As the nominees and attendees arrived at London’s Royal Festival Hall for FIFA’s The Best awards ceremony, many took the time to acknowledge the throngs of young local fans who’d made the trip to see their heroes in the flesh.
There was Kylian Mbappe, the World Cup’s hottest young talent, posing for selfies. And there was Sergio Ramos autographing a Real Madrid fan’s shirt. Five-time FIFA World Player of the Year winner Marta posed with the Best Women's player award alongside the grinning Men's winner, Luka Modric.
It doesn’t take much but it means a lot. Talk to anyone and they will have a story about the first time they encountered a footballer for an autograph or a photograph. Those are lifelong memories. They create the strongest possible bond between a fan and a player.
Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi are the two most recognisable and two most popular players in the world. They are probably the two best players to have ever played the game. They didn’t come.
Messi wasn’t nominated in the Best Player category and probably thought the trip to the UK wasn’t worth his time. The three finalists were Mohamed Salah, Modric and Ronaldo. Two of three were there but one was conspicuous by his absence.
Ronaldo now has form for this kind of thing. He failed to travel to Monte Carlo last month because he’d supposedly heard that Modric beat him to the UEFA Men’s Player of the Year award as well.
Given that these two have swept up every Ballon d’Or and most of the rest of the individual awards for the past 10 years, they should demonstrate a little bit more grace when they don’t get one.
There was plenty of chatter in the football community before the awards were given out about Ronaldo and Messi’s no-show. There appeared to be a prevalent opinion that both had demonstrated a lack of respect for the rest of the nominees in all the categories, who had shown up win or lose.
There was a moment during the ceremony when the FIFA/ FIFPro Best Team was announced by X-Men star Patrick Stewart. There should have been 11 players up on stage to receive the plaudits but only nine were there.
It was a little awkward. If Eden Hazard, Marcelo and the rest can find a slot in their schedule to attend then why are Ronaldo and Messi all of a sudden too important for it?
In the grand scheme of things these awards are not the biggest deal in football. It’s a team game after all and tangible collective awards will always be No. 1. But there will always be more losers than winners; that’s the nature of sport. There can be only one top dog. And part of the game is ensuring you can meet the imposters of triumph and disaster just the same. There is no winning without losing.
And it’s how players rebound from these blows that carves out their characters. It starts from an early age when boys and girls around the world have to get used to that sinking feeling, when they’d rather do anything but shake hands with the victor but do it anyway. That’s the very essence of sport and the most important lesson to learn.
If everyone else who had been on those shortlists alongside Ronaldo and Messi over the years threw up their hands and said they weren’t coming because they weren’t going to win, there is no doubt those awards would have lost some of their sheen.
It’s a matter of respect; respect for the game, respect for peers and respect for the next generation.
Ronaldo probably did enough to be named The Best. He won another Champions League for Real Madrid and smashed down more scoring barriers. In another year the award could have been his.
We’ve become so inured to Messi and Barcelona’s dominance recently that perhaps we take it a little for granted. Ernesto Valverde for example won the double in his first-ever season at Barca and didn’t even get nominated for Best Men’s Coach. Messi meanwhile remains at the peak of his powers. But he’s going to have to reach even greater heights in order to remind people of his brilliance.
Maybe he and Ronaldo feel they themselves have been given a lack of respect for their efforts; the goals, the trophies, the moments, the sacrifice, the dedication, and everything else that goes into their brilliance.
But they would do well to be reminded of the fact that although they are on the top of the pyramid there is a cast of thousands beneath them and giving them that platform to perform.
And there is another generation coming behind them learning how to win and lose who might look to this somewhat petulant reaction and think it’s not worth shaking hands when you lose or applauding the winner.
Luka Modric had to do it in the summer when France won the World Cup. He sucked it up and took his Golden Ball award in the Moscow rain when he probably wanted to be anywhere else.
He might not be everyone’s idea of the best player in the world but he’s had the best season of his career. It takes a lot to stand out in the age of Messi and Ronaldo. That deserves some recognition. It might even have meant a little more if there in public had been the game’s two finest exponents.