Individual awards in soccer are inherently silly and effectively meaningless. FIFA’s premier individual award has been rendered even sillier and less meaningful recently after soccer mag France Football regained ownership of the actually prestigious Ballon d’Or, causing FIFA to invent their own “The Best” that people care even less about. This edition’s winner of “The Best” is Luka Modrić, which, even if silly and meaningless, is at the very least kind of cute.
Modrić is presumably just as “deserving” a winner of this stupid little trophy as any of the other hopefuls—the two other finalists being Liverpool’s Egyptian star Mohamed Salah and Juventus’s Portuguese forward Cristiano Ronaldo. Modrić famously helped lead Croatia to a miraculous spot in the World Cup final, and also won last season’s Champions League with Real Madrid. He is a great player, seems like a cool guy, and gave a heartfelt acceptance speech filled with just about enough genuine emotion and charm to distract from the utterly unremarkable, platitude-laden words the sweet little guy who looks like an especially ugly member of the Beatles was saying. You can be perfectly cynical about the award itself and still feel happy for the guy.
Today’s victory feels a little like a career achievement prize for Modrić, who has quietly established himself as the best central midfielder on the planet in recent years, as well as a reflection that what wins individual awards in World Cup years is being the biggest name whom the public can most easily single out as the Most Importantest Player on one of the teams that got really far in that summer tournament. The World Cup-winning France team suffered from being too good, too well-rounded, and too young to produce a candidate who fit this vague criteria, so runner-up Modrić carried the day.
You could argue that Mohamed Salah’s historic Liverpool season made a better case for recognition, or that Barcelona forward Lionel Messi’s absence from the finalists shortlist after he scored more goals than anyone else in Europe, won two major trophies, and was, as he has been for a solid decade, the indisputable best player in the world itself invalidated the award’s entire existence, but to do so would be to confuse what the award is, which is nothing more than a silly little trinket. Salah’s season and Messi’s career are bigger and better than “The Best,” and no amount of manufactured interest or glitzy award show production values can change that fact.
The event’s only real robbery was when Salah took home the Puskás award for the year’s best goal. In a season when Cristiano Ronaldo bicycle-kicked in the greatest goal of his life and Ronaldo’s frenemy Gareth Bale did him one better with a goal that stands as arguably the most amazing finish in Champions League final history, to give that award to Salah for doing a cool but in no way breathtaking thing against goddamn Everton is ridiculous. In a sense, though, the very ridiculousness that gave Salah the best goal award instead of Bale or Ronaldo or Pavard is exactly of a piece with the ridiculousness that makes FIFA’s “The Best” and the rest of these off-pitch individual awards so self-evidently dumb. And so in that spirit we should thank FIFA for a job well done.