Love it or hate it, soccer’s penalty spot is at the center of the tension, controversy, and passion that make the World Cup the World Cup. Penalty shootouts determine the outcome of nearly one-fifth of the tournament’s knockout games. And because the nation that credits itself with inventing the sport has such a poor record in those shootouts, the spot takes on even greater psychic resonance for Anglophone fans reared on an England-centric soccer media culture.
In a recent interview, England manager Roy Hodgson declared the fixation on penalties a distracting national obsession. “I'm not a psychologist,” he said, “but I think if you go around all day worrying about a particular problem in life, there's a much greater chance that problem will become greater than if you are able to put that problem out of your mind.” Isn’t that a bit of sports psychoanalysis worthy of Freud? Penalties are so important and terrifying we should never, ever think about them.
With all that drama and all that anguish, I can think of no better name for Slate’s World Cup blog. Welcome to “The Spot,” where I’ll be your guide until the final game at Rio’s Maracanã on July 13. I’ll be writing profiles and features in the runup to the tournament and as the games unfold. We’ll also have in-depth previews of all 32 teams from Harrison Stark and essays like Alan Siegel’s great history of the 1994 U.S. national team’s hideous faux-denim uniforms. My own credentials: I covered the sport for four years as an editor at a British television network and Yahoo’s British sports affiliate and have since written occasionally about English soccer for Slate. I also have a passport from a country that once won a World Cup.
Now that all of that is in order, let’s talk about my favorite World Cup spot—as in advert. It’s “Winner Stays,” the latest frenetic, goofy, thrilling short movie from Nike’s brilliant advertising firm Wieden+Kennedy.
This new ad, a follow-up to 2010’s epic and beautiful “Write the Future” campaign, follows a formula that Nike has used for 16 years. The company takes a bunch of star players doing cool soccer tricks, places them in some sort of high-pace battle royale, splices in a bunch of in-jokes and celebrities, and glosses everything up with pricey production values. Score with an up-tempo pop rock anthem, in this case the Eagles of Death Metal’s “Miss Alissa,” and voilà. What can I say—I’m a sucker for this stuff.
The concept of “Winner Stays” is simple and relatable: Teenagers stake claims to “be” their favorite players, then transform into those world-famous athletes with all of their speed, skills, and quirks. Like previous commercials, the ad features the world’s greatest soccer talent, including Neymar, Wayne Rooney, Zlatan Ibrahimović (who sadly will be absent from the World Cup), Andrés Iniesta, Tim Howard, and many more, with Cristiano Ronaldo as the headliner. As more and more kids morph into their idols, the stakes grow higher. “Son, I’ve got 50,000 fans screaming my name,” a young player taunts Ronaldo, and the game is suddenly transported into a stadium and broadcast around the world.
The director of “Winner Stays,” Ringan Ledwidge, was responsible for the best ad of 2012, the Guardian’s equally brilliant and evocative “Three Little Pigs.” Like previous Nike soccer ads, whose directors have included Terry Gilliam, Guy Ritchie, and Alejandro González Iñárritu, the cinematography here is stunning, transporting you into the middle of the action. The special effects, too, are remarkable, with players and scenes transmogrifying instantaneously in scenes reminiscent of both “Write the Future” and this wonderful “Dare to Be Brasilian” campaign from 2013.
In addition to the beautiful imagery, the clip is interlaced with clever little gags for soccer fans. One kid accidentally transforms himself into a Spanish mailman named Iniesto. Speaking in the third person, Ibrahimović insists on taking a free kick in a perfect deadpan Skåne accent: “Zlatan thinks that Zlatan should take it.” Brazil’s David Luiz appears as twins and insults his own hair. As usual, the ad features an appearance by an American sports celebrity to make it more palatable to a U.S. audience. Kobe Bryant, who grew up in Italy and is a big fan of the sport, reprises his cameo role from 2010’s “Write the Future.” This time he sits in the audience cracking jokes with Italian free-kick legend Andrea Pirlo.
I’m not going out on a limb in telling you this is a great commercial. “Winner Stays” is the most viewed online Nike ad and YouTube clip in the company’s history, with more than 107.8 million views on Facebook, YouTube, and elsewhere. Nike communications representative Brian Strong credited a number of factors for the popularity of the clip, including the company’s ability to leverage star players’ Twitter accounts as part of its marketing campaign. (Ronaldo tweeted it out to his 26 million followers the day the campaign launched.)
Strong wouldn’t divulge the plan for “Winner Stays” during the World Cup, but he did say that it was phase two of their three-phase “Risk Everything” campaign. (The first part was this somber, cloying, self-serious clip from Sexy Beast director Jonathan Glazer about stars preparing for the World Cup.) Fittingly for us, the video ends with a predictable yet satisfying climax: a kid who hasn’t morphed himself pushes Ronaldo aside to take a penalty kick from the spot.