The King of Pop meets the beautiful game: Michael Jackson’s peculiar relationship with football

“Good luck to all of the World Cup finalists this weekend!” read one post on Twitter. On the face of it there was nothing particularly unusual about the tweet, given it was sent two days before the tournament’s showpiece and social media was full of similar messages.

What was unusual, however, was that this particular message came from the official account of the late Michael Jackson, together with a picture of the King of Pop casually donning an OGC Nice shirt from the 1979/80 season.

While not one of the most famous pictures of Jackson’s storied life, it’s well known among his loyal fan base. It comes from a photoshoot with-then personal photographer Todd Gray in 1983. According to Gray, he and Jackson did four or five wardrobe changes during the course of the day and, much to the photographer’s chagrin, his subject refused to remove the shirt once he’d put it on.

Had Jackson seen the nimble Yugoslavian striker Nenad Bjeković rattle in 15 goals in 1979/80 season as Nice fought against relegation and immediately fallen in love with the team? As romantically tantalising as that prospect might be, it’s highly unlikely. Yet no one really knows how Jackson got his hands on the shirt, with Gray insisting that it didn’t come from him. Some speculate that he bought the jersey himself on a trip to the Cote d’Azur while promoting Thriller.

Taken in the garden of Hayvenhurst, the Jackson family compound in California, the pictures convey a carefree Jackson; pre-onset of Vitiligo, pre-Pepsi burn incident, post-Motown 25 and just prior to his rise to stratospheric levels of fame. This was Jackson before he became a one-man moneymaking machine, before the weight of his own success became a millstone, before that pressure of having to be Michael Jackson, for better or worse, consumed him. Gray’s photos show a man at ease.

After Jackson’s death in June 2009, Nice posted the pictures on their official website as a tribute while simultaneously refuting claims that they were fake. The scepticism was at least partly understandable; why, after all, would Jackson have ever sported a Nice top? The mere idea sounds outlandish, particularly in the modern climate where the world’s most famous artists tend to don the shirts of the biggest and most successful teams on the planet.

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Jackson isn’t usually associated with the beautiful game, yet it shouldn’t be a surprise that the two crossed paths on several occasions. The pop star knew little about football, but he did claim to be able to “play a bit”. No footage exists of Jackson moonwalking past opposition defenders, though, and much can be gleaned from a short scene in his nonsensical 1988 half music video compilation-cum-half fantasy film, Moonwalker, in which he throws and runs with a football in NFL-style fashion.

As he so often told the world, Jackson’s notoriously strict father afforded his children no time to dabble in such frivolous activities as hobbies, not when there was music to practice and dance steps to learn. Sport was something Jackson only saw other children playing in his formative years.

Despite lacking sporting prowess Jackson loved performing in stadiums, with a particular fondness for European arenas. Due to his strong commercial appeal outside of America, Jackson routinely sold out some of the continents biggest venues.

Bigger was always better, adding to his larger-than-life mystique. On the second leg of the ‘Bad’ tour in in the summer and autumn of 1988, Jackson gyrated and glided across the stage in some of football’s grandest cathedrals: Camp Nou, the Vicente Calderon, Munich’s Olympiastadion and Parc des Princes provided the backdrop for Jackson at the peak of his powers.

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The apex of the tour came in the form of seven shows at the old Wembley, with Jackson performing in front of 504,000 people – a record that’s never been broken. Such was the extraordinary level of demand – 1.5 million people applied for tickets – that 20 shows could have been staged. His total of 15 dates at Wembley during the 1980s and 1990s remains more than any other artist.

Four years later, for the ‘Dangerous’ world tour in 1992/93, Jackson would add El Monumental and Azteca Stadium to the list of temples he’d conquered. The Azteca shows, which drew a preposterous 500,000 people across five sold-out nights in October and November 1993, saw Jackson bedazzle a Mexican audience with mesmerising footwork, bringing back memories of Diego Maradona against England and Belgium seven years earlier.

Jackson’s dalliances with football took a surreal turn towards the end of the century and the beginning of the next. While nowadays it’s commonplace to see A-list celebrities congregate at Champions League or World Cup finals in plush seats at the shiniest stadiums, Jackson’s one and only appearance at a football match was the antithesis of what one might call glamour.

For a man whose star power was so unique that at the age of 50 he could sell out the 20,000-seater 02 Arena in London 50 times over in the space of five hours, Craven Cottage and the second tier of English football seemed rather ill-fitting. Yet there Jackson was, invited by Fulham owner Mohammed Al-Fayed to take in a league meeting with Wigan Athletic in 1999. He even performed a lap of honour, waving to 12,000 rather bemused spectators.

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“It was so exciting and passionate, the fans were like the people who come to my concerts,” he exclaimed after witnessing Kevin Keegan’s side’s 2-0 triumph. “They were screaming and shouting and cheering their players on. I wanted to jump up and start dancing because I’m used to performing on stage when I hear all that noise.”

Jackson was later brought into the Fulham dressing room by Al-Fayed, but the home players thought it was an impersonator and some imitated him with poorly executed moonwalks.

“They seemed a really good team with a great spirit,” Jackson said, which was presumably music to Keegan’s ears. Fulham achieved promotion a game later, beating Gillingham 2-0 to earn a spot in the second tier.

That wasn’t the end of Jackson’s association with Fulham, though; in April 2011, Al-Fayed unveiled a statue of the King of Pop outside Craven Cottage. It was removed two and a half years later after much ridicule, but Al-Fayed blamed the west Londoners’ subsequent relegation on the absence of Jackson outside the ground.

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His trip to Fulham vs Wigan may have been bizarre, but the most surreal Jackson-football crossover took place at Exeter three years later. Everyone’s favourite spoon-bender, Uri Geller, had become the club’s co-chairman as they circled the financial drain during the 2001/02 season, and decided to stage an event which he hoped would raise funds for the Grecians.

Geller called upon his friend Jackson to appear – and appear he did, with the only caveat being that half of the money raised would go to charities fighting AIDS in Africa. Some of his more hardcore fans paid £100 just for the privilege of riding into the city on the same train as their idol. Jackson, flanked by Geller and David Blaine, stood before a bewildered 7,000-strong audience and spoke for 10 minutes between intermittent giggles and laughter.

Jackson was asked if England would beat Denmark in the round of 16 at the ongoing World Cup in Japan and South Korea. Ever the showman, he declared that the Three Lions would progress, eliciting a huge cheer from the crowd. His forecast was somewhat tempered by his next statement, in which he admitted to knowing nothing about football.

England did beat Denmark, though, meaning Jackson’s prediction ratio stands at a pretty solid 100 per cent.

The King of Pop meets the beautiful game: Michael Jackson’s peculiar relationship with football
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