The FIFA World Player of the Year Gala is fast approaching once again, and, on 19 December, the best male and female footballers of 2005 will be crowned before the world's press. FIFA experts have been working furiously behind the scenes, of course, and after analysing performances across the globe they have revealed two lists of candidates. No fewer than 30 men and 24 women find themselves up for the top prize, so join us as we take a look at the players who have stood out this year.
FIFA World Player Gala - Men's List
FIFA World Player Gala - Women's list
Who will succeed Ronaldinho and Birgit Prinz on the podium? The answer may remain a mystery until the FIFA World Player of the Year Gala at the Zurich Opera House on 19 December, but if one thing is for sure it is that the lucky duo will come from the recently published long-lists.
These have been drawn up by various FIFA experts, with members of the Committee for Women's Football and FIFA Women's Competitions, as well as other FIFA committees, deciding the female candidates. Likewise, the Technical and Development Committee selected the men.
As far as the male list goes, the most striking feature is the huge Brazilian contingent. Indeed, the Seleçao's remarkable display at the FIFA Confederations Cup Germany 2005 and in FIFA World Cup™ qualification must have left a strong impression on the committee, as an incredible seven Auriverde players have made the cut (Adriano, Cafu, Kaka, Roberto Carlos, Robinho, Ronaldinho and Ronaldo). Brazil are by far the most heavily-represented nation, with England and their four representatives next in line (David Beckham, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Wayne Rooney). Apart from Italy, who boast three defensive stars in contention (Gianluigi Buffon, Paolo Maldini and Alessandro Nesta), no country has more than two candidates.
Also noteworthy is the presence of four African players (Didier Drogba, Michael Essien, Samuel Eto'o and Jay-Jay Okocha), who counterbalance the overwhelming European (18) and South American (8) dominance. Continuity looks to be the key as well, since 25 of the men cited on the 2004 list are up for the award again this year. That has left room for five new faces, with Michael Essien, Jay-Jay Okocha, Juan Roman Riquelme, Arjen Robben and Robinho all in the running this time around.
With such a plethora of talent on show, it is exceptionally difficult to say what factors will ultimately swing the vote. Will it be the performances of the Brazilians, Riquelme or Ballack at the FIFA Confederations Cup? Or those of Didier Drogba, Arjen Robben and Frank Lampard with Chelsea in the Premier League? Maybe Steven Gerrard's stunning determination in the Champions League will win him the honour? Then again, perhaps the consistently excellent contributions of players like Pavel Nedved, Zinédine Zidane, Andriy Shevchenko and Paolo Maldini will influence the decision.
If continuity is the order of the day for the men, the list of women looks a good deal different from the 2004 edition, not least because of the retirement of the USA's golden generation. As a result, nine new names have entered into the picture, and Scandinavia lead the way with nine candidates (Solveig Gulbrandsen, Laura Kalmari, Satu Kunnas, Hanna Ljungberg, Hanna Marklund, Malin Moström, Bente Nordby, Cathrine Paaske Sörensen and Ane Stangeland). This large Northern European presence is hardly surprising, however, considering that Norway reached the final of the European Championship, while Finland and Sweden both made it to the semi-finals.
The Americans are far less represented than usual, with just Shannon Boxx and Christie Welsh holding out hopes of claming the award, but that can be explained by the simple fact that the USA have barely played this season. Welsh nonetheless enjoyed a superb Algarve Cup tournament, in which she netted five goals, while Shannon Boxx has long been considered one of the best defensive midfielders in the women's game.
Far more unpredictable was the nomination of England's Kelly Smith, one of the revelations of the European Championship, where the Three Lions performed with aplomb. The same can be said of North Korea's Sun Hui Ho, whose team have made massive strides this year. Meanwhile, Nigeria's Perpetua Nkwocha has been rewarded for having been a longstanding and key member of a side that seems to get better all the time.
The usual suspects nominated again
Naturally, the outstanding players of the women's game are present once again, and they fully deserve their mention after a successful year in most cases. As a result, Brazil's Marta gains recognition for a brilliant season with her Swedish club Umea, following an explosive 2004, and her team-mate Hanna Ljungberg figures as well. Indeed, currently top of their championship, Umea have recorded 19 victories in 20 matches, with Marta hitting 19 goals and Ljungberg 18.
Last year's winner Birgit Prinz looks to have strong claims again in 2005. Decisive for the Mannschaft as they lifted the European Championship title, she also picked up a German league crown with Frankfurt. And it is worth mentioning that the three German players on the list all ply their trade with Frankfurt. Likewise, the Swedish trio all play for Umea.
The other well-known star in contention is Mexico's Maribel Dominguez, who rose to prominence at the Olympic Tournament in Athens. Now with FC Barcelona, she continues to demonstrate her goal-scoring prowess week in, week out. In short, picking three names from the candidates on offer will be a difficult enough task on its own, let alone selecting one player above the rest.
That delicate decision lies with the coaches and captains of the male and female national teams. Towards the end of November and the beginning of December, FIFA will unveil a shortlist of three main contenders in each category, but everyone will have to wait until 19 December to discover who will be elected FIFA World Player of the Year for 2005. And that could well take some patience!