This year, FIFA used the occasion of the annual World Player Gala to help launch the new International Football Hall of Champions, a project which has FIFA's official support. It produced an unprecedented array of talent past as well as present on the stage at Disneyland.
All the world's major sports (and some of the minor ones, too) have long had their own Hall of Fame - except football. An incongruous situation for the biggest and most international of all sports, but one which has now been put right.
The first part of the gala evening at Disneyland Paris was devoted to the induction of the first personalities to feature in the newly created International Football Hall of Champions, presented by FIFA. Although the Hall itself will not take permanent shape in Paris until later this year, the time had come to announce the first inductees into this unique showplace that will honour the great personalities of the game.
Biggest ovation for PeléThe honour of handing over the special commemorative silver plates went to two former FIFA World Players of the Year, who may themselves find their own place in the Hall one day : Roberto Baggio and Lothar Matthäus.
The Disneyland stage was occupied by a veritable Who's Who of world football history, led by the immortal Pelé, who earned the evening's biggest ovation from the star-studded guest audience. "Football has waited a long time for its own Hall of Fame," said the 57 year-old Brazilian legend. "At last we have one."
Sitting in the front row of the Newport Bay Convention Centre at Disneyland alongside his former New York Cosmos team-mate, Franz Beckenbauer, Pelé clearly enjoyed every minute as other friends and former heroes went on stage to receive their awards : the evergreen Bobby Charlton, who also paid tribute to his absent fellow countryman Sir Stanley Matthews as well as to his mentor, the late Sir Matt Busby; the smiling Black Panther from Portugal, Eusebio; Hungary's Ferenc Puskas, no longer quite the Galloping Major of the 1950s but a model of modesty and dignity; and France's own Michel Platini, playing on home ground and another inevitable favourite with the spectators.
"It's a tremendous honour to be among the first people to be initiated into the Hall of Champions," said Sir Bobby Charlton. "It's always been a puzzle to me why there has not been such a project before. But the nicest thing is to see so many old friends all together here, enjoying each other's company and recalling the old times."
"I'm not crazy"
Many of those old times were recaptured on video clips, often in flickering black and white, in the days when, as Franz Beckenbauer said, "footballers seemed to enjoy themselves more - probably because there was less pressure on them then."
At a press conference before the gala show itself, Dutch coach Rinus Michels, who joined Sir Matt Busby as one of the first two coaches to be inducted, joined Beckenbauer, Eusebio, Charlton and Pelé in an hour of nostalgia. Asked which of the other four greats at the table he would most like to have had in one of his own "Total Football" teams, Michels was typically diplomatic: "Three of them made their names as strikers. I like strikers. I'll take all three."
Maybe one day Beckenbauer might find his place in the Hall of Champions also as a coach - but never Pelé. Asked during the show why, unlike many other great players, he had never turned to coaching, he replied with that familiar engaging grin : "Because I'm not crazy!"
Honour for Real and Brazil
Although the great Alfredo di Stefano was unable to attend - as well as Johan Cruyff, convalescing from a recent illness - he featured often in clips from the hey-day of the great Real Madrid, alongside the sharp-shooting Puskas. Real were clear winners of the club category, while Brazil similarly dominated the national team vote.
There was special applause for three other Frenchmen apart from Michel Platini: Michel Vautrot, visibly moved by his selection as the Hall's first referee; Yves Rimet, grandson of Jules, former FIFA President and founder of the World Cup; and Jacques Goddet, at 92 years old at no loss for words of the eloquence with which he had edited L'Equipe newspaper for so many years.
In the category For the Good of the Game, devised to allow recognition for those who have served football exceptionally in other ways, the late head of adidas, Horst Dassler, was the obvious nominee, a man whom the citation described as "a businessman who always put the interests of football first".
*Inductees into the International Football Hall of Champions are selected on the basis of their services to football and their human qualities. *
Players and coaches can only be nominated at least five years after the end of their active career.
A Steering Committee composed of members of FIFA, the Hall of Champions management and three ad hoc members composes a list of nominees which is then put to a panel of 32 football specialist journalists from all continents, who also have the opportunity to add nominees of their own as well as voting for a specific number of candidates in each category. The nominees with the highest number of votes are inducted into the Hall.
*In order to give the Hall a solid base in the first year, it was decided to initiate ten players into the Hall. In future years, only five players will be inducted annually. *
All inductees will be permanently represented in the Hall of Champions in the form of a bronze bust and with their exploits suitably recounted.