First performed at the
Edinburg Castle in San Francisco the opening night of the 1998 World Cup.
These pictures of the soccer phenomenon Ronaldo were
taken at the InterMilan practice camp in the Italian Alps on March 7th of 1998.
Thats me beside him, shielding my face from the sun.
Nike had plans to debut a new Ronaldo cleat, the
Mercurial, in Parma on March 9th. To launch the shoe, Nike had announced a contest for
american journalists, inspired by George Plimptons concept of participatory
journalism, where he became the fourth string quarterback for the Detroit Lions in the
summer camp of 1968, an experienced immortalized in the book The Paper Lion. American
journalists were being invited to Beaverton Oregon, Nike headquarters, and the winner was
going to guard Ronaldo in a practice scrimmage. That contest was won by me, on behlaf of
details magazine, where the aritcle eventually appeared.
But it started in mid February. I was sent on a
magazine assignment to Scotland. On a tip, I learned that the 400 year old family-owned
single malt scotch distillery the Macallum had been sold to a new multinational
conglomerate, which owned, among other entities, a hollywood movie studio and a new york
book publisher and the leading line of dairy products in south america. They intended to
ramp up an aggressive promotional campaign, cross marketing the Macallum with their line
of luxury hotels, and sixtuple the output of scotch. The factory would be working
overtime. Yet, for cost-cutting reasons, the new owners had fired four of the six grand
master sniffers after only a month, presumably because they had complained about their
ability to ensure that every bottle that leaves the factory is the real Macallum. So I
went to expose this travesty, and did. To top it off, I learned that the new Macallum
owners were selling a Macallum into Italy that was only 7 years old. Those italians were
ordering 900 cases a week of it! 7 years!
One of the fired sniffers had retreated to a spa in the
hills outside Peebles, the Hotel Hydro. He was old, in his 50s, and he was going through a
very serious detox program to recover from the extra liquor hed been forced to consume on
the job. The Hydro specialized in intensive therapy.
But while I was there, I developed an incredible pain
in my gut. It felt like I was trying to pass an inflated soccer ball. Right there, in the
solar plexus, an explosion. It was hard to disguise the fact that I was in pain from the
mysterious thing in my gut, and one of the Hydros nurses asked me about it. Soon a
whole team of doctors and psychotherapists were prodding me and asking me questions.
Apparently, they had seen many americans of scottish heritage display exactly my symptoms.
There were in fact two other scottish descendants at the spa right then, undergoing what
they called cultural immersion therapy.
The doctors had one way to explain it and the
psychotherapists another, but the gist of it was that the thing in my gut was my scottish
heritage trying to come out.
"But Im not scottish," I said. "At
least, not that I know of."
"Well what the hell are you?" they asked.
"I dont know," I said, sitting there in
my green gown. "Im a mutt. Im from America. Im from Seattle and
California. Im white. White people dont have any culture. We have
"You must be Scottish," they said. "Look
at that face."
I began ultraintensive cultural immersion therapy. The
theoretical background is, there are 3 ways to achieve identity. The first is traditonal
psychotherapy, constructing your sense of personal history, the story of your life. The
second is the california way, the new age way: look deep within for the honest true self;
we only need to silence the chatter to let it out. The third way is the story of your
tribe, your clan, your nation, your heritage.
The doctors beleived that this cultural heritage is
passed down in your genes. That you have a sort of gene memory that can filter up into
your consciousness. My treatment began with a hypnosis, smoking hashish and staring at a
disco ball and a strobelight. This softens the brain, and deactivates the filters that
prevent gene memory from ascending into the subconscious. The next morning, myself and the
two other patients began to build a scottish smokehouse in the glens, much as had been
done 700 years ago. We collected cow dung on a cart, then mixed the cow dung with hay to
create bricks fro the hut walls. Inside, we lit a small fire to bake the walls, and we sat
inside breathing the smoke until a point of near delirium. Then, our doctors entered in
full scottish regalia and began to berate us with questions, trying to get us to recite
from our gene memory the scottish history we had lost.
"What happened at the Battle of
"What is the Stone of Destiny?!"
"Where is William Wallace buried?!"
"Tell me about your clan!!!"
Something was welling up in me. The story of my great
grandfather, John Duncan, from the Northern Highlands. But he had wanted to be an american
so bad. When he got to Ellis Island and took the citizenship test, he knew more about
American History than the examiners. He had denied his scottish heritage, and now his
genes in me were reacting. They were right, I was Scottish! I tried to pull out more of
the story. Something was there. I started to cry, and then, like my water burst, a huge
memory came back to me, one that I had been repressing for seven years. It was not the
story of my great grandfather, but rather my own story, the story of my own life, 1987 to
1991. A part of my life I had tried to forget.
I had been a marketing consultant. My day rate had been
arizona, I had gone into the mall of sameness, from
which I hustled into an auditorium 500 high school and college kids, all who looked the
same, and I played over the loudspeakers two hours of new music, all of whcih sounded the
same. Beside every seat was a remote control device allowing each student to rate the
songs they heard for their catchiness based on a single listening. And the results of this
survey were plugged into a computer in Dallas belonging to the Jcorp corporation. That
single computer in dallas determined the play lists of all 1,200 radio stations owned by J
corp. I had made the country sound the same everywhere.
Then, the show. I was the producer. A cable channel,
not MusicTV, or SportsTV, but TVTV. It was an idea that spun off from that Budweiser
commercial, the one with two guys playing pool, you know, ginger, or
maryanne?, and then marynanne, or genie? It was a series of shows mixing and matching old characters. Imagine,
Mary Tyler Moore going out on a date with Mike Brady. Gilligan staying for the weekend
with Sue Ellen and JR Ewing, and my favorite episode, the Amazing Hulk fought The Six
Million Dollar Man. There was no backstory. It was completley ununderstandable unless you
had spent your life watching television. Its message was clear: you dont need
anything other than your television. I had closed the loop, erected Bradburys fourth
I had been a cultural hit man, I had committed
atrocities. It was because of people like me that we read books that make good movies, and
we listen to music which has a cool video, and we eat at restaurants that have exotic
I broke down in guilt. And I knew that until I had
repaid my psychic debt, until I had compensated for the destruction of identity, karma
would keep the lump in my chest.
And, no sooner did I see this thought than I saw the
way to repay my debt.
Nike was going to create a huge new panEuropean
superleague, in partnership with SkyTV, taking all the best teams out of the national
leagues, and make nobody care about htem. In additin, they plunked down $200 mm deal with
brasil, $120 million deal with ronaldo himself. Nike was using Ronaldo to be the
international symbol of soccer. They wanted everyone to worship the same one guy. He was a
great player, sure--but Nike was using him to replace the local tribal loyalties of fans.
Nike was telling everyone, dont root for your home team, root for winners only. Root
for Brasil, and root for the best player in the world, and you will never have to root for
a loser. You will never be disappointed.
It was so simple. Reverse the tide of sameness. Win the
contest. Not so accidentally, break Ronaldos leg while guarding him. A slide tackle
from behind. Become the greatest scottish hero since mel gibson. We all live for these
moments of clarity in our lives.
With my Nike entourage, I flew into Milan. It was hard
to get a hotel because it was fashion week--of course, leave it to nike to debut a
football cleat as a fashion accessory. All I knew about Italy was that they drank scotch
that was only 7 years old. I had a few days to kill, so I went to Florence and to Venice,
and then to Verona, where Shakespeare had come to research Romeo & Juliet, then back
to Milan. Just after lunch on March 7th, I got in a bus that headed northwest for 40
minutes, towards Lake Como. It was sunny. At the InterMilan facility, there were hordes of
fans outside the gates, just hoping to get a glimpse of Ronaldihno.
I was ready. I knew I would only get one shot. In my
hotel rooms, I had been practicing my dangerous plays. I had broken three wooden desk
chairs, four wood doors, and two armoires. Under my socks, I had shinguards made of
aluminum. I had sharpened to a blade the back studs in my cleats. It was nothing personal
against Ronnie. In a way, I would be liberating him from the karmic guilt he would endure
the rest of his life if he became the symbol that ruined tribal soccer loyalties. Though
it would probably take years for him to see it this way and to thank me, I would be doing
him a spiritual favor by keeping him out of the world cup.
I was given this blue Inter uniform. It was to be a 60
minute game, three-quarters field, eight on eight. Full size goals. On my team were West,
Ze Elias, and Winter, the Dutchman, who I believed would have a natural intuition with me.
On the other team was Kanu, the Nigerian star who had won the MVP of the Olympics.
Ronaldinho was doing little, trotting this way and that, not even trying to get open. He
is not that big, he looks bigger than he is because he has a sway back, so his chest and
butt stick out. I was careful to leave him open, so that I could attack. But each time, he
one-tcouhed it back to hismidfeld before I could strike. As I said, I am slow. Kanu,
though. My god, so tall, so fast. He scored once and hit the bar again, and we had no
answer for him.
At halftime, I retreated to the visitors locker
room. There was a janitor in there, and he was underneath the sinks, wiping the plumbing
fixtures. He was pouring onto his rag a brown fluid that looked like a bottle of
"Oh yes," he said. "This stuff is an
excellent universal solvent. Keeps rust away, cleans your tires, sanitizes floors."
"You dont drink it?" I asked.
"Drink it?" he laughed. "That is
ridiculous. For the first thing, it is scotch. And It is only aged seven years!"
As I walked back onto the field, I saw these bottles of
Macallum everywhere. The trainer was using a bottle to clean the players cleats. The
gardener was using it to kill weeds. As I stepped on the field for the second half, the
feeling in my gut returned. 900 cases a week!
I hadnt been paying attention. Winter yelled out
to me, and I noticed he had passed the ball back to me, intuitively. I ran towards it to
give it a boot, but I heard footsteps. Those Mercurials chasing me. It was Ronaldo was
trying to beat me to the ball. I flinched, and in that hesitation I screwed up my stride
and the two of us tripped, spiralling through the air.
Looking back, I saw that I wasnt entangled with
Ronaldo at all. In fact, I wasnt entangled with anybody. I had tripped on myself.
Ronaldo was actually not anywhere around. Instead, it had been Kanu who had come up behind
me and stolen the ball, and as I watched him pound it into the net again, I knew then that
going after Ronaldo was ridiculous, that Nike owned Kanu as well, owned the entire
Nigerian team in fact, and that even if I broke Ronaldos legs there would be some
one in his place.
When I landed I was knocked cold for some time. It
might have been only a few seconds, but you can never tell when youre out. Out long
enough to dream.
I was dreaming I was back in the Basilica in Milan. Big
as a domed stadium, bigger. Construction had started in the 11th century, but it had taken
over two hundred years to complete. Arches and spires, stained glass and frescoes, the
most magnificent building I have ever seen. It was so big that there were over a half
dozen churches inside it. And the thing that I found most amazing of all--the part that
was shocking to me--was that white people had built this great thing of lasting