The set made it look like the final scene of the first Bill & Ted film, the one with George Carlin, that Robbi Robb song and the low-budget sci-fi scenery.
The Best’s dynamic wasn’t quite that cheerful. The cold chrome and mood lighting were harbingers of something much more sinister. Maybe the world outside had been destroyed and that all that remained was this preposterous demonstration of FIFA’s self-importance.
Perhaps that’s a touch dramatic, but it’s a more than functional metaphor.
Mainly because this is how things seem to be now. These events have a script. Inside the building, of course, with the wooden banter and those strange Euro-American accents, but outside too, where the watching world always seems to respond in the same way. With mockery first, then bemusement, then outright anger.
That represents a strange contradiction. On every other night of the year, The Best is completely benign. It carries no weight whatsoever. Not just because it is only in its fourth year of existence and has none of the Ballon d’Or’s gravitas but rather, those issues aside, because it’s just plainly weird. It’s like a party thrown by someone who has no friends, who has no understanding for how humans interact.
Even now, at this early stage, its history is littered with anomalies. In 2016, for instance, it awarded Falcao – the Futsal player, not the Colombian forward – with a lifetime achievement award. A worthy nod of appreciation, but one never offered again; nobody has been recognised in the same way since.
Also in 2016, at the event’s inaugural running, FIFA recognised Liverpool and Borussia Dortmund supporters for that joint rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone. A fine moment, for sure, but still representative of a central tokenism. Of everything that happened in 2016 – the fan initiatives, the collections for food banks, the stands against fascism, homophobia and racism – that was top of the pile?
In a way, it describes what FIFA are. Or, more accurately, it confirms what those outside the organisation think of FIFA. They run the game, but they’re only interested in certain parts of it. Think of it this way: if there were a football-themed pub quiz contested by hundreds of teams from different countries and all walks of life, FIFA’s Executive Committee would come last. Always and inevitably.
On Monday night, Leeds United, who authored arguably the funniest cheating scandal of the last decade, were awarded a fair play award for allowing Aston Villa to score an uncontested goal. There’s no harm in it, but – again – its indicative of superficiality. You can imagine the meeting in which some of these categories were decided. Sharp suits, sharp haircuts, blank faces.
To say that this event exists only for the sake of sponsorship is hardly original. After all, there are entire sports which are built around the need to iron logos onto shirts, shorts or vehicles. But perhaps The Best’s greatest tell is in its tone.
On Monday night, several award winners used their platform for tremendous good. Jurgen Klopp announced his involvement with the Common Goal charity. Well done to him. Megan Rapinoe took the stage and urged proper action against the societal evils which continue to plague the game. Well done to her. But, then, look at how awkward Gianni Infantino looked at that moment, during the few seconds when the camera framed him.
His expression betrayed discomfort, this sense that – no – this was supposed to be a night of back-slapping. FIFA has always appeared to find football’s real issues deeply inconvenient. While it’s capable of constructing ever more complicated competitions – with more rounds, more teams and more broadcasting revenue – and it sails through the logistical challenges posed by such expansion, it becomes bizarrely impotent in the face of almost anything of real substance.
And we know this. And we talk about it all the time. And we understand how incidental these ceremonies are and how bereft of sincerity and significance they will always, always be.
And yet there’s always this great outrage at who gets patted on the back. The Best’s World XI is still fluttering around social media and people are upset by that. And by Virgil van Dijk not winning his Best Player category. Click further and you’ll find the inevitable retaliation. The statistical testimony which supports Lionel Messi’s case, a mini cultural thesis which proves that, in fact, he should win all awards, always. Go down the internet’s darker hallways and, presumably, the same is being said about Cristiano Ronaldo.
Someone. Even. Made. A. Graph.
So on the one hand the universal position is to mock these nights and to enjoy the ritual of machine-gunning facetiousness into the online ether. On the other, the tendency is to get really, really upset by all the trivialities it throws up. In fact, at the time of writing, there are journalists making serious points derived from voting patterns. Messi voted for this player, Ronaldo didn’t vote for that one; Five Things We Learned.
This is hardly a unique situation. Where there are individual awards, there are always squabbles. What makes this interesting, though, is that The Best is a commonly recognised nadir. For 364 days of each year, it’s ridiculed for the vacuum of self-celebration that it so obviously is. On the 365th day, it holds the power to start furious arguments.
Why is that? Broadly, of course, because supporters are loyal to players who represent their teams. But while that’s undeniably true, it’s also a thickening vein of tribalism. Once upon a time, a team’s defeat used to leave a fan in a days-long sulk. Now, the world’s failure to recognise a particular player can leave a fan fighting back the tears and punching his or her keyboard. Even when the award is meaningless. Even when a footballer’s loyalty is to his contract rather than his club.
Even with something like this, which was concocted and devised by the sport’s Charlatans-on-High and designed just to produce another revenue stream. Even now, it’s not okay just to shrug and move on.
Seb Stafford-Bloor is on Twitter.