The Best Fifa Awards: a pantomime in Paris staged by the Imperial Starfleet | Fifa

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An hour or so – or it may have been two hours or 12 hours or seven minutes – into the brain-clogging fug of sound and light and sullen football legend applause (a thing about football legends: they don’t really like clapping other people) that was the The Best Fifa Awards 2022, Jermaine Jenas made a mistake.

You had to watch carefully to catch it. And it should be said Jenas did pretty well overall in his role as co-host, alongside the agreeably brusque Samantha Johnson. True, Jenas did insist on calling Gianni Infantino “Mr President” and “President Infantino”, coming on like a lovelorn Marilyn Monroe in a chiffon gown under aggressively paranoid surveillance by the CIA. But he was genial and slick and essentially always the same substance, an unwavering stream of homogenised Jenas, the TV presenting equivalent of supermarket brioche.

His one mistake was to refer to the final of Qatar 2022 as “one of the best”, and to do so with Mr President standing next to him. Almost indiscernibly, the air inside the hall turned chill beneath the hard white lights. “The Best final ever of the Best World Cup ever,” Gianni corrected, not angry, just saddened and disappointed and, yes, inconsolably furious in ways, Jermaine, that I will never fully tell you about.

Shortly after the point was reinforced by a live rendition of the official anthem – and there will, sadly, be unofficial ones out there – of the The Best Awards 2022, including the lyrics, “We’re the best yeah yeah we’re the best yeah yeah” over uplifting major chord sequences, like an advert for razor blades featuring handsome, flinty, men playing volleyball on a trampoline.

A bit later Alexia Putellas was enthroned as “officially The Best” (Gianni, very clear on this) and finally Lionel Messi as “officially The Best In The World”. It is always a curiosity just to see Messi up there in normal clothes, passing himself off as a normal human. These occasions have been a stage down the years for Messi’s own public-private journey of self-discovery via appalling dinner jackets, from purple lapels, to glittering trim to simply “shiny”; with a kind of alpha dog element even here, the sheer lustrous power of being able to wear this get-up, emblem of his own alien exceptionalism.

Here Messi was dressed in the elegantly spangled black tunic of a prized teenage Russian ice-dancer. He also had the only funny line of the night, possibly unintentionally (“it’s an honour to be here with Benzema, who isn’t here”) and looked, as ever, so much more lithe and slender in the flesh, too slight, surely, to contain all that talent.

But by the end of Fifa’s branded power-show Gianni’s message was at least clear. These awards aren’t quite good. They’re not decent, or up there. They’re The Best. Who knows, given the two-year Covid-19 break from doing this in the flesh, these might even be the best the The Best ever. Today I feel like Tina Turner’s hype man. Today I feel like the head of a vast and aggressively expansionist corporate-sporting-political body.

And perhaps for the first time this pantomime of self-aggrandisement did seem to have a point in Paris, to speak directly to the fault-lines of power beyond the lighted stage. Big football is in the grip of violent, unmapped change right now. Where will it fall?

It is of course all too easy to dismiss this kind of event as an abomination against the idea of team sport, gossip-feed for drones on the internet. And correctly so. It is all of these things. Would it change anything if this didn’t happen, if we didn’t actually know who The Best are? Even wading through the historical timeline of elite football awards is confusing. This is an incestuous world of insurgencies and marriages of convenience, like a Renaissance royal court but with more Pavel Nedved. The awards are not, repeat not, the Ballon d’Or, which was invented by France Football magazine in 1956, used to be called the European Footballer of the Year, and which is – sorry Fifa – the big one, the Ur-award, the gong of gongs.

Hosts Jermaine Jenas and Samantha Johnson speak to the audience in front of an image of Pelé.
Hosts Jermaine Jenas and Samantha Johnson speak to the audience in front of an image of Pelé. Photograph: Joe Maher/FIFA/Getty Images

The Best is also not the Fifa World Player of The Year which, in a fascinating twist, did merge with the Ballon d’Or a few years into its short lifespan: a wild vision, one award to rule them all, but an alliance that collapsed in 2016. At which point the Fifa conjured its own behemoth, The Best, into existence.

Does any of this matter? Actually, and no matter how strongly you might rail against it, the answer is yes. By Tuesday morning The Best had already been streamed and clipped and fizzed around the world by hundreds of millions of people. In this sense its massive popularity reflects the way people increasingly consume sport, and indeed all culture: as a palette of images, loyalties, aspirational human product that are the sound-bed of the popular culture. Maybe awards are the natural end game here. Do we actually need the other stuff?

To this end it seemed fitting that The Best should take place in Paris this year, home to PSG, a club that is essentially an awards podium made flesh, host body for the gossipy, emperor-scale entertainment cult of Kylian and Leo and Ney. On the morning of The Best the trains from St Pancras were running direct to Paris; and also, on the next platform, to Disneyland.

More practically this year’s Fifa The Best represented a formal end note to the Qatar World Cup, the final act in a 12-year cycle that has redefined this global industry in perpetuity, taken us into a place where it is all basically up for grabs, where the battle for football’s corporeal body – not its soul, don’t be silly – is being waged just off the lighted stage.

The Salle Pleyel is an elegantly plush modernist concert hall, its stage flanked for the evening with a dark, sleek, shiny Fifa light show (Fifa, like elite haute couture, like the Imperial star fleet, like death, is always dark, sleek and shiny). Watching its corridors fill with legends, power brokers, faces, rain-makers, it was hard to avoid the sense of a power-play and spectacle, of a football Davos in play.

Here is Arsène Wenger hawkishly working the room. Here are Maxi Rodríguez and Javier Zanetti beaming and clapping shoulders with Esteban Cambiasso. Here is a kind of fever dream where Fabio Capello is hugging Jairzinho, where Richarlison is whispering in the ear of Júlio César over a dinner jazz version of Golden Brown by the Stranglers while a disembodied voice announces “the show will start in 40 seconds”, startling Mikaël Silvestre. At that moment Gianni was suddenly there at the front, with a kind of light around him, blowing kisses and pressing flesh, a sun king at his court.

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What, you might reasonably ask, is happening here? There have been several distinct phases in the existence of Fifa. For many years the governing body was basically a soft colonial organisation, an instrument of western European sporting favour. For a few decades it became a voraciously hungry commercial entity. Now it seems to have evoked further into something more political, not just the staging, but a power-player too.

In the next four-year cycle Fifa will disburse almost $8bn to its member nations. Its growth has been startling. But growth never stops. This is an organisation that is always essentially on a war footing, always expanding its reach. The current moves to make the Club World Cup into a global power platform are, like The Best, an expression of Fifa’s desire to exist at all times, to generate revenue outside of its big-ticket jamborees, and above all to get its hooks into the club game.

Infantino is right in one sense. The World Cup in Qatar was a wonderful success for Fifa and its members. And now beyond that veil there are other battles. You get the feeling that despite its genuine public opposition to the European Super League, Fifa doesn’t hate the idea per se. But it does hate the idea of other centres of power.

And despite his occasional absences from the stage, it was Gianni’s show really, up there in his blue suit and white Stan Smiths, which seem to be a thing now, a Great Man-style eccentricity like Churchill’s cigar or Einstein’s hair. A very long Pelé tribute ended with a really lovely Brazilian singer doing a Pelé-themed version of David Bowie’s Changes in Portuguese (you did have to be there).

England’s goalkeeper Mary Earps won the first award of the night and gave a jarringly honest and engaging speech from the stage. Emiliano Martínez won the men’s goalkeeping prize. The amputee footballer Marcin Oleksy won the Puskás award for best goal and drew a genuine gasp as it played on the big screen. Just Google it. He’s a great human.

‘The impossible does not exist’: amputee footballer Marcin Oleksy wins Puskas Award – video

The Fifpro world XIs came and went, with four English women in one team, and João Cancelo and Virgil van Dijk in the other, for reasons that remain unclear. There was, disappointingly, no sign of Salt Bae, who has presumably been deemed bad optics. Keep him out of sight. I don’t know, Jermaine, just give him something to slice.

As the evening ended, as the Salle emptied abruptly and without ceremony, there was a final glimpse outside of Messi leaving the building surrounded by an eight-man protective entourage, to screams and wails and gasps from beyond the hoardings erected to keep the streets away from this show.

There is a kind of ultimacy about the Best, the ultimate in self-regarding inanity, in sport as power grab, show, personality obsession. This is brand-building, eyeballs, an arm clamped on the elbow saying, behold, this is in fact our world. “Enjoy football,” Infantino announced, grandly, at the end of his opening remarks; making it quite clear that this global obsession is his to give.

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