Here at Trinity News, we are, of course, well acquainted with shadowy, profit-oriented administrative bodies with little regard for those far beneath their lofty pedestals. So it is only natural that we would want to keep a watchful eye on that shadowy, profit-oriented administrative body which presides over the world of the round ball: FIFA. Looming over the sport like a bureaucratic behemoth, FIFA joins the likes of Fox News as one of those entities that manages to be a constant source of amusement, while simultaneously scaring the shite out of you when you stop laughing long enough to reflect that it is an actual thing that some people take seriously.
And so it was that, last week, while most of Europe was still in the midst of trying to come to terms with what happened in Paris, and then with the intense and voluminous reaction to what happened in Paris, FIFA held their annual Ballon d’Or bonanza. If many were pointing out that the Charlie Hebdo attack was given media coverage which dwarfed that afforded to the Boko Haram massacres in Nigeria, which saw as many as 2,000 people brutally murdered, where does this leave coverage of Cristiano Ronaldo in a tuxedo clutching a (largely meaningless) award for having been the shiniest footballer of 2014? This is the constant, nagging problem faced by sports journalism: why, in the grand scheme of things, does any of this matter? How can you justify giving column inches to Cristiano Ronaldo’s hair when there are, fundamentally, more significant events taking place around the world?
The entire apparatus of the FIFA Ballon d’Or underlines the need for perspective. Seen in isolation, though, the Ballon d’Or ceremony – where the “best” male footballer of the last twelve months (ie. invariably either Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo) is presented with a trophy certifying their status as, well, either Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo – is still nothing short of farce.
With the original award – the Ballon d’Or, awarded by France Football – having been taken over in the footballing equivalent of a hostile takeover in 2010, the award now comes in new packaging, rebranded as the FIFA Ballon d’Or and handed over in the course of one of the most bloated and unjustifiably self-back-patting ceremonies ever devised by mankind. A ceremony which, like those of all good dictatorial regimes, serves no other purpose than to cement the status quo, to reinforce the order that exists and maintain it as it is. Everyone of course knows that one of Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo is the best male player on the planet, but, apparently, it needs to be made official – after all, nothing is real until given the FIFA seal of approval.
The glitz and glamour of the ceremony demonstrates just how out of touch FIFA is not just with modern football, but with modern society in a general sense. As much as everyone loves watching white, male, millionaire footballers strut around a stage in an expensive tuxedo, the idea that anyone in this bracket needs even more praise lavished upon them is hard to understand. In this country, at least, many people got genuinely excited about Stephanie Roche’s prospects of winning the Puskás award (for the best goal scored in world football each year). Up against James Rodríguez of Colombia and Real Madrid, and Robin van Persie of the Netherlands and Manchester United, whose goals unsurprisingly came during FIFA’s own-brand World Cup last summer, Roche offered a breath of fresh air, something different and which provided welcome relief from the norm. But even this potential fairy tale-ending for Roche was not to be: beaten to the award by Rodríguez, this seemed symbolic of FIFA’s disdain for anything or anyone remotely outside the elite (and the men’s elite, at that).
And this is perhaps the biggest problem with the whole show. The Ballon d’Or, and the Puskás award along with it, are little more than a marketing exercise designed to elevate the few above the many, feeding a cult of personality which emphasises the individual value of one player over the worth of a whole team. Arsène Wenger has himself come out in opposition to the Ballon d’Or, claiming that he would refuse to vote on the grounds that he is a “team lover” (we’ll just skip the potential for mischief with the phrase “team lover” for the time being). And if the most intellectual man in football – they don’t call him Le Prof for nothing – is against it, then surely there must be something in that.
The whole FIFA circus seems so irrelevant compared to other events – in fact, pretty much any event – taking place around the world today. If you want proof of the ability of a bloated, corrupt organisation driven by corporate greed to distract a large section of the media, then look no further.
But maybe, just maybe, the “distraction” is the whole point: diverting attention away from the harsh realities of modern society in favour of a much easier spectacle, wrapped up nicely with a bow on top. Having to weigh in on the issue of whether the Charlie Hebdo attack fundamentally throws into question the basis upon which European society functions is not exactly approachable; Cristiano Ronaldo in a bow-tie, on the other hand… Well, that’s just click-bait waiting to happen. Much more palatable.
Looking at the FIFA Ballon d’Or ceremony in this light, it looks a little different. Farcical as it is, the fault may not lie with FIFA; it is the media who should be held to account. FIFA’s Ballon d’Or ceremony only works because it is reported in every newspaper, in every sports section, all over the world, it must be seen and talked about to achieve its fundamental purpose. In a way, even giving column inches to it here makes us complicit.
And so it turns the spotlight back on the media, reactionary and driven by the need to sell newspapers and attract clicks online, whatever the story may be. There was much talk of the sanctity of the Fourth Estate in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, yet relatively little of the responsibilities of the media in a more general sense, outside of the rights and wrongs of the depiction of religious figures. If the media continue to treat Sepp Blatter and co. as real boys rather than the cartoonish wooden puppets which they really are, sooner or later they will start to believe it themselves, until you arrive at a situation where the FIFA Ballon d’Or is treated with something approaching seriousness, as a real news story rather than as the sham which it is. That is unfortunately where we seem to find ourselves today.