With less than a month to go before the winners of the 2006 FIFA World Player of the Year awards are announced, the two shortlists of 30 men and 20 women have just been whittled down to three in each category. The battle for the women's title will be between Brazilian phenomenon Marta, the indestructible American Kristine Lilly and German playmaker Renate Lingor. As for the men, world champion Fabio Cannavaro is up against three-time winner of the accolade, Zinedine Zidane, and the current holder Ronaldinho. Given the quality of the line-up in both categories, a night of suspense is on the cards for 18 December.
As far as the women's award is concerned, 2006 will see the crowning of a new winner. Birgit Prinz, who has held the trophy for the last three years, failed to make the final shortlist this time around. Representing German football on this occasion is 31-year-old creative midfielder Renate Lingor, who has enjoyed a quite spectacular season for club and country. Having seamlessly linked midfield and attack for the national side for many years, she played an instrumental part in her club Frankfurt's UEFA Cup triumph this season, just reward for her consistently high performances at this level.
The oldest campaigner of the female trio is American veteran Kristine Lilly, who has amassed 317 appearances and 116 goals in a glittering 20-year career. While fellow members of the Golden generation such as Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain and Julie Foudy have hung up their boots, Lilly just keeps going and going. Now 35, her importance to the national set-up cannot be underestimated, and the double world (1991 and 1999) and Olympic champion (1996 and 2004) has every chance of becoming the second American player to receive the accolade after Hamm, the winner of the award in its first two years. Marta, on the other hand, is just about young enough to be Lilly's daughter. Yet even at the tender age of 20, the Brazilian sensation is something of a veteran of the FIFA World Player Gala, having finished third two years ago and then second 12 months later. Who is to say she will not go one better this year? A vital factor in Brazil's success at all levels over the last four years, she is also a key performer for Swedish club side Umea, having helped them reach next year's UEFA Cup final.
Two midfield magicians and a defensive rock
As for the men, Ronaldinho has every chance of retaining his title. The inimitable Brazilian put together a virtually flawless season with Barcelona in 2006, helping them secure the Spanish championship and UEFA Champions League with his peerless shooting, passing and breathtaking vision. Although, like many of his Brazil team-mates, he failed to fire at Germany 2006, if last weekend's awe-inspiring bicycle kick against Villareal is anything to go by, he looks to be back to his very best.
Zinedine Zidane's 2006 was virtually the exact opposite. The French sorcerer was one of the few players to emerge with any credit from another trophyless season at Real Madrid. It was at Germany 2006, however, that he once again showed the world just what he is capable of doing with a ball at his feet. Virtually single-handedly Zizou steered Les Bleus to the Final of the biggest tournament of them all before exiting the stage for the last time. Among the many highlights were a colossal performance against Brazil, his ruthless efficiency against the Spanish, and that cheeky penalty against Italy. Should Zidane taste success next month, he will become the first ever player to pocket the award four times.
For Fabio Cannavaro this is something of a first. He has never made the final shortlist before and should he claim the award, he would be the first defender to do so and only the second Italian player after Roberto Baggio in 1993. The former Juventus man hardly put a foot wrong in Germany, producing a string of immaculate performances at the heart of the Italian defence and leading his all-conquering side with distinction. Following the Turin club's demotion to Serie B, Cannavaro was lured to Real Madrid and given the job of shoring up the Spanish giants' ailing defence. Fittingly, he was also handed the number five jersey, previously donned with such panache by one Zinedine Zidane.