Barbara Lippert’s Critique: Redemption Songs

Planes fly overhead; locals celebrate in the streets. For the first time in years, there’s a palpable sense of national pride. Not incidentally, the blessed event has brought a level of media attention that’s all but unknown to this small African country.

The birth of the Brangelina child in Namibia?

No. And we wish baby Shiloh well and all, but geeze, enough already.

Instead, this is genuinely history-making: The national soccer team of the Ivory Coast, a country beset by civil war for the last three years, has qualified for its first World Cup ever. As a result, enemy factions are actually talking for the first time, and the president called a truce.

Even though soccer has been a mainstay of suburban kids’ leagues for the past 20 years or more, most Americans still don’t give it its props. We don’t even call it by its real name (football, futbol, etc.). Meanwhile, the passion, nationalism and devotion displayed by the average football (soccer) fan in most other parts of the world could make John Madden seem as outgoing as Boo Radley.

All this is conveyed artfully, with no small help from U2, in a new campaign from ESPN and ABC promoting their broadcast of the FIFA World Cup, which begins in Germany on June 9. (ABC, ESPN and ESPN2 will combine to air all 64 matches and a live Internet simulcast.)

“Anthem,” the first of four spots, makes use of engaging music (U2’s “City of Blinding Lights”), an attention-getting voiceover (the real Bono) and gorgeous shots of regular kids kicking and heading the ball in scrubby fields or next to graffitied walls. On first viewing, I detected some major pretentiousness potential, which was unsettling. Of course, I hate anthems in general. (I want to run, and I want to hide.) As pieces of advertising, they’re forced to take the worst of all possible tones: grandiose and sweeping on the one hand, while emitting all the usual blah-blah on the other. Over-reaching yet too general—what a combo. (But oh, the cuts!)

And old Bono’s done a great deal of humanitarian work, yes, but he can get a bit self-dramatizing. (Anybody remember the reveal of the American flag inside his jean jacket during the Super Bowl halftime show? Unfortunately, it was semi- hidden by his bare, sweaty armpit.)

So when he goes on about the power of the World Cup to “close the cities,” “stop a war” and “achieve more than politicians ever could,” it seemed like classic over-reaching. (Them damn anthems!) Then (talk about overthinking) I wondered perhaps if this wasn’t some kind of code, and he really meant to (modestly) promote the power of music, and more specifically, his music, and even more specifically, what he himself as human ambassador Bono has accomplished compared with mere mortal politicians.

But what did I know. It turns out the sport of soccer has in fact accomplished all that, and we find out how in the three remaining spots.

My favorite is “Sick Days,” for its humor, its rousing music (U2’s “Beautiful Day”) and what it doesn’t show: no stadiums, no cleats, no highly paid players performing high- flying feats. Rather, it focuses on emptiness (dishes piling up in a restaurant kitchen, a vacant parking garage) as The Edge tells us in the voiceover, “Every four years during the month of June, sick days around the world increase 300 percent.” (And by the way, who thought The Edge would ever do a V.O.?) He goes on to explain that “not one doctor’s note is required,” and no one is fired. Then we see cuts of passionate crowds in pubs and living rooms around the world. (This happens at the Cannes ad festival, too, with rabid crowds screaming into the night while running around draped in flags, like mummies.)

Another funny one (thankfully) is “Tartan Army,” which makes Scotland out to be the (pre-2004) Boston Red Sox. Adam Clayton starts off the narration with the line, “Yet again, Scotland didn’t make the World Cup. Not even close.” But we see the army of Scottish flag-flyers and supporters and face-painters taking the failure gallantly. (Actually, a friend who knows soccer said Scotland was in the tournament as recently as 1998. It’s also kind of strange that an Irishman is saying this, as Ireland’s absence from the upcoming Cup is more surprising than Scotland’s.)

Only 32 countries qualify, including five from Africa, four of which are going for the first time. The spot “Ivory Coast” tells the touching story of how the power of that country’s team is proving to be stronger than years of war and strife. The spot was actually shot in Africa, and some of the faces, bearing casualties of war, are moving.

The spots have a beautiful rhythm and spirit. (A fifth ad, not yet released, will focus on the U.S. team.) One thing that’s never mentioned, obviously, is the dark side of the passion: hooliganism. Sometimes that too can do more than “any politician ever could.” For now, the spots do exactly what they can in promoting interest in the sport—and in the broadcasts. We’ll leave the miracles to the Jolie-Pitts.