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FIFA's The Best Awards Are The Worst

Photo: Antonio Calanni (AP)

In what universe is Marcelo still one of the best defenders in the world? Not in this one, or any other where performances on the field or even the amorphous “club success” criteria apply. The only place where Marcelo could be considered a starter in a world’s best XI is one where nothing matters today as much as yesterday’s fame. Which is why Marcelo was both an utterly undeserving and a perfectly fitting award recipient at FIFA’s The Best awards.

Among the awards given out on the night was the FIFA FIFPro Men’s World 11, a hodgepodge of names you recognize who had seasons varying from spectacular—Lionel Messi, Kylian Mbappé, Virgil van Djik—to catastrophically average.

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Marcelo is not the only unworthy member of the Best XI, but he is the best example of how FIFA’s awards, voted on by a selection committee of former players and luminaries, are an exercise in little more than name recognition.

Marcelo was, not that long ago, the best full back on the planet. His contributions to and command of his teams’ attacks were unparalleled, and more than made up for his shortcomings when defending. However, the Brazilian has fallen off a cliff recently. Last season was the worst year of his career, and he spent large chunks of it as Madrid’s second-choice left back. His performances were so weak that Madrid spent a bunch of money in the summer on Ferland Mendy to eventually replace Marcelo. And yes, Brazil did win the Copa América, but Marcelo wasn’t even on the roster.

There are plenty of other left backs with a better claim to Marcelo’s spot. Nicolás Tagliafico, whose Ajax knocked out Real Madrid in the round of 16 of the Champions League, had a stellar season for the Dutch champions. Jordi Alba had one of his strongest campaigns, racking up two goals and eight assists as Barcelona won La Liga and made the Champions League semifinals. And, most deserving of all, there’s Andy Robertson, who marauded down Liverpool’s left flank and amassed 11 league assists as Liverpool compiled the third-best season in Premier League history, and, oh yeah, also won the Champions League.

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By no measure of individual or team success did Marcelo deserve his spot. What’s maybe crazier is that Dani Alves finished as the fifth-best defender in the polls, above the Liverpool duo of Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold (the latter of whom broke the Premier League record for assists by a defender with 12), and Gerard Piqué, who was back in elite form and was at worst the second-best central defender last year. Because FIFA only differentiates between defense, attack, and midfield for its selections, any one of those defenders (or a veritable fuckload of others) should have finished higher than the formerly great but still-famous Brazilian full backs. Hell, Dani Alves played half the season as a center mid last year!

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There are other glaring oversights and puzzling decisions in the Best XI voting. Real Madrid had an atrocious season, and yet they somehow got three players into the best XI. Manchester City just completed the best two-season stretch in Premier League history, and all they have to show for it are a few also-ran spots in the keeper, midfielder, and forward categories. And the midfielders lineup features comical additions like Luka Modrić (had a terrible year), Kevin De Bruyne (made just 11 league starts because of injury), and Paul Pogba (was barely above-average) in the top 10.

Now, individual awards in a team sport like soccer are inherently silly. But awards like these, especially when bearing the imprimatur of an institutional authority like FIFA, are documents of history that should adequately convey to future generations what and who was important. If you were to summarize the major events of the 2018-19 season, you would look back to Ajax’s crazy run to the semis of the Champions League, the best Premier League race in history, Barcelona’s collapse at Liverpool, maybe even Bayern’s continued dominance in Germany and Spurs’ bonkers comebacks against Manchester City and the aforementioned Ajax.

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You would not, unless you are either not paying attention or you are a FIFA voter, think of Marcelo. FIFA’s missing of its opportunity to create an informative, accurate historical record would be a crying shame, but thankfully nobody really gives a shit about these awards anyway.

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