Nike and the Evolution of Soccer Stardom

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Nike’s first global soccer ad, released in 1994 as the United States hosted its first World Cup, ends with a Jorge Campos save. Twenty years later, both of Nike’s showcase ads—“Dare to Be Brasilian” and “The Last Game” —end with soft goals tapped in by, respectively, Neymar and Cristiano Ronaldo. The “Winner Stays” ad, also from this year, ends with a young man’s putting a panenka past Tim Howard. From a save to soft goals, twenty years of Nike soccer ads traces a change in both how we experience sports and the meaning of global celebrity.

The 1994 spot—a Wieden+Kennedy production, like all of Nike’s advertising—opens with a billboard of Eric Cantona that comes to life and launches a ball from Paris to a billboard in another city. There are at least two versions of the ad, but they follow the same script: From billboard to billboard, from metropolis to metropolis, the ball is kicked by famous soccer players until it lands in Rio de Janeiro, where a Romário billboard crosses to Bebeto, who strikes a shot at a neon Nike sign a building away from a Jorge Campos billboard. The flamboyant Mexican goalkeeper saves the shot, but the sign flickers and teeters at an angle.

Although it features no words and no music, the ad quietly establishes other rhythms of W+K's approach to soccer for the next twenty years. In Cantona, they found a soccer statesman who would appear in their ads in some format for over a decade. They also built a stable of players marked both by their clubs (Cantona and Ian Wright represent the Premier League in their Manchester United and Arsenal strips; Tab Ramos la Liga in his Real Betis shirt) and their nations, as the Brazilians appear in their iconic yellow and green.

Most importantly, there’s a touch of humor. The swinging neon Nike sign—the trademark defaced—shows a brand that can afford to poke fun at itself, to show its own imperfections. Just as the Nike swoosh teeters at the wrong angle, Bebeto’s shot is saved. Without celebration or apotheosis, the spot closes with just a quiet smirk.

The next World Cup was the first to feature Brazil as a Nike product; in 1994, they were (as was Cantona’s United) sponsored by Umbro. W+K blended Brazil, Nike, soccer, and music together with an iconic ad showing the squad goofing off in the airport in Rio’s Galeão Airport while waiting for a delayed flight to Paris and the ’98 World Cup. Established stars Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos are joined by young phenom Denilson, introducing yet another Nike trope—latching on to rising young stars.

Cantona’s satisfied nod of approval out the window of a taxiing airplane matches the reaction the ad received: smart, charming, appropriately World Cup–driven (no club kits here!), and, most importantly, playful. The ad closes with Ronaldo firing an easy shot at a makeshift goal but striking the post. Three young boys (two facepalming) look dejected, and Ronaldo wryly smiles at the missed goal while holding his head, knowing the mock gravity of the situation he just messed up. The ad’s dénouement ended up a premonition of Brazil’s directionless showing against France in the final match of that World Cup.

For 2002’s competition, Basement Jaxx’s remix of Elvis Presley’s “A Little Less Conversation” provides the soundtrack for a series of ads that comprise a short movie about an eight-team, three-on-three knockout tournament, staged fantastically in a cage aboard a tanker, overseen by Cantona, relishing the role of ringmaster/jailer.

The campaign is candy to soccer hipsters, who can instantly make out the various players, but the darkness, speed, and ultimate lack of context perhaps leave newbies behind. W+K have moved from players associated with clubs (Wright), to a national team (Brazil), to a Nike-developed group of pick-up teams arbitrarily put together. Since the players are all dressed in bland Nike warmup gear, there is no indication even for which country these superstars will be playing in Japan and South Korea. Imagine: “I like the dude with the dreads and sunglasses! I want to cheer for him! What team is he on? The Netherlands? And they didn’t qualify? Wait, what?”

The missed goals from the previous ad campaigns are replaced with a goal onslaught. Each 30-second spot ends with a goal, and we are even treated to an encore, first-to-100 match between the finalists that tears the tanker apart from the force of so much scoring. There’s plenty to like here, including a preening Ronaldinho checking his look in his reflection on the silver soccer ball, but it’s too much packed into too small a space. The campaign reproduces the cage of the tournament in its failure to broaden its appeal, and it also packs its story away decontextualized from the World Cup proper.

Furthermore, the campaign humanizes the soccer player, showing him to be a dude selling his labor value to a vampiric boss not so differently from the rest of us. Comparisons to the sweatshop conditions under which Nike apparel is produced are inevitable (and I would imagine unintentional), as seeing players get thrown from a tanker for failing to win recalls punishments for falling behind on piecework.

Decontextualized from the World Cup and reproducing a critique of Nike’s labor practices, one thing remains certain: the Elvis remix drives.

Probably realizing that a poorly-lit tanker wasn’t the best setting for a galaxy of stars, W+K returned to the Brazilian baseline for a “Joga Bonito” campaign in 2006. Cantona—looking increasingly like late-career Saddam Hussein—overtakes a German television studio and broadcasts a radically individualized soccer. Ronaldinho is given a new pair of boots to try and juggles the ball between shots that deflect off the crossbar (this was the first YouTube video to pass one million views). Ronaldo is shown nearly exclusively in retrospective shots of his career over the previous decade. Zlatan Ibrahimović and Cristiano Ronaldo try to outjuggle one another via satellite link. The players are alone and without their teams, as the filming takes on the status of a vérité media opportunity. There are no fans, no teammates, and again, little of the nation.

The isolation of the players is enhanced by the aggressive editing and Cantona’s philosopher/footballer routine that extols the virtues of these singular players. Yet the spot that works best (by far and away) is the one that returns to 1998’s formula: following Brazilians as they goof off in preparation for a qualifying match. In lieu of Ronaldo’s missed goal, the humor in this spot comes from the hazing Robinho receives (taking over the the aspiring youngster slot after Denilson flamed out in Europe) from the veterans. Robinho’s place in the squad is affirmed, however, as he is the last link in a set of passes from Adriano to Kaká to Ronaldo that yields the goal that closes the ad.

The unevenness shows the way in which campaign is transitional, though. Cantona praises team unity and team spirit but also relishes the cult of the superstar in his adoration of players alone in practice sessions. In 1998, Brazil was the star. In 2002, there were so many stars that no single player stood out. Now, however, it is clear: Ronaldinho is the current favorite, Ronaldo the star of yesteryear, and either Ibrahimović or Cristiano Ronaldo will carry the banner forward.

The focus on the individual explodes in the “Write Your Future” campaign ahead of the 2010 tournament in South Africa. Now each single player’s destiny is played out depending on whether they make or break a certain play. Wayne Rooney will either be a bearded man living in a caravan or knighted and the namesake of a generation of English boys.

From one perspective, the 2010 campaign laughs at the importance soccer fans put on singular events over the course of a 90-minute match. It seems like all of Côte d’Ivoire (or, well, “Africa”) is ready to explode after Didier Drogba’s shot on an empty net, and CR7 is to be rewarded with a Michael Jackson-esque statue for a free kick we do not even see him convert.

But just as the cage is a space both for humor and a reflection on the labor conditions surrounding global soccer and its merchandise, the deification of the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo in this ad campaign under national colors disrupts the very idea of national pride. Note well that in 1998 and 2006, the Nike focus was on a team that would likely progress far in the World Cup. CR7, however, sitting on a pile of medals earned while at Manchester United and Real Madrid, will never win a World Cup. He will never even come close, as indicated by his Portuguese side’s difficulty in even qualifying (they kicked out Zlatan’s Sweden in a playoff, which probably infuriated Nike) for the tournament in Brazil this year, much less their totally unsurprising crash out of the group stages.

Cristiano Ronaldo, however, is the most important Nike soccer player on the planet. In deifying him and in trying to claim that he’s a world-saver for Portugal, as opposed to for Real Madrid, Nike is only pretending that national pride, which emphasizes the team over the person, matters anymore. These superstars are to be hung in the stratosphere divorced of their national teams. Singular Cristiano Ronaldo already has the looks of a god. Now he is treated as one.

Divine omnipotence emerges fully as a theme in the latest set of ads. W+K have drained the humor for the campaigns, replacing it with over-the-top computer animation and an even sharper sense of player-worship. The “Dare to Be Brasilian” spot is a series of non-sequiturs featuring the players (Bernard is the Denilson this time around) on the pitch leading up to Neymar’s scoring on an easy tap-in.

Ronaldo missed in 1998, and it was funny and human. In 2014, Neymar scores, and it’s the easiest thing in the world. Moving beyond humanity, the players are time travelers or cartoons (David Luiz’s being animated is perhaps a reference to his resemblance to Sideshow Bob) who inhabit their own realities, completely withdrawn from their teammates and from fallibility.

“The Last Game” responds to this reading by pushing the idea that, in fact, the players remain human. Only they, after all, can save the game from clones designed to remove error from the sport. Yet W+K make the humans literally nonhuman, animating them in a way reminiscent of “Despicable Me,” under the leadership of a Ronaldo (the new Cantona?) recognizable only because of the gap in his teeth. These wriggling polygons on the screen, where Rooney looks like Blanka from Street Fighter and Franck Ribéry remains a name worth mentioning this summer, are devoid of organic nature, which is precisely what they are supposed to be returning to sport in the cartoon’s plot.

As with “Dare to Be Brasilian”, the match ends with a simple tap-in—now from Cristiano Ronaldo, who chooses against blasting in a volley from distance, claiming it’s too easy. The spot has a few cute moments, with Neymar’s persistent selfies recalling the friendly against South Africa earlier this year, but the underlying message— the vital importance of winning—is too heavy-handed for even Rooney’s hilariously broad cartoon shoulders. Should the (digitally rendered) human players lose to Perfect, Inc.’s clones, the imperfection of humanity would be vanquished forever. But because CR7 gets his tap in, LeBron James can start dunking again and everyone can cheer.

In the final spot Nike has unleashed for the 2014 World Cup, “Winner Stays,” it is no longer a star who scores the final goal. In fact, the penalty-taker outsmarts Tim Howard (a loyal participant in Nike ad campaigns for half a decade). Again the crucial moment is the scored goal (the fifth of the commercial), because winning is all that is important. As with “The Last Game,” this spot treads over the national difference vital to the World Cup by building together an all-star team of galácticos who each wear different uniforms. Returning to Cantona, Wright, and Ramos from two decades ago, Nike even clothes some players in their club strips. We see, for example, Gerard Piqué slide tackling in his Barcelona change shirt and Andrea Pirlo taking a shot to the face in the iconic stripes of Juventus. Instead of nations competing against each other with imperfect sides missing quality in certain places, Nike builds the Champions League Final of its dreams. Sweden didn’t make the World Cup? Zlatan transcends the Blågult, so put him in the ad.

Over twenty years, Nike has gone from a save to a goal, from devilish to deifying, as befitting the source of the company’s name. Virtues have been expressed, like the need for teamwork and unity, but they are drowned out by the positioning of athletes as something far beyond simply brands or celebrities. They have transcended to become disposable corporate deities. We may aspire to divinity in our purchasing Nike’s boots, but the spots remind us that our aspirations will never be met.

The billboards of 1994 were like the posters on a child’s wall. Like Hercules, the original generation of Nike soccer spokes-players resided in the liminal space between human and divine. Twenty years later, they have left the rest of us behind.

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