This year's FIFA World Player of the Year award on 20 December in Zurich will be a little bit special. For the very first time, a shortlist of 35 men and 21 women has been drawn up by FIFA experts, and it is from this list that national managers, team captains and representatives from FIFPro (the worldwide representative organization for professional players) will choose the winner. We run the rule over the chosen men.
A 'best player' title is honorific, of course, but nonetheless reflects a player's performance over twelve months, where it matters, out on the pitch. The shortlist of 35 players, drafted by members of FIFA's Football Committee and Technical and Development Committee, is particularly telling in this respect.
Among the names that stand out are the most recent winners of the award - Luis Figo in 2001, Ronaldo in 2002 and Zinédine Zidane in 2003. All three could be crowned again this year, with the Brazilian striker and French midfielder joined in their own private battle to become the only player to win the prestigious award four times. The trio are joined by four more galacticos: Roberto Carlos, David Beckham, Raul and Michael Owen. Indeed, Real Madrid are the club with the most players nominated, seven, ahead of AC Milan, with five: Andrej Shevchenko, Alessandro Nesta, Cafu, Kaka and Paolo Maldini. It is interesting to note that in a shortlist dominated by forwards and attacking midfielders, three of the five defenders play for the Rossoneri, the other two being Roberto Carlos and Roberto Ayala.
At 36, the legendary Italian Maldini is the oldest player selected, followed by Oliver Kahn (35) and nine more players over 30. At the other end of the scale, Wayne Rooney is the youngest at just 18, ahead of 19-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo.
Maldini already knows what it feels like to mount the podium, having finished second in 1995 behind George Weah, who remains the only African to pick up this award. This year, two Africans have the chance to follow in Mister George's footsteps: Cameroonian Samuel Eto'o, who played for Real Mallorca last season before moving to FC Barcelona, and Ivory Coast striker Didier Drogba, star performer for Olympique Marseille in 2003/4 and now at Chelsea.
The Old Continent dominant
Europe is by far the continent with the most representatives, which makes sense considering the number of member associations and the quality of the Old Continent's most prestigious leagues. As a result there are 26 Europeans in total, compared to seven South Americans and two Africans. As far as individual nations go, Brazil lead the pack with six on the list (Adriano, Cafu, Kaka, Roberto Carlos, Ronaldinho and Ronaldo), ahead of England's five (David Beckham, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Michael Owen and Wayne Rooney). Behind them are Portugal (Deco, Cristiano Ronaldo and Luis Figo), France (Thierry Henry, Robert Pirès and Zinédine Zidane) and Italy (Paolo Maldini, Alessandro Nesta and Gianluigi Buffon). The Juventus stopper is one of just two goalkeepers present, along with Germany's Oliver Kahn, who is joined by compatriot and Bayern Munich playmaker Michael Ballack.
The shortlist echoes performances in this year's international competitions too. A European champion with Greece, Theodoros Zagorakis earns a place, as do Czechs Pavel Nedved and Milan Baros. Dutch stars Ruud Van Nistelrooy and Roy Makaay, England's Rooney and Lampard, and Swedes Henrik Larsson and Zlatan Ibrahimovic are also rewarded for their Euro 2004 displays, combined with a successful year for their clubs. The same goes for the Argentine Roberto Ayala, who enjoyed an excellent Copa America and Olympic Games, as well as playing a key role in Valencia's UEFA Cup triumph. Welsh winger Ryan Giggs completes the list after starring for Manchester United and Wales, who narrowly missed out on qualifying for the Euro in Portugal.
From these 35 names, it really is impossible to predict who will be elected FIFA Player of the Year in Zurich come December. National captains, managers and FIFPro representatives will surely be pulling their hair out between now and then.