Opening ceremonies: a blotted history

Every tournament must have its over-choreographed curtain-raiser. Matt Allen surveys the sorry story...

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The World Cup opening ceremony takes place today. Will you be watching? Of course you won't…

Anyone looking for a clue as to how Brazil's World Cup opening ceremony might shape up need only study the closing fandango of London 2012. There, under the Olympic rings and in the shadow of The Spice Girls' uncharacteristically punctual bus, a Brazilian contingent emerged from swathes of dry ice to usher in the next athletic bonanza set to take place some time around 2016 in Rio (should organisers get Copacabana's beach volleyball courts marked out in time).

There was Pele! (naturally: the ubiquitous, envelope-opening Brazilian equivalent of James Corden.) Sexy ladies! Carnival performers! Latin rhythms! It was enough to make you want to up sticks and move to South America for the curtain-raising party. 

Except it didn't really, because the overwhelming vibe was one of concern. All of a sudden, Brazil had a big problem: in the space of two years they had to deliver not one, but two jaw-dropping openings – those of Rio 2016, and an overblown World Cup. 

Talk about a poisoned chalice. Any overuse of bold national stereotypes (Pele! Carnival performers! Dancing girls!) will inevitably be viewed as cliche, but straying from the cultural DNA is a controversial shift.

But who cares, anyway? It's a well-known fact that very few people truly appreciate the moolah and effort pumped into World Cup opening ceremonies. It'll be at-the-pub telly for sure, but no one will sit transfixed at the gaudy theatrics on display. They'll smirk and point instead. Which is unsurprising given that, so far, the World Cup's TV-primed parties have been rubbish. Without exception.


From the bored schoolchildren parading flags around the Azteca Stadium at Mexico 70, to South Africa 2010 – an overdose of percussion and loosely constructed choreography performed on a very big tarpaulin, which while looking rather nice in flashes, was only slightly less annoying than Clive Tyldesley's match commentary.

The home of showbiz, USA 94, was a standout affair for all the wrong reasons: The Beautiful Game as imagined by Liberace. In a glitzy carnival of over-exuberance, soul diva Diana Ross was given the fairly routine task of taking a 12 Yard Death Strike (© US Soccer Guy) in front of several billion TV viewers. Surrounded by dancing girls and a marching band, the one-time Supreme spooned the ball wide in an attempt that was only marginally worse than The Divine Ponytail's decisive spot-kick in the final a month later.

With hindsight, America's problem was that they tried too hard, which is often a precursor to widespread mockery. Still, that's better than not trying at all. West Germany's crime in 1974 was that they didn't seem bothered in the slightest. During the warm-up to the final, several buses paraded around the athletics track at Munich's Olympiastadion. The only sprinkling of stardust - if you could call it that – was delivered by plastering the names of competing countries across the side. 

Meanwhile, England 66 resembled a psychedelic episode of Grange Hill, as an army of schoolboys dressed in the colours of every country preparing to kick Pele pranced across Wembley. Mexico 86 was seemly choreographed by Benny Hill, as guitarists in sombreros serenaded the crowd before organising a Mexican Wave, which is now the universal indicator for a dull match (and weirdly happens every time England play at Wembley).

Money for nothing

One can't blame Germany, Mexico and England for their lo-fi efforts, however. Pre-1994, the opening ceremony was a quick hello, a polite greeting before The Real Deal, and better off we were for it. No fuss. No bother. Just football, pure and simple.

America was a game changer. Since Ross's excruciating performance there have been plenty of other abominations. The introduction to France 98, for example, where four Transformer-sized puppets strode ominously around a football stadium; the drums of Germany 2006 - hundreds of them. "Gentle Jesus," prayed the watching world, "make it stop."

For some reason, there seems to be a misconception among World Cup organisers (which we're led to believe is FIFA, though nobody's really sure these days) that fans enjoy a rousing World Cup opening ceremony. It sparks the imagination, they claim. It introduces new cultures to the watching world. It's a great party.

What a load of rot. The truth is, nobody gives a hoot. The World Cup opening ceremony is just an embarrassing grind before the real action gets underway. Would you rather the sight of Neymar shimmying his way through a phalanx of Croatian defenders? Or Pele! Carnival performers! Dancing girls! And a grotesque waste of cash!

And herein lies the sad truth about this week's song-and-dance affair. Anyone wanting to know whether the World Cup's opening ceremony is worth the effort need only look to a banner hoisted at the Copacabana Beach this week. "In a country of misery," it read, "a World Cup financed by public money is a moral problem."

A simple debate, then: millions spent on fireworks? Or cash for a new hospital? And if money is truly no object, why not give the fans what they really want? Like Sepp Blatter strapped to a missile and fired moonwards. Surely not even occasional snoozer Michele Platini could fall asleep during a show-stopper of that magnitude.