LONDON — With all due respect for Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, who have monopolized FIFA’s player of the year award for the past eight years, they were upstaged for a glorious moment in Zurich this time around.
Messi regained the Ballon d’Or from Ronaldo on Monday, with Neymar in third place.
No arguments there, either with the quality or the order.
But the most charming moment of the night, the reminder of how many people play and dream of recognition around this world, came when Wendell Silva Lira stole the applause.
At least 1.6 million people apparently knew long before the gala awards. For that is the number, according to FIFA, who voted online for Wendell’s goal in a fourth-division game in Brazil as the most striking score of 2015.
When Wendell’s name was called out as the winner, he seemed to be almost in a trance. His face was still, his eyes firmly shut. He slowly removed the earphones through which he had followed a Portuguese translation of the announcement.
He turned away from the lights, kissed his wife and walked with a faltering gait toward the stage. “It is an honor to be here and to get to know famous players I’ve only seen on the screen before,” Wendell told the audience, which included many of those players.
“I thank my family and all those who voted for me. I should like to thank my wife and my daughter, and I thank God for this moment in my life.”
He wanted to tell a story from the Bible, the story of David and Goliath. “Everyone was looking at the giant, and nobody wanted to fight him because he was very big,” said Wendell. “But David looked at him and said, he’s very big, so I can’t miss.”
This, he said, finishing his point, is how we have to react in life.
Wendell isn’t a particularly little fellow, not alongside Lionel Messi. But this was the first, and in all probability the only time, that they will be in the same room, let alone on the same podium.
But can 1.6 million people be wrong? They opted for Wendell over a sumptuous goal by Messi (a quicksilver, mesmerizing run as he dodged four Athletic Bilbao opponents before slotting the ball inside the goalkeeper’s near post). And they voted in third place Roma’s winger Alessandro Florenzi who chipped the ball over Barcelona keeper Marc-André ter Stegen from 50 yards in the Champions League last season.
Amazing scores against top defenders. Yet Wendell collected 46.7 percent of the vote, more than Messi and Florenzi put together.
I haven’t described it yet, and I’m not sure I know how to do it justice. There is always the modern magic of YouTube, which is how so many knew about Wendell’s strike in the first place.
It happened during a Goiás State championship game in the middle of Brazil where Wendell was born 27 years ago. In teeming rain and in front of a sparse crowd, he created and finished off a goal that combined instinct, teamwork and marvelous acrobatic agility.
Having started off the move with a pass to his right, he made a run between two central defenders, expecting or hoping for the ball to be returned to him. It was, via a deliberate lob over those defenders and over his own head.
Still facing away from the goal, Wendell lifted his 5-foot-9 frame into the air, twisting his body as he rose. Then, with his eyes on the ball, he produced a scissors kick that went over his shoulder, over the keeper and delicately beneath the bar.
Did he mean to combine all of that movement, audacity and invention? Oh yes, he’s Brazilian. “As the ball was played into me,” he told globoesporte.com. last year, “I turned and knew that I only had one option. I wanted to volley it.”
And yet this player, now the holder of the Ferenc Puskas Award — named in honor of the great Hungarian of the 1950s and 1960s — has had a journeyman career.
It started well enough, in the same Goiás youth club as Rafael Tolói, a defender now with Atalanta in Italy, and with his good friend Douglas, a right back with Barcelona.
Wendell’s tale is the familiar one of youthful promise handicapped by injuries and by the changing opinions of coaches along the way. Even after that marvelous goal for Goianésia Esporte Clube against Atlético-GO last March, he has had two changes of clubs and in between two months of unemployment.
If this was his only fantasy goal, and Monday his one fantastic night, he has a world of admirers. He conjured up the goal, and social media gave him a global night among the stars.
Brazilians, with their love for soccer and for improvisation, ensured their countryman received recognition. Two social websites, Não Salvo and Desimpedidos, encouraged their subscribers to vote for Wendell.
All’s fair in love and sports and in the use of technology. Puskas scored 508 goals in 521 games for Budapest Honved and Real Madrid, along with 84 goals in 85 games for Hungary. He loved all types of goals, and he would have been especially proud that his award is open to public opinion rather than just to what the professionals think.
Wendell joins a galaxy of the best of the best — Cristiano Ronaldo (2009), Hamit Altintop (2010), Neymar (2011), Miroslav Stoch (2012), Zlatan Ibrahimovic (2013) and James Rodríguez (2014).
No Messi on the list? Perhaps the fans have a sense of fairness, and figure that it’s enough that Messi has been given, or rather earned, player of the year on five of the last seven occasions.
But the beauty from true greatness comes from doing what is good for the team, which far exceeds just scoring goals.