The World Cup Nears — What Will the Future Write?

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Over 12 million people have watched Nike’s epic World Cup ad on YouTube, and for good reason. Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, an Oscar nominee for the 2006 film Babel, the commercial is a spectacular paean to the world’s game, whirring from a sultry night in West Africa to visions of monumental triumph in an Iberian square. Nike pulled out all the stops for it, drafting in outside talent like Roger Federer, Kobe Bryant and, yes, Homer Simpson:

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Check your pulse if this commercial hasn’t pumped you up for the upcoming tournament in South Africa. But it also offers a perfect illustration of how a consummate team sport gets beamed through the lens of the corporations that bankroll it: brand-name stars are made into demigods against an almost faceless sea of opponents; a rapt global TV audience watches on breathlessly. The gaudy silver statue at the ad’s end of Portuguese superstar Cristiano Ronaldo — who in recent years has become the poster child of football’s globe-trotting, product-sponsoring mega-rich — is not only weirdly totalitarian, but also embodies (at least for me) an empty kind of glory, divorced from the real magic of the World Cup.

If Inarritu subtly intended to communicate all this, then props to him. But, inevitably, the World Cup’s proverbial facts on the ground have poked holes in Nike’s slick fantasy. This weekend, Didier Drogba, the Ivory Coast striker (and member of the TIME 100 Class of 2010) who begins the ad, suffered an injury that may rule him out for the entire tournament. Fabio Cannavaro, the Italian defender and team captain who in the ad chases Drogba’s goal-bound shot down, is in reality a fading 36-year-old coming off a disastrous season with Juventus, his club team. Neither the buck-toothed Brazilian Ronaldinho (whose shimmying dribbles go viral in the ad) nor Theo Walcott, the English winger who fails to collect Wayne Rooney’s lobbed pass, made the final 23-man squads for their respective national teams. Stars in Nike’s commercial, they won’t even be at the World Cup.

Adidas, perhaps a bit more wary of making such mistakes, opted for a somewhat more offbeat offering. With its own cast of international celebrities, it gestures toward the sport’s undeniable, er, universality:

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(Ignore David Beckham. Just wait for the cameo of Franz Beckenbauer — a German football legend whose steeliness has earned him the sobriquet “Der Kaiser” — toting an eye patch toward the end.)

Snoop Dogg aside, the World Cup in your humble reporter’s reckoning is never just about deified idols who rake in corporate mega-contracts. In few other sporting events is that trite axiom “no one remembers who came in second” less true than in the World Cup. Brazil won the 2002 tournament, but the memory of spirited displays from South Korea and Turkey has lived longer in the minds of the sport’s fans and commentators. And, for Brazilians themselves, despite their team winning the tournament a record five times, their most cherished World Cup side remains the elegant, twinkle-toed 1982 squad, which didn’t even make the semis. We approach each World Cup, not least the present one that kicks off this Friday, thinking more about the titans who will fail than the ones who will triumph.

And it’s in part the tragic narratives of defeat, of solidarity and struggle against the odds that make the World Cup so special. It’s also what makes football — a game of flux and flow, light on statistics and heavy on emotion — an almost mystical passion for much of humanity. Not for nothing did the French existentialist philosopher (and talented goalkeeper) Albert Camus write, “all I know most surely about morality and obligations, I owe to football.”

Camus also famously is said to have remarked that “time is that inconvenience in between football matches.” One must assume that, by “time,” he meant a measure of worldly moments. But, in the coming weeks, as you watch events unfold in South Africa, let’s pretend he was thinking of us.