Friday, 2 July 2010

The Game Never Ends

I've enjoyed the last couple of game-less days. The plan to watch all of the fixtures was a fine one in principle, but it had begun to seem a bit of a chore to be honest. Not that I'm complaining about the level of play: I think it's been a good tournament so far. At the time of writing the two most exciting attacking teams - Spain and Argentina - are still in it, whilst Germany, Brazil and the Netherlands are playing with less obvious flair but still quite entertainingly. It's great to have Ghana in there and the two Guays are adding a bit of dark horse vivacity to the whole thing. So I won't complain. Still, there's only so much football you can take before a certain element of drudgery creeps in, to coincide with what is pointedly referred to as the 'business end' of the competition. None of the teams that are left in the tournament are in it to entertain at this point, if they ever did. Not even Argentina. They're all in it for the bottom line, and that is to win or, in the case of the lower-ranked three, to make a historic semifinal at least.

Success and failure. One of the side stories of South Africa 2010 has been the early exit of most of the Nike stars, the chaps who were supposed to write the future. I actually didn't think that the campaign was has bad as it has been made out to be. There was more than a little cheek in Ronaldo's dream of a colossal bronze statue to match the size of his ego and the sculpted iconicity of his Mussolinesque pout, and you wouldn't put it past that character to spit at a cameraman on his way out of the tournament if things didn't go to plan. It was always going to be either the triumph of the will or the fall of the ungracious.

The ad starring Cannavaro was genuinely funny, chiefly thanks to the brilliantly cast Bobby Solo, but I was intrigued by the extended version of Rooney's story, the only one to write in the prospect of failure. In this one the two alternative finales - with Roo either ending up living in a trailer park or bear-hugging the Queen and having all male boys of the realm named after him - was refreshingly open to the possibility that the future would be written by the non-Nike-wearing anonymous player mob. I felt that you could do something with that, that it wasn't as tightly controlled and depressingly closed a text as most sports ads are at this level.

I'd also caution against sneering at the Nike campaign because they might get the last laugh yet - Luis Fabiano Robinho is still in it, and you have to like his chances. They might yet get their ROI, if they haven't already.

But by far the more emblematic tagline of the tournament to my mind belongs to this commercial.

There it is, the drudgery, in a formulation that is a concise as it is soul-crushing: The Game Never Ends. And: Keep Playing. Moreover, it applies not only to professional footballers, but to the rest of us as well, who are left with no choice but to embrace that philosophy of sacrifice, that commitment to the ultimate effort, even in our streets, in our parks, on our beaches. No more of that old “that’s it for me, I think I’ll be heading home” business. The game never ends.

In panning cleverly from one country and one culture to the next, the Powerade commercial paints a vivid picture of global joylessness. It is not so much the other side of top sporting events as it is integral, central to it; it is the very serious business of winning, which is the thing that sport has in common not just with the military but also with corporations. Obvious as it is to remark, that’s why you’ll find motivational management strategies used in sports teams, and ‘team-building’ exercises and a whole host of sports metaphors, gestures and tics featuring prominently in the workplace. And for capitalism to reach maximum efficiency, it is necessary that leisure and work be as indistinguishable as the transition between the two is seamless. Work is play, and play is work.

I wrote that Argentina is as much in it to win it as the others, but I must also note Maradona’s very careful strategy to project the image of a team that is capable of having fun. It’s as if he has chosen to be the anti-Dunga, and for Argentina to be the antagonist of the reality principle that is Brazil, encouraging us to read this new and in some respects surprising chapter of the great South American rivalry as a struggle for the very soul of football. That’s the narrative that the shrewd Maradona is offering to us, at any rate. And it is a fiction, to be sure, but a useful one, if only to combat the feeling that what we’re about to do in the next ten days or so - when the game will end - is not to so much to enjoy a series of games as to conduct a review: without enjoyment, without passion, writing a future that is pre-determined by the objective and measurable superiority of the winning team.

You can watch the Powerade commercial in its full, exhausting four-minute length here.


  1. You're right about the Nike ad - it's clever and genuinely funny at times. But that's true of most of their campaigns. A lot of them have been very good indeed - who can forget the Cantona 'Good vs Evil' clip? Or the '5-a-sides on a big boat' thing from 2002?

    To be honest I think that's where the resentment comes from - they know how to push our buttons all too effectively.

    Just to be pedantic, the ad doesn't really allow for the prospect of superstar failure. It's not the 'faceless mob' who threaten to defeat Rooney and consign him to the trailer park - it's Franck Ribery and his France team. Neatly symbolic of something or other (corporate influence on American politics?) - they've bought into both sides, so whoever loses, Nike still win.

    I'm not sure that taking a jab at Ronaldo's ego constitutes 'cheek'. These adverts always (by their nature) manage to aggrandise the subjects while appearing (in their script) to deprecate them. Like Zizek writes about Berlusconi - his self-deprecating clownish mask doesn't have any effect on his ruthless mastery of state power.

  2. It's not the 'faceless mob' who threaten to defeat Rooney and consign him to the trailer park - it's Franck Ribery and his France team.

    It's Ribery and ten bit players, yes. The bit players are quite interesting actually. I noted for instance that the Italian goalkeeper is called Palermo - a plausible enough simulacrum.

    I'm not sure that taking a jab at Ronaldo's ego constitutes 'cheek'. These adverts always (by their nature) manage to aggrandise the subjects while appearing (in their script) to deprecate them.

    Ronaldo's was uniquely fitting though, wasn't it? And it set him up to take exactly the fall that he did in the game against Spain: where he played on his own, unable to link up with his teammates - just like in the ad - and failed. He followed the script to the letter, given that in the ad we don't know whether he's going to score with that free-kick, but in real life we know that he didn't. Ouch.

  3. Yeah, I'm not sure what to make of the too-perfect foreshadowing of the Ronaldo ad. It was predictable that he'd end in a strop of some kind. But parading his flaws up and down in front of our faces in a big-budget advert...?

    Seeing as Ronaldo spent about 40% of the tournament sat on the ground, staring daggers at the ref for not giving spurious fouls against him, I think we could say that he failed to live up to even the worst case scenario in the advert - in the real tournament, that decisive free kick was never awarded at all...

  4. And now all those superstars are gone, with the future belonging to the bit players...

  5. But oh, the manner in which Brazil and the last Nike star left the tournament...! That was an extraordinary game of football. Robinho started barking at Dutch players within two minutes of the kick-off, later had a major go at Robben for daring to go to ground after a very hard challenge. Brazil always in control of the game, yet lucky not to have a player sent off before conceding the equaliser. Then their reaction to that fluke goal was extremely poor. The team looked far too charged and inexplicably nervous. Maybe there's something to Maradona's approach after all.