Who will succeed Ronaldinho and Birgit Prinz as  FIFA World Players of the Year? As the tension mounts, the shortlist in each category has now been cut down to three candidates…

The votes of the coaches and captains from each of FIFA's member associations have now been cast. The ballot boxes have been sealed and the (first) verdict reached. In alphabetical order: Samuel Eto'o, Frank Lampard and Ronaldinho are the men's finalists, while Shannon Boxx, Marta, and Birgit Prinz are the pick of the bunch among the women.

The fact that the men's category includes Ronaldinho - fresh from winning the France Football Golden Ball, in irresistible form for Barcelona these last weeks, the key player in Brazil's victory in the FIFA Confederations Cup and indispensable to the Seleçao in the qualifying campaign for Germany 2006 - will surprise no one. If he takes this title too, he will become only the third player after Zinedine Zidane and Ronaldo to lift more than one FIFA World Player award.

Having performed remarkably for Chelsea during their packed 2004 - 2005 season and shown splendid form for England in the qualifiers for football's supreme event, Frank Lampard, was also widely expected to figure among the final few. If the vote goes his way, the midfielder would become the first Englishman to win this highly prized trophy.

And while Samuel Eto'o's name may not have cropped up too frequently as one of the big favourites, the Cameroonian player fully deserves his place in this trio: exceptional up front for Barca since joining the Catalan giants, few would dispute that he is worthy of following in the footsteps of Liberia's George Weah who, precisely ten years ago (an omen perhaps?), became the first African footballer ever to win the FIFA World Player award. 

Prinz still at the top; Marta there again and Boxx makes her debut
Where the women are concerned, the trio chosen by the coaches and captains contains no great surprises either. The 2004 winner Birgit Prinz is still in attendance. A European champion with Germany last spring and a German title-winner with her club Frankfurt, she has also just helped them reach the UEFA Cup Final. These achievements speak for themselves and she could well become the first player to win a third consecutive trophy!

But she is sure to be pushed hard by the Brazilian Marta, the revelation of 2004 who has not let up the pace in 2005. Despite not appearing for the Seleçao, she has shone with her Swedish club Umea in scoring goal after goal this season. Third last year behind Prinz and Mia Hamm, the young Auriverde could become the first Brazilian woman to clinch the FIFA World Player trophy.

If Shannon Boxx were to win it, however, she would not be the first American to take the honour. While she hasn't played a lot of football this year, she confirmed at the Algarve Cup - a friendly tournament of international renown - that she was undoubtedly the best defensive midfielder in the world. That perhaps leaves her one short step away from succeeding her compatriot and living legend of women's football Mia Hamm (crowned in 2001 and 2002)… The answer for all six of these fantastic players is coming soon, on the night of 19th December, to be precise!