Friday, September 28, 2018

FIFA falls flat in London

The Best FIFA Football Awards 2018, which took place in London this week, was a lead balloon.



We were served up a ropey show, cack-handedly hosted from the first whislte by actor Idris Elba, whose lame jokes fell jaw-droppingly flat.

A professional comedian would have at least have handled the discount gags with the right timing and a few tricks of the trade, but Elba, a serious actor, was forced to die on stage with some limp-wristed material.

After a VAR joke died a death, an early stunt where Elba wondered where Dani Alves was, only for the PSG man to stumble in to the hall late, was met by groans almost as loud as when he riffed about waistcoats with Gareth Southgate.

The audience of FIFA's football family, filling the Royal Festival Hall, looked duly uninspired by the various gongs awarded, applauding only sporadically, a watery response which made Elba urge them on more than one occasion to "Make some noise!"

The poor chap must have felt like he was a dying man struggling in vain to revive the equally perishing.

More than once television viewers must have looked at their watch or wanted to change channels. Sitting through the show in person must have been excruciating.

I am betting most attendees were blase throughout the soporific show and would have forgotten the winners the morning after. Being a football fan I could not look away for long but desperately wanted to.

It would be churlish to blame only the organisers and participants however. The venue itself deserves some blame.

The concert hall has a majestic setting on the river, is cleverly soundproofed and boasts a Grade One listing for its historic value but is a monumental failure in so many ways. I know as I worked there for the best part of a decade.

The red carpet entrance, green for the night in honour of the grass field game, was set against the ghastly backdrop of the brutalist Southbank Centre, which meant the likes of FIFA President Gianni Infantino, Luka Modric and Zinedine Zidane exited their limos in front of a visual excrescence.

Unlike sensible buildings, modernist 'icons' like the Festival Hall do not have a main entrance and so the guests were faced with a long staircase up to the main floor upon arrival.

Unhelpfully, the lifts do not service each level and to walk from one side of a floor to another entails a convoluted trip up and down different levels, such is the baffling design of the building. Post-show drinks were in the fourth floor reception lounge, which can be like finding the Holy Grail.

The auditorium has deep and shallow banks of seating which make it hard to generate noise or any sense of theatre (as West Ham fans in the Olympic Stadium or Juventus supporters in the unloved Stadio Delle Alpi can confirm), so FIFA's dream of aping the Oscars was always going to be just that.

The distance between stage and upper tier is huge at the Festival Hall and the chasm between spectator and action bring the old Wembley Stadium to mind. What there is instead are odd double high sides of boxes flanking the stage.

The steep banking at the newer Sadlers Wells Theatre in London by comparison is more reminiscent of the Camp Nou's immersive sightlines. Even classical concerts, the Festival Hall's raison d'etre, suffered from notably poor acoustics from its opening in 1951 until a major renovation at the turn of the millennium.

It might claim to retain the spirit of the Festival of Britain, but the Festival Hall's lack of joviality was somewhat apposite on the night of the FIFA farce.

Nobody expected a famous actor to fluff his lines but Elba did several times, stumbling over the autocue and criminally mispronouncing famous football names, including "Fenrink" Puskas, Miroslav "Klosas",  David "Trazaguet" and PierLuigi "Collana".

Then fellow thespian Sir Patrick Stewart bizarrely appeared in one of the boxes to close the night with one enigmatic line,

"To be or not to be, we will always love football!"

which left Mohamed Salah for one staring in bemusement for a few seconds.

Elba's malapropisms were mirrored by the hapless interpreter FIFA had hired for Didier Deschamps, whose praise for fellow nominee Zlatko Dalic fell on deaf ears as his name was rendered by the pretty ball-gowned dame as, "The Croatian coach". How embarrassing.

Product knowledge should be a pre-requisite for all jobs one would have thought. I was reminded of a Premier League press officer after a match hurriedly whispering to me,

"Sean, what's the name of the Liverpool coach?" before introducing him. Ken Dodd, I felt like replying.

Modric, as if suffering from the same inability as the interpreter to remember his country's appellations, failed to mention Zvonimir Boban by name but instead referred to the Croatian captain at the 1998 World Cup as his idol and inspiration.

Gaffes aside, the very nature of the event was flawed from the off.

Football's top awards already exist in the form of familiar trophies so this was always going to seem to be mere rubber-stamping: In a World Cup year it was impossible not to give the manager of the year award to anyone other than the man who had won the biggest prize of all.

Ditto the player of the season had to be Modric. These winners' ascensions to the rostrum became mundane slogs as a result while the claps petered out.

The whole idea was to revive the FIFA World Player of the Year award, which ended its six-year link with the longer-established Ballon D'Or in 2015 and has struggled to stay relevant ever since. Like it or not FIFA, France Football's prize is still the gold standard.

Some prizes were illogical. Mo Salah won the Puskas Award for goal of the season and was one of the three nominees for Best FIFA Men's Player but failed to make the FIFA FifPro World 11.

Thibaut Courtois won the Best FIFA Goalkeeper trophy but lost out in the best XI to Davide De Gea, who was not even one of the three nominees for the individual award.

One wondered how many more goals Golden Boot winner Harry Kane needed to score last season (he got 48) to get on the Best XI. I am not sure Salah's goal was the best last season but we can all agree he deserved some accolade for such a thrilling 12 months of football.

The final nail in the London night's coffin was the absence of both Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, still by far the game's biggest names, despite being named in the year's World XI.

Without these supernovae, this could never have been a true night with the stars. Where Leo and CR7  were was never explained but in retrospect you could forgive them for giving this turkey a miss.

It was not all bad.

On the plus side, Brazilian ace Marta spoke with genuine joy and passion at receiving her player of the year award, as if confirming that women's football in general is on the crest of a wave.

It was nice to see former fuoriclassi Paolo Maldini, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Marco Van Basten in town, gone from the field but never forgotten.

It was also refreshing to see Arsene Wenger in apparently chirpy spirits as well as Fabio Capello and Gerard Houllier, two other managers who enjoyed fiery careers in England.

A personal highlight was seeing Reynauld Pedros picking up an award for best women's coach of the year. I last saw the Frenchman scoring goals in the green and yellow of Nantes back in the mid-1990s alongside 'Breton tetu' Nicolas Ouedec.

I was also glad to see Peru's joyful supporters honoured with the Fan's Award. They and their team graced Russia 2018 and reminded the world how enjoyable the Beautiful Game should be.

If only FIFA could keep that in mind and spare us the agony of another night like this week's at the Festival Hall.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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