I just got a good look at these amazing pieces of artwork by the Cape Town-based art group called AM I Collective, commissioned by ESPN and the advertising firm of Wieden + Kennedy to promote the upcoming World Cup tournament. There are 33 posters, one for each nation in the tournament and an additional one incorporating elements of all of them. The hand-drawn style is modeled after posters in Ghana used to promote movies in the 1980s.

The USA poster is typical of the work here:
Obviously, this imitates Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware, but it’s the little details that make the poster pop. Besides the motto “E Pluribus Unum” carved in the side of the boat, there’s also the date 1950, the year that USA beat England in the World Cup, considered one of the greatest upsets in the tournament’s history. This year’s tournament, of course, features a rematch.


Some of the images are easy to decode. North Korea’s poster references the team’s nickname, Chollima (“Winged Horses”), while Honduras’ poster features David Suazo, Carlos Pavón, and Wilson Palacios lifting up the whole nation, which God knows could use a lift. I’m not alone in the blogosphere in admiring the simplicity of the Japan poster, with the samurai skewering the jerseys of Netherlands, Denmark, and Cameroon, the three countries Japan will play against this year.
Elsewhere, the series is full of plays on words, with the Netherlands poster featuring their best players flying through the air like superheroes (flying Dutchmen, get it?) and Spain’s poster showing striker Fernando Torres as a toreador. How did no one think of that before? The Uruguay mural substitutes Diego Forlán’s face for the face on the sun on the country’s flag, with the two trophies representing Uruguay’s World Cup titles in 1930 and 1950. Maybe it doesn’t take much imagination to conceive Switzerland’s players as implements in a Swiss Army knife, but the pun on the title of Ocean’s Eleven on Denmark’s poster (involving longtime coach Morten Olsen) is inspired. The France poster shows Thierry Henry, Franck Ribéry, and Nicolas Anelka as the Three Musketeers, but cheekily gives Henry’s cheating left hand a glow.

Some of the works require even more interpreting, however. A newcomer to soccer might look at Australia’s poster and see a kangaroo-man, but it’s a portrait specifically of Australia captain Tim Cahill, who celebrates scoring goals by throwing boxing combinations. Meanwhile, this poster for USA opponent Slovenia might seem a bit cryptic:
The player waving the sword is Zlatko Dedić, who scored the winning goal in a playoff game against Russia that propelled the Slovenes into the big dance. The dead bear represents the vanquished Russians, and the snow-covered mountains are a geographical feature of Slovenia. This image is rousing enough to make my part-Slovene colleague Dan McGraw shout, “Na zdravje!” Then there’s the Italy poster:
That’s Andrea Pirlo, Gianluigi Buffon, and Fabio Cannavaro as Roman gladiators, fighting off an orange elephant (Côte d’Ivoire), a lion (England), and the bird on Spain’s flag.

Not everybody’s happy with these, it should be said. The Serbs have made a fuss over their poster, in which the map outline of their country — where giant-sized Nikola Žigić is standing — does not include the disputed territory of Kosovo. (Also, the color scheme on the background reflects the old flag of Serbia & Montenegro rather than the current flag of Serbia. That’s just sloppy.) It seems like AM I Collective could have easily avoided this controversy by removing the map from the poster, though with 69 countries recognizing Kosovo’s independence, it also seems like the Serbs might want to let go of this little flap.

Regardless, there’s so much else to like, with the Aztec pyramid motif on Mexico’s poster and New Zealand’s players (Shane Smeltz, Ryan Nelsen, and Mark Paston) performing a haka. If only these posters were sold as a set, I’d consider buying one.