fail at commenting.

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