FIFA’s 2014 World Cup awards managed to raise a few eyebrows. At least two – my own – have been confirmed as raised, thought it is likely that others have been too. The decision to award Lionel Messi the best player award received a lot of criticism, but that award is far less odd than the team of the tournament, which contains a few rather surprising entries.
Gerard Houllier, the former Liverpool manager, and a member of FIFA’s technical study group (which decides upon the winner) rather unsurprisingly defended the decision to hand Messi the award. Houllier points out a number of reasons which – in isolation – each constitute a reasonable defence of the decision.
Houllier’s defence of the decision is somewhat self-contradictory, however. He starts out by emphasising Messi’s appearance in the final. Natural, given the importance of the final to the tournament as a whole. However, the extra importance of the final seems only to count when it works in Messi’s favour.
Later, however, when discussing why Messi’s relatively light impact on the business end of the competition, he made much of the fact that each game was weighted equally. This was then contradicted once again as he attempted to defend Messi’s prize against James Rodriguez and Angel di Maria. The pair, he explained, had both stopped too soon. It seems a little unfair to Rodriguez in particular who lead a relatively unfancied Colombia squad deep into the tournament.
Houllier was willing to go to some lengths to justify the decision, stooping so low as to bring up Messi’s taking the first penalty in the semi-final shoot-out. Furthermore, he claimed that Messi captained a united side. The penalty is laughably irrelevant, and quite how the technical study group were able to determine Messi as the source of Argentine unity is beyond me. Javier Mascherano, their finest defensive player and by all appearances a more natural leader, would seem a far more likely candidate for that accolade.
Arjen Robben was criticised by Houllier for not impacting much upon the latter stages. Somehow Robben’s leading role in demolishing the reigning championscan be discounted, yet Messi’s showings against Iran, Bosnia & Herzegovina and Nigeria cannot.
Robben and Germany’s Thomas Mueller were further criticised for not being as integral to their team’s performance. Of course it is hard to separate the performance of team and individual, but that strikes me as basically the point of a technical study group. To discount Robben and Mueller simply because others on their team were playing well is grossly unfair.
All in all, it seems that at every turn, the award seems to basically reward what Messi does and punish what his rivals do. The team must be strong enough to reach the final stages, but not so strong as to overshadow the candidate’s performance. They must perform well in the final stages if they aren’t Messi, but if they are then every match is weighted equally.
Of course, this is a slightly meaningless award, but it need not necessarily be that way. Individual awards are highly regarded in American sports. FIFA must recognise its own lack of credibility and either hand power back to sports journalists or set out well-defined criteria if it wants this to look like anything other than a “Sepp’s favourite player” award.