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Ronaldinho tipped for best player in 2004
November 27, 2004 11:20 IST
At the end of a year when European soccer's major titles were won by outsiders and the Copa America by an R-less Brazil, naming the best player is tougher than usual.
One thing is certain - for the first time since 1996, three times winners Zinedine Zidane and Ronaldo are not among the favourites for the FIFA World Player of the Year award.
Their club Real Madrid have had a patchy year, Zidane's France were a major disappointment when failing to defend their European crown and Ronaldo missed Brazil's Copa America victory.
Greece beat France on the way to winning the European Championship in Portugal as 80-1 outsiders, the home country of surprise Champions League winners Porto.
It's a fair bet that no Greek or Porto player will be on the three-name shortlist for FIFA's award when it is announced on Monday. Only one Greek player - captain Theodoros Zagorakis - was named in a 35-strong pool of candidates in October and Deco, now with Barcelona, was Porto's sole entry.
Another Barcelona player is favourite for both the FIFA award and France Football's European Player of the Year award, according to a straw poll of Reuters soccer experts around the world.
Ronaldinho, a World Cup winner in 2002 along with Ronaldo, has transformed Barcelona since arriving at the Nou Camp at the beginning of last season from Paris St Germain.
Seven points clear at the top of the Primera Liga, Barcelona are playing the most exciting club soccer in Europe at present and Ronaldinho's vision, passing and party tricks have been the catalyst for change.
Perhaps as important as his performances are the midfielder's smiling, laid-back attitude to life which have transformed the atmosphere in the Barcelona camp.
If he wins, Ronaldinho would join Romario, Rivaldo and Ronaldo as Brazilian winners in the 14 years of the FIFA award's existence.
Like Ronaldo and Madrid's Roberto Carlos, Ronaldinho missed the Copa America which his country won on penalties after the final against Argentina ended in a 2-2 draw.
Another Brazilian, Adriano, was top scorer in that competition in July with seven goals including a last-minute equaliser in the final.
Adriano kept up his superlative form in the early weeks of the Italian league season with Inter Milan but remains an outsider for the World Player Award which tends to stick with safe choices.
The France Football's Ballon d'Or, however, has a more eclectic take on soccer matters and, due to its 48-year history, is considered by many to be the senior award for players in European soccer.
Czech midfielder Pavel Nedved of Juventus won in 2003 and Michael Owen, then of Liverpool, in 2001. A popular choice this year would be Andriy Shevchenko, whose consistent goal-scoring took AC Milan to the Italian title last season.
Ukraine missed out on Euro 2004 which will not weigh in Shevchenko's favour when the awards are given out, but his goal ratio during five seasons in a league famed for its defensive qualities is outstanding.
Defenders and goalkeepers rarely win top awards in a sport obsessed with goals - libero Matthias Sammer won the Ballon d'Or in 1996 and another German, Lothar Matthaeus, is the only defensive player to win FIFA's award, in 1991.
So Roberto Ayala appears to have little chance, despite the Argentine central defender winning the UEFA Cup and Spanish league with Valencia, and taking his country to Olympic gold in Athens and the Copa America final.
Deco is likely to be among the top choices for European player of the year after driving Portugal to the Euro 2004 final and Porto's Champions League triumph.
Arsenal's Thierry Henry piloted Arsenal to the English title, finishing as the league's top scorer with 30 goals, many of them exceptional solo efforts.
However, he is unlikely to improve on his second place behind Zidane in last year's FIFA award after once again failing to shine for France at a major tournament, this time at Euro 2004.
If the choice proves difficult, the selectors could reward a lifetime's achievement and give either of the awards to Paolo Maldini, the evergreen AC Milan and former Italy defender.