The snow-covered roofs, perfectly complemented by the colourful festive decorations in the streets, imbued Zurich with a glittering, dreamlike quality on Monday evening. This picture-book seasonal setting provided the perfect backdrop as the curtain came down on football world governing body's Centennial year at the FIFA World Player Gala 2004.

The spectacular event took place at the Zurich Opera House in a meeting of cultures billed as "Football meets opera". The biggest names in international football were joined by world renowned operatic greats including tenor José Cura, sopranos Malin Hartelius and Elena Mosuk and baritone Thomas Hampson.

At the pre-Gala cocktail reception, the invited audience marvelled at the extraordinary beauty of the Opera House, now rated one of the world's best under Alexander Pereira's direction. Alongside Franz Beckenbauer, Michel Platini, first-ever FIFA World Player Lothar Matthäus, Ali Daei and Sir Bobby Charlton, tennis legend and diehard football fan Boris Becker arrived to join in the celebration. "I really like it here, it's just extraordinary. It's a wonderful evening," he declared. Attending the Gala and being asked to present an award was a great honour, Becker remarked. "I'm the ultimate football fan. I'm basically a frustrated footballer, so I'm incredibly delighted to be here."

1974 FIFA World Cup™ winner and respected expert Günter Netzer was much taken with the incomparable ambience of the fabulous Opera: "There's no better location in Zurich. This is a most appropriate choice. I'm a great believer in recognising top athletes. We are paying tribute to the best players football has to offer. I'm delighted to play a part in it."

More than 1,000 invited guests revelled in an operatic medley laid on to mark the official start of proceedings. To the strains of arias from Giuseppe Verdi's "Don Carlos" and "La Traviata", Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro," and Gaetano Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor", the six nominees for the FIFA Player 2004 and the FIFA Women's Player 2004 took the stage. Presenters Kelly Dalglish and Ian Wright put on a slick and professional show bursting with glamour right up to the climax, the FIFA World Player presentation. Mia Hamm, Marta and Birgit Prinz were in contention for the women's award. Pia Sundhage, one of the best women's players of all time, finally revealed that Birgit Prinz had retained the trophy she won last year. Thierry Henry, Ronaldinho and Andriy Shevchenko contested the men's accolade. The hall burst into wild applause as George Weah announced Ronaldinho as the winner. A spectacular Gala at the Zurich Opera came to an unforgettable end with José Cura's rendition of Puccini's "Nessun dorma", earning a prolonged standing ovation from the audience.

"Football meets opera" was a huge success and unquestionably one of the highlights of the footballing year. "I think it really worked out. It was a wonderful show. I really liked the way they maintained the drama right to the end. It was wonderfully tense. And I'm obviously delighted such a naturally gifted player won," Hansi Müller remarked afterwards.


Lothar Matthäus echoed the sentiment. "The programme went down really well with the audience. It was a good mix of sport and opera. You couldn't wish for a better place for today's ceremony. It was an all-round success." The former great recalled his first FIFA World Player accolade from 1991. "It was such a long time ago. It was completely different then. It wasn't so official, and there was less razzmatazz. I remember how I was presented with the trophy. It took place at my house - not exactly glamorous. But football is showbiz now, the glamour is part of it, and obviously that goes down well."