At Zurich Airport on the morning after the night before, suits, hangers-on, liggers and riff-raff are loitering about, waiting. The Ballon d'Or is over for another year and all the money is leaving town.
They're boarding planes back to their home European cities, nursing hangovers and tightly clutching coffee cups, the cold Swiss air causing steam from the cardboard cups to fog their polished cufflinks. Sepp Blatter can bleat about the true power of football and world peace all he likes, but this is what the FIFA Ballon d'Or is. This is where it's at. The suits, the endless sea of suits. They're everywhere.
They buzz and flit like flies around a corpse of a lion's kill hoping for scraps with the flash of an accreditation pass. In the world of the Ballon d'Or, the lanyard is king and it can get you anything from a free lunch to a seat next to Messi. It's surprising that given all the money in town, no one pays for anything. Or perhaps it's not.
It seems fitting that Cristiano Ronaldo has been deemed the king of this sorry circus for the third time, his most vaunted hat-trick in a career of many. Before he wins the award in Zurich, when he's forced to entertain the world's press, he sits above a throng of humanity clamouring to be near him, unmoved like a statesman surveying his constituency with a barely disguised disdain.
It wasn't Ronaldo who won the Ballon d'Or ahead of Lionel Messi - who shifts uncomfortably like a sullen child mumbling answers in an unavoidably emblazoned Adidas hoodie with a wooden, uncomfortable Manuel Neuer further down the line - but CR7, the brand.
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CR7 sits there alongside his cohorts head-to-toe in cheap council house sports clobber as though Homer's make-up shotgun had been packed full of logos and fired straight at them. CR7's diamond earrings glinted under the stage lights as softball question were served up one after the other, each serving less purpose than the last for interviewer or interviewee. A charade, a puppet show, played out for the interest of others, that's all this is. Nothing seems real when FIFA are in town.
CR7 is Coca-Cola, he's Apple. He's been commodified from man to merchandise, removed and transformed into a grotesque image of himself, all bulging muscles and unobtainable aspiration. A glimpse at the airbrushed inflated image of the Real Madrid man akin to a modern-day God used to launch his own brand of underwear in August last year sums it all up quite nicely.
Flesh and blood
But Ronaldo is human. He is sinew and flesh, as well as hair gel. He yelps with delight when he wins the award his dedication and and awe-inspiring consistency deserved. He cried Alexandrian tears when Messi's monopoly was broken in 2013. He is authentic. Everything around him, and what he represents, is not.
Three awards to Messi's four seems about right, and Ronaldo's landslide win should be the vindication he seeks and deserves. A glance at his goal record in 2014 is enough to show he is a deserving winner. He'll leave Zurich with his award under his arm and will think no more of what happened before or after he was crowned king. He'll leave behind the FIFA slurry pit.
Of course in an age of alleged World Cup cover-ups and the resignation of frustrated and beleaguered independent investigators, FIFA bashing is a common sport. It's fun, and by God is it easy. Most of the time its nonsense is barely tolerable white noise in the background, humming along and quietly ruining the game. Its god-awful guff was enough to take down Red Issue, and will no doubt eventually ruin it all, but it ticks along serenely ever more.
But the concentration of FIFA rhubarb and PR in one place is too much, over a few days it sticks in the craw. It's rammed down your throat like a foie-gras goose along with stilted, awkward conversations with fellow humans you don't speak to for their inherent beauty but to use them for their position or standing at an undetermined future date. People flock around the great halls and in hotels, palms red raw from vigorous handshakes and tongues dry from small talk. Minds are befuddled by strained memories of previous introductions.
And it's too much to take, it really is. It's a reminder of how far removed from the game the search to find its best player really is.
That's no more so than when Blatter has the temerity, the gall, to talk about the Charlie Hebdo massacre. How dare he. This is a man who has regularly put his hand over those trying to speak out against him and his vomit-inducing organisation. What sickening hypocrisy. "Je suis Charlie. Vive le football. Vive la liberte." Awful. But fear not, a few flashing lights and lip service to the truth will do, as long as the right thing is seen to be done. The is PR's world and we just live in it.
There was once a time when the Ballon d'Or was real. There was probably a time when FIFA was real, and when the award was more than flashing bulbs and the opportunity to further the interests and reputation of a few. The presence of numerous references to founders France Football anchored the evening and gave it a grain of reality, although that was soon spirited away with the plumes of smoke pouring into the auditorium designed to announce David Luiz's induction into the World XI. It didn't return again.
In the cold Germanic morning after the night before it is easy to see the Ballon d'Or for what it is, or at least what it has become. It costs £5 million-per-year to run for crying out loud, and that doesn't include the satellite industries that orbit the mothership. Who knows how much it costs all-in.
The suits are leaving town with just a few still loitering about and the mess of the ceremony being swept away. Ronaldo is the perfect poster child of the modern game, and therefore FIFA and the Ballon d'Or. But he isn't the problem, he is the product of it. Ultimately though, he is the best player in the world playing the most popular game in the world, that's all.
It's a sobering morning, after the night before. The coffee steam hits the cold air then quickly disappears, along with those gasping the last of a cigarette butt before the hunt for the business lounge WiFi code begins. The boarding gates will open soon and the party will roll out of town. The suits run the game now, it's for them. it belongs to them.