World Cup moving ever closer to glitzy awards ceremony

New Fifa boss continuing the trend of football moving towards glitter and champagne

Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo, right, poses with FIFA President Gianni Infantino after winning The Best FIFA Men’s Player award during the The Best FIFA Football Awards 2016 held in Zurich, Switzerland. Photo: Ennio Leanza/Keystone via AP

Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo, right, poses with FIFA President Gianni Infantino after winning The Best FIFA Men’s Player award during the The Best FIFA Football Awards 2016 held in Zurich, Switzerland. Photo: Ennio Leanza/Keystone via AP

 

What a surprise to find that sporticidal maniac Gianni Infantino has added yet another awards ceremony to football’s calendar. As someone who believes that what the world really lacks for is a further glittering night of industrial frottage, I am pleased to see the Fifa president identify the need for the football family to come together in this manner.

If only there was a tried and tested way for the footballing elite to measure themselves against each other – perhaps in regular competitions, tournaments, championships, derbies, clásicos, leagues, cups, and various other quaint old ideas that will presumably be phased out entirely in favour of competitive black tie and sponsored gifs. There can’t be, though, because Fifa’s inaugural ‘The Best’ Football Awards took place in Zurich on Monday night, and were packed to the goody bag with unnecessary prizes and cynical virtue signalling. An attendee gives me two hilariously end-times vignettes: outside the ceremony, there were Swiss teenagers actually asking Infantino to autograph their football shirts. (Have a word with yourself, Switzerland.) And the last thing Infantino said to the TV cameras before he swept inside to a night of confected displacement activity was: “Football’s back.”

I am not in the habit of claiming watertight theories, but here’s an exception: if you ever read the phrase “the inaugural X awards”, you can be sure that the X industry is in some kind of serious trouble and doesn’t know what to do about it. My own business is one of the clearest cases in point. There now seem to be about six annual press awards, all of which probably describe themselves as “the Oscars of our industry”, and all of which are desperate marketing exercises dreamt up or perpetuated by people who can’t think of anything better to justify their existence, much less ensure even its medium-term continuation. It is almost as if the more wrong and more financially challenged we are, the more opportunities for self-garlanding there will be.

Football is doing several leagues better than newspapers, obviously, but we must remember that Infantino is working tirelessly to address that. To this end, let’s take a look at his masterplan agenda for past few days in Zurich:

1) Field himself in a “legends” match at Fifa HQ. #legend

2) Inaugurate a sensationally unnecessary awards show.

3) Move to ruin football’s flagship competition by ushering in a 48-team World Cup.

And so to the wretched 48-team World Cup, which – needless to say – was rubber-stamped on Tuesday morning by a series of idiotic, insecure and grasping federations, including our own. As from 2026, the World Cup will have 16 groups of three teams each. Fifa has clearly realised it has no mountains left to climb as far as financial corruption was concerned, and consequently has graduated to corrupting the product itself. Say what you will about the kleptocracy of Fifa over the past few decades – and heaven knows I did, almost weekly – but at least you still actually wanted to watch all of the World Cup. (I realise there are some very pure souls who claim to have stopped years ago on principle, but most of us down here in the gutter were quite happy to.) But the early stages of a 48-team competition are a challenge to which many will feel it unnecessary to rise.

For my money, the most perfectly succinct verdict on this self-mutilation by Fifa came from the FT’s Moscow correspondent, who simply observed: “World Cup 2026: The Phantom Menace”. Encapsulated in that three-word verdict is everything you really need to know about what South Park once mildly depicted as the concept of franchise rape.

On the one hand, perhaps we should salute Infantino’s courageous stance against prevailing currents in populism, at least one of which has been rage against the culture of participation medals. Perhaps the Fifa boss thinks the World Cup must adapt to appeal to up-and-coming generations raised to think they’ve won if they’ve just taken part. On the other, perhaps he just wants the votes and Fifa the cash. It’s such a finely judged call, isn’t it?

What is inarguably clear in this new model is that quantity trumps quality. Already, the economics of sporting mega-events mean we spend 90 per cent of time in the run-up to them discussing things such as infrastructure “legacy” as opposed to athletic competition. Already, there is a distinct sense that the World Cup is becoming a McDonald’s commercial with an increasingly unimportant football tournament attached.

A 48-team World Cup simply confirms that this type of elite sport is becoming less elite and less about sport. Instead, it is explicitly – perhaps primarily – expected to function as a development tool or funding leg-up for stragglers. The Scottish FA’s chief executive talks about a 48-team tournament being “a positive thing for the smaller nations”, as though that were the point of sport. What is meritocracy, if not something that needs to be mitigated?

As for how this boringly bloated competition is supposed to function, I see that Infantino has suggested that Fifa may introduce penalty shootouts in the group stages to stop countries playing for results that favour them both. He says that now, but I do hope that’s just a cover for the inevitable solution. Let’s face it, there would be no more perfect way of saying “football’s back” than deciding all draws with an award ceremony.

(Guardian service)

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