The smile on Rivaldo's face said it all. The midfield magician from Recife had often declared his ambition to be crowned FIFA World Player of the Year, and in Brussels on 24 January the dream came true. Selected as the world's outstanding player of 1999 by 90 of the 140 national team coaches who participated in the voting, the prestigious title capped a sensational 12 months for the Brazilian superstar. His magnetic ball control, precise passing and eye for goal make him a worthy successor to compatriots Romario and Ronaldo, winners of three of the previous five World Player awards.
This was the ninth edition of FIFA's prestigious awards gala, organised in conjunction with European Sports Magazines (ESM), Foot Magazine/Voetbal Magazine of Belgium, and the International Football Hall of Champions. Some 700 guests and 150 media representatives were in the Palais des Congrès to see a parade of stars from past and present accept awards for their prowess on the field of play and their contributions to the game.
In keeping with tradition, the other two candidates for the FIFA World Player title were also spectacular attacking players. David Beckham of England was voted in second place, in recognition of his superb form for Manchester United - in a season which saw them capture three titles, confirming his reputation as one of football's brightest young talents. Unfortunately a crucial Premier League match prevented him from travelling to Brussels. In third place came Gabriel Batistuta, master marksman for both Argentina and Fiorentina, for whom the award was a reward for years of prolific goal scoring and extraordinary loyalty to his club colours.
While of course Rivaldo and Batistuta were the main centre of huge media and public interest, they were not the only ones to enjoy the spotlight. To open the show, co-hosts Foot Magazine/Voetbal Magazine honoured former national team player and coach Paul Van Himst as the Belgian Player of the Century.
The Hall of Champions, which FIFA General Secretary Michel Zen-Ruffinen announced will be established in a high-profile location in London, inducted a new group of football legends for the third successive year. One of the evening's most emotional moments came when a 71-year-old Didi, the brilliant playmaker of Brazil's 1958 and 1962 FIFA World Cup™-winning teams, was called on stage. He was followed by another legendary Brazilian, Zico, a hero to many of the current generation of Brazilian superstars, including Rivaldo.
Northern Ireland's most famous son, George Best, was also honoured, and although Dutch striker Marco Van Basten was unable to attend, he was represented by his long-time mentor at both club and national team level, coach Rinus Michels, already a Hall of Champions inductee. Barcelona and Italy were inducted in the club and national team categories respectively.
Then it was on to the FIFA awards, and the night began with ladies first. Outstanding performers of the 1999 FIFA Women's World Cup were also present to collect their FIFA/adidas awards. The competition's outstanding striker, Sun Wen of China, was presented with the Golden Ball and the Golden Shoe, sharing the latter with Brazil's Sissi. A midfield schemer in the finest Brazilian tradition, Sissi also claimed the Silver Ball, while Norway's Ann Kristin Aarones received her Bronze Shoe.
Although club commitments deprived the Confederations Cup section of Ronaldinho and Cuauthemoc Blanco, Saudi Arabia's Marzouk Al Otaibi was on hand to receive his two awards. Brazil were also rewarded for their virtually unassailable dominance at the top of the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Rankings, and the title of Best Mover went to Slovenia, largely due to their qualification for UEFA EURO 2000.
As usual, Fair Play also featured prominently in the gala, with China collecting the prize for the Women's World Cup and Brazil for the FIFA Confederations Cup. The annual FIFA Fair Play award was presented to Soccer New Zealand in recognition of the exemplary efforts of the country's football community in promoting and developing the sport.
The gala proved once again that the FIFA World Player award is firmly established in the international football calendar. The 75 minute show was shown in 27 countries in Europe alone, and many more worldwide. The Conrad International Hotel was swarming with media for the pre-gala press conference, and the local football fans also turned out in force to catch a close glimpse of their heroes, with Batistuta and Rivaldo in particular mobbed by adoring fans upon their arrival.
FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter, presenting the awards in the company of João Havelange, Michel Platini, Franz Beckenbauer, George Weah and others, captured the essence of the evening by saying : "Players are at the heart of our game, as in every sport. They are the ones who capture the emotions and imagination of fans all around the world, who serve as inspiration for the young and give football so much of its diversity, variety and colour." Rivaldo, for one, is a prime example.