User Menu

Ken Early: Soccer is not a natural master of ceremonies

When it comes to opening ceremonies the Olympics are the only show in town

Diana Ross performs at the 1994 World Cup opening ceremony at Soldier Field in Chicago. Photograph: David Cann/Getty Images

Football has never got the hang of opening ceremonies. The most memorable opening ceremony in the history of World Cups and European Championships occurred in 1994 at Chicago’s Soldier Field, when master of ceremonies Oprah Winfrey fell off her podium, and star performer Diana Ross missed a penalty in a comic style.

The opener for the 2010 World Cup in Johannesburg gave us a giant dung beetle, animated by several human actors, that crawled out on to the Soccer City pitch to paw at a giant version of the hated Jabulani football, all under the approving gaze of Sepp Blatter.

Football considers itself much bigger than the Olympics, but when it comes to opening ceremonies the Olympics are the only show in town. The opening ceremony is perhaps the most keenly anticipated thing about the games, and along with the closing ceremony it is the element that attracts the largest TV audience.

The complexity of these ceremonies has spiralled and some recent editions are among the most impressive shows ever put on in a stadium. What started out as an athletes’ parade has evolved into an extravaganza where the host nation is expected to tell the world some kind of story about itself.

Litany of garbage

Football has never grasped this potential. The history of football opening ceremonies is little more than a mind-numbing litany of nonsensical, embarrassing garbage.

The template for both Fifa and Uefa events is essentially the same as for the big European club finals: book a big-name entertainer, preferably no more than a decade past their peak, and have them sing a song on the pitch while local youths run about in gaily coloured costumes.

At Euro 2016, both the opening and closing ceremonies starred David Guetta, and every match in between featured a recorded version of his tournament single.

The monotonous nonsense of football opening ceremonies is enlivened by occasional flashes of jaw-dropping stupidity. In 2010 Fifa was congratulating itself on bringing the World Cup to Africa for the first time.

“It’s time for Africa” was the theme of everything surrounding that World Cup. What could therefore have been more logical than the local organising committee’s decision to hire a blond Colombian to do the official tournament song?

Shakira at least delivered a good song in the form of Waka Waka (This Time For Africa), though critics pointed out that the good bits of it had been lifted wholesale from Zangalewa, a 1980s west African hit.

The Olympic movement aims much higher. In Beijing, there was an awesome display of totalitarian grandiosity that proclaimed China’s aspiration to the mantle of superpower. The spectacle was close to perfection – too close, as it later emerged, with the news that some of the more impressive pyrotechnics had been computer-generated for TV.

In London, there was a charming display of creative storytelling that proclaimed the social democratic values that David Cameron’s government was just then in the process of dismantling. (It also proclaimed the fact that Britain couldn’t afford to spend as much as China on this type of event).

Specialised stadium

In Sochi, the Olympic complex included a stadium whose only purpose was to host the opening and closing ceremonies. Putin’s Olympics, which would be more expensive even than Beijing, began with a lavish opening ceremony that ran the gamut from high art to absurd kitsch.

The lasting Sochi memory was of the games’ mascot, a huge, shambling animatronic bear that skated slowly into the arena and drifted about as though heavily medicated, peering at the crowd through dead gimlet eyes, until it was hauled away.

This Friday the Rio Olympics gets underway, and we get to see the story Brazil wants to tell the world about itself. The prospect is made more intriguing by the fact that the opening ceremony’s chief creative director is Fernando Meirelles, who in 2002 made Brazil’s biggest-ever international movie hit, City of God – about the doomed youth of the Rio favelas.

While Meirelles is unlikely to present quite such an unvarnished account of the state of Brazil this Friday night, we can probably count on his effort being more interesting than the opening ceremony of the 2014 World Cup in São Paulo.

That was like being at a recital of a school orchestra which grows steadily more discordant over the course of a painful half hour. Pitbull and Jennifer Lopez had been flown in to perform, but an apparent fault in the stadium sound system meant their performance assumed a dissociative, nightmarish quality.

Whatever they’re spending on Friday’s Olympic show, it’s probably too much. But if it’s good enough to convince Uefa and Fifa that there is no point competing with the IOC on this front any more, and that they might as well abandon their awful opening ceremonies forever, then it won’t have been in vain.