While plenty has changed about football over the past decade, two rules have remained unwaveringly in place: the dishing out of an award always causes a stir, and any face-off between Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi is guaranteed to incite bedlam. Why, then, when Ronaldo was named the best player on the planet in late October, did the world not bat an eyelid?
Technically those letters should be capitalised: Ronaldo was named The Best – or to give the award its full title, The Best Fifa Men’s Player 2017 – and therein lies much of the reason why so few cared. Last year, football’s global governing body dissociated itself from the Ballon d’Or to form its own annual “The Best” awards, a title dumbed down to the point of grammatical incoherence, and although the award is voted for by players, coaches, media and fans, its Fifa branding and unequivocal status as a brainchild of Gianni Infantino and co has drained it of gravitas.
Fifa’s executives have made plenty of inane decision in recent times, but one of the rare shrewd ones was, back in 2010, to combine their yearly player of the year award with France Football’s Ballon d’Or. The latter, voted for by journalists each year since 1956, offered historical esteem and Gallic-tinged intellectual heft but only covered Europe, while the former was a global award that took in the votes of national team captains and coaches to offer a more hands-on standpoint. Combining the two was a smart move.
Last year’s split, however, was an idiotic one that complicates and trivialises the annual ritual – the existence of two awards for the same purpose only serves to detract from both – for the ostensible purpose of the gala being an unambiguously Fifa-branded one. And these days the phrase “Fifa-branded” is only ever meant as a pejorative. All of which means Gianni and co might be enjoying a greater share of the free buffet, but it’s come at the expense of our attention. Top work, folks.
But perhaps there’s another reason that Ronaldo’s latest gong flew largely under the radar: the world is finally tiring of Ronaldo v Messi. Early days, perhaps, but there are certainly signs that what seemed for so long to be an infinite reservoir of captivation and column inches is beginning to dry out; that the apparently undying dispute is finally showing signs of mortality.
Until the last couple of years, any individual award given to either player was grist to the mill of the eternal hype machine, prompting back-page leads, heavyweight opinion pieces and a cacophony of online squabbling. That’s not so much the case any more: we can blame Fifa for the lack of traction given to this year’s ceremony, but last December’s Ballon d’Or award was suspiciously low-key too (Ronaldo won that one too, but you’d be forgiven for not remembering).
Anyone who’s been to the cinema to see any of the infinite, interminable superhero sequels of recent years will know that if you rehash the same story, the same characters, enough times, the whole enterprise eventually becomes sapped of all fun and excitement. We have not quite reached Batman vs Superman levels of tedium yet with Ronaldo vs Messi, but you sense that the showdown may have run its course. People, as is perfectly natural, have simply stopped caring as much.
In itself this is no problem: football, unlike major film studios it seems, will always bring new characters into the picture. And besides, the Ronaldo-Messi duopoly is a once-in-a-lifetime freak that’s nearing its conclusion regardless.
But who’s to say the issue is only limited to players? Extend the principle to clubs, and you’ve got a big problem that’s only getting bigger. Messi and Ronaldo may pass the baton on in the next few years, but their employers have no such plans: the occupation by Barcelona and Real Madrid of the top two places in La Liga (as has been the case in all but two of the last 13 seasons) won’t be ending any time soon. Their situation is symptomatic of a broader problem that has seen Juventus claim the last six Serie A titles, Bayern Munich the last five Bundesliga titles, PSG set for a season-long cakewalk, England’s top-six boxed off before a ball has been kicked, and no club from outside of those five countries with even the slightest chance of becoming European champions.
Football can be a handy microcosm of the world at large, and in economic terms the parallels are pretty much exact: the rich are getting richer while everyone else is left to simply get angrier. Messi and Ronaldo may soon relinquish their thrones. But with wealth – and by extension trophies – ever-more concentrated among a shrinking contingent of cash-rich juggernauts who have well and truly pulled up the drawbridge, the characters aren’t really changing at all. And as last week’s ceremony proved, it’s only a matter of time until people stop caring.