FTF explores the parallels between Nike’s 2014 dystopian world to present day football under the Covid-19 pandemic and why there is hope.
‘Football just changed,’ declares Nike’s archetypal super-villain in the mega-brand’s 2014 World Cup advert The Last Game.
In an ominous voice the gangly grey-haired character announces a new era of football. Devoid of mistakes. Devoid of individual brilliance. Simply engineered.
The sequence of events depict a dystopian world where football is played by robot players in front of empty stadiums and artificial branding. It’s a world where the passion for football has ceased. The only thing which is demanded is the hollow notion of success.
Whether it was a forewarning or foreshadowing from the global brand one can be the judge. However, one has to concede the advert is eerily reminiscent.
As we begin to enter almost an entire year of football under Covid-19 the current state of football is not too dissimilar to the one depicted by Nike.
‘It’s what the people want,’ declares Nike’s supervillain in the advert.
It’s a sentiment which has been echoed by executives and owners in the higher echelons of the football world ever since lockdown measures started to ease in late spring of last year.
‘Football has to carry on.’
‘It’s for the greater good.’
Naturally football lovers around the world rejoiced. After all, for many the existence of football serves a greater purpose in life.
But with the absence of fans and the constant games in a staggered season designed to make up for lost time, some have questioned the integrity of those remarks.
Just like the clones which take over the footballing world in Nike’s dystopian fantasy, the players on the pitch have taken on similar robotic characteristics.
More than ever footballers have become a mere cog in a well oiled machine which is designed to drain them of their finite resources.
Despite warnings of potential fatigue and increased injuries prior to the season, it was not heeded by officials.
Managers from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Jurgen Klopp have complained about the lack of compassion from media moguls and broadcasters who do not take player welfare seriously.
As a result muscle-injuries have soared by 42 percent and teams have been decimated by key absences across the globe.
In Nike’s advert where the clones produce the same banal robotic football over and over again football quickly becomes monotonous. Stadiums become empty. And football turns into an artificial entity.
There are elements of this in Covid-19 football too. From the engineered fake crowd noises on Television to the cardboard cut-out supporters and the forced celebrations.
The absence of fans has fundamentally changed the outcome of results. Home advantage is no longer a thing. Take a look at the amount of away victories in the Champions League last 16 knockout round. Or the fact that there have been more away victories in the Premier League this season than home wins.
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Just like in Nike’s dystopian world, football has become less dependent on individualism or moments inspired by sheer human will.
Football under Covid-19 is dependent on artificial factors created by higher powers.
Factors like money.
Of course there are outliers but the Premier League table reflects the financial expenditure of clubs over the last two years.
Barring just two clubs in the top 12 teams (Liverpool – 78m and Leeds – 96m) all others have spent around £150 million on transfers in the past two years. For clubs like Chelsea, Manchester United and Manchester City the figure exceeds 200 million.
Meanwhile in the bottom eight just one team has crossed the £100m threshold in Sheffield United highlighting the disparity of financial fortunes from top to bottom.
Of course the disparity has existed prior to Covid-19 but never to such a wide extent. Last season Aston Villa, Newcastle United, Everton and West Ham United were among the top ten spenders in the Premier League but they all finished in the bottom half.
Nike’s supervillain in the advert provides the incentive behind creating his clones because fallible human players are simply ‘too unpredictable.’
His clones are the opposite of that and that’s why much of the passion wilts from the game. Football becomes soulless and easy to predict.
Covid-19 is the same.
Before Covid-19 from February 2019 to February 2020 the Premier League saw five comebacks from a margin that had a deficit greater than two goals.
In the same period between February 2020 and Ferbuary 2021 with Covid-19 that figure has been more than halved to just two.
Teams who score first tend to come out victorious. Without the fan element to inspire sudden bursts of revivals games have become one dimensional.
Games like relegation strugglers Watford ending Liverpool’s unbeaten run, inspired by the furore of Vicarage Road are currently absent.
Footballers often feed off of the crowd. Crowds have this fantastical almost mythic ability to change the outcome of a game.
It’s why we watch football. Because of the emotional factor. Our favourite footballers give us irrational feelings of joy and despair.
But in Covid-19 times, watching football has felt hollow.
We don’t watch games because we know what’s going to happen. We watch it for the big ‘what if.’ For moments where the players are in unison with the crowd. When the passion transcends from us to them.
But now the player and fan reaction has been reduced to the dark corners of the web like social media where the trolls’ voice is more prominent than the average supporters.
Footballers thus are now experiencing more negative fan interaction than ever from all sorts of abuse and especially racially charged ones. And these are not negated by the positive chants on the terraces which are impossible at present.
Perhaps that can explain the soulless nature of games too. After all, as a player you would be less motivated to perform for your so called fans if all you saw directed towards you is negativity and abuse.
There is hope in the wilderness. Covid-19 will not last forever. Just like in Nike’s advert the beautiful game will conquer in the end.
When fans return things should fall back to normality.
But the experience of Covid-19 and Nike’s advert should be a lesson for those who seek to fundamentally change the game.
The European Super League and Project Big Picture will only alienate fans further and as Covid-19 has proved:
Football without fans is nothing.
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