WORDS BY TREVOR MURRAY | @TREVORM90
There’s a quote often attributed to Knute Rockne, a famous NFL football player and coach, that goes: “Show me a good and gracious loser and I’ll show you a failure.” It has echoes of the famous Vince Lombardi soundbite.
Both lines call into serious question the mentality of losers, that if you take losing well – or too well – it’s unlikely you’ll have the fire in your belly to go all out and earn victory the next time around. For true champions, the quotes suggest, losing has to hurt and hurt deep, otherwise the pursuit of triumph doesn’t mean enough.
In football, winning is paradoxical for many: it’s both the ultimate objective and the minimum expectation. Hitting below the mark too often blemishes the top performers’ records. A defeat one weekend can be cancelled out with a win the following Saturday, but letting a victory slip away is a painful experience for winners with resilient mentalities.
Getting maximum points as often as possible is what all great footballers crave, but so too is the quest to score regular goals, and that journey can be made all the more exciting if the manner of rattling the back of the net is particularly impressive. What’s more, if an eye-catching goal can spur a team into a frenzied fightback or cajole a jam-packed terrace of nail-biting fans into believing once more that their side can defy the odds, a truly great goal can make even neutral fans sit up and applaud.
Nowadays, cheerleading has gone to another level, an almost unbearable level: the Puskás Award craze. It’s impossible to say what FIFA had envisioned when former president Sepp Blatter announced the first-ever edition of the competition in 2009.
When it was conceived, there seemed little harm in it. FIFA indicated the accolade would act as a commemoration of its eponymous icon, Ferenc Puskás, but it’s hard to imagine the old-school Hungarian legend would feel too comfortable spending a glitzy evening suited-up in a stuffy theatre while being interrogated by Idris Elba and subjected to the uniquely offbeat musical stylings of Big Shaq.
Then again, Puskás himself could probably have hosted the ceremony in his heyday. If anyone knew how to handle a tough crowd, it was him. The myth-like anecdote of him turning the misconceptions of a bunch of youngsters on their head during a coaching session alongside George Best in Australia, back in the 1960s, by hitting the crossbar ten times in a row proves as much. Several sources have him being ridiculed by the youth players for his appearance one minute, while the next he’s teaching them a lesson with a show of his unrivalled technical ability.
In many ways, the Puskás award is the ultimate antithesis of what the man represented. He was understated, far from flashy. He didn’t exactly look like a footballer, carrying a little too much weight and looking more like an everyman than someone to be idolised by the masses.
The Puskás Award brings together all the biggest stars to bask in their own high-fashion, trendy haircuts and celebrity. Handed out during the FIFA Awards, it has gained cult status causing the Twittersphere to come alive with cynicism. Still, people continue to tune in, reporters apply for accreditation weeks in advance and the cycle continues from one year to the next, despite it being car crash television.
Does Mo Salah really care that Gary from Northumberland, among thousands of others, picked his goal over Cristiano Ronaldo’s or Giorgian De Arrascaeta’s? Probably not. In fact, he’d probably agree with me; that the goal that won him the 2018 edition — against Everton in the Merseyside derby — wasn’t even the best he netted that year.
On many levels, the Puskás award gets it so very wrong. It’s regularly the big stars who win out, meaning the playing field is far from even from the get-go. The voting system gives the most marketable player a better chance of winning. Think back to the 2014 award, given to James Rodriguez for his wonder goal at the World Cup. Up against Robin van Persie and Stephanie Roche, the soon-to-be Real Madrid marquee signing won handily.
Van Persie’s strike was a special goal, too, but Roche’s strike was a remarkable piece of dexterity, skill and accuracy that managed to catapult the women’s game to an all-new level. It was the best goal of the lot. Her nominated goal, for Peamount United in the Irish Women’s National League, captured a large chunk of the votes, but it’s easy to see how the massive difference in the grandiosity of the surroundings played a part in swaying many voters – indeed, that’s even considering the award isn’t supposed to take “championship, gender or nationality” into account. The number of people who likely voted for James's strike because he did it at the World Cup feeds into the frankly warped notion peddled by Irish broadcaster Ivan Yates at the time that Roche's inclusion was “sham amateurism.”
Simply put, the Puskás award, under the umbrella of the FIFA Awards, is an excuse to bring all the most well-known and best-liked players together in one room to boost FIFA’s image. Instead of building to an unforgettable crescendo to celebrate the purity of great goals, it gets lost in its own fanfare and pomp. Despite the fact it has built a cult following of admirers, it’s hard to view it as anything other than a misguided attempt at handing out more awards.
We all love watching compilations of the best goals, but let’s leave that part of the game for lazy Saturday morning YouTube binges and late-night pub lock-in debates. It’s easy to see why people tune in to watch the Puskás award: it’s light-hearted easy-watch entertainment, and it has become a cult element of the modern game that fixates millions. However, if we continue to package, market and sell every aspect of the game and settle everything with the hollow handing-out of an award such as the Puskás gong, the spirit of debate that is so important to football will inevitably get lost in it all.