Messi and Marta on top of the world
© AFP

Suitably attired for the occasion, the cream of world football turned out in force on a chilly Monday evening in Zurich for the 19th FIFA World Player Gala 2009. The stars of the show were unquestionably Argentina’s Lionel Messi and Brazil’s Marta, who scooped the awards for the best male and female player of the year.

While temperatures plummeted on the day winter officially started in Europe, there was plenty of warmth being generated on the red carpet as an endless stream of footballing celebrities made their way into the city’s Kongresshaus.

Following a performance by The Harlem Gospel Singers, the evening’s hosts, Pedro Pinto of CNN International and Charlotte Jackson of Sky Sports, extended a warm welcome to the audience before presenting a video featuring the highlights from all the FIFA tournaments held during the course of the year.

FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter then addressed the hall, offering his summary of the last 12 months before making way for the first award of the evening, the FIFA Development Award. FIFA Secretary General Jerome Valcke was entrusted with making the presentation to the Chinese Football Association, which has been recognised this year for its ongoing work in nurturing future generations of players through its grassroots programmes.

The most emotional moment of the ceremony came when the winner of the FIFA Fair Play Award was announced. Recognised for his sterling contribution to the spirit of the game throughout a distinguished career, the award went to legendary English player and coach Sir Bobby Robson, who died in July this year and was widely admired for his sportsmanship on and off the pitch. Collecting the award from UEFA vice-president Senes Erzic was Sir Bobby’s wife Elsie Robson.

By this time the high point of the evening, the coronation of the world’s best male and female footballers, had almost arrived. And to set the scene a series of video clips showing the ten nominees in action over the course of the year was shown, with the smiling players receiving spontaneous applause from the appreciative audience.

Then it was time for one of this year’s innovations, with Andres Iniesta and Cristiano Ronaldo appearing on screen once more as two of the ten players in the running for the FIFA Puskás Award for the most outstanding goal of 2009. Elisabeth Puskas, the wife of the late Hungarian legend, and former AC Milan star George Weah, made their way on to the stage to present the accolade, which went to Real Madrid’s Portuguese idol. Cristiano’s award-winning strike, which came when he was on duty for Manchester United in last season’s UEFA Champions League quarter-final tie against Porto, came out on top in a poll attracting the votes of over 100,000 FIFA.com users.

It was then the turn of FIFPro President Gerardo Movilla and German institution Franz Beckenbauer to announce the names of the 11 players who would make up the FIFA/FIFPro World XI, chosen by over 50,000 professional football players from all over the world, voting for the best player in each position, all of whom received a deserved round of applause."It is always an honour to receive an award and it is very special when it is your colleagues who vote for you," said Chelsea and England defender John Terry "So on behalf of all of us, thanks a lot for having selected us.”

The musical prelude to the first of the evening’s two major individual awards was provided by Italian singer Laura Pausini, giving everyone a chance to catch their breaths before the candidates for the FIFA Women’s World Player 2009 took to the stage one by one for a brief chat with host Charlotte. Sadly, Birgit Prinz, one of Germany’s two nominees, was unable to attend due to illness.

The moment of truth came when Blatter and Chairmain Hooper, FIFA Women's Footbal Committe member, opened the envelope and revealed Marta as the winner for the fourth consecutive year. Having now won the award more times than any other player, the Brazilian sorceress was understandably delighted. "I'm so surprised. I want to thank to God for everything that is happening to me in my life. Also, I want to thank my colleagues at Los Angeles Sol, Santos and in the national team. This is an individual award but without my colleagues I could not stand out and win any prize. I am happy for this 4th award. I hope it helps women's football to grow."

Bidding farewell to the tearful Marta, the FIFA President stayed on stage to hand over the FIFA Presidential Award, which this year went to Queen Rania Al Abdullah of Jordan for her steadfast commitment to the campaign 1GOAL: Education for All. Expressing her gratitude, Her Majesty took the opportunity to encourage those present to continue supporting the initiative, which aims to make education for everyone a reality.

Laura Pausini then returned from the wings for another musical interlude. And after the Italian songstress had bidden farewell, the five candidates for the FIFA World Player 2009 sat down with Pedro for friendly chat. As the tension continued to mount, Blatter and UEFA President Michel Platini then stepped into the spotlight to open the all-important envelope and announce Lionel Messi as the player of the year. “First of all I would like to thank all of my colleagues who voted, as it is a huge honour to receive this award," said a thrilled Messi, the first Argentinian to win the accolade. "It is beautiful to have the recognition of your colleagues from other national teams. I want to say thanks and share this with all of my team-mates. This is the best way to end a magnificent year for Barcelona, my team-mates and for me, Thanks a lot."

With applause continuing to ripple around the hall, The Harlem Gospel Singers reappeared to sing a song of farewell as the evening’s prizewinners gathered around a beaming Messi. Rising to their feet, the audience then gave the galaxy of stars lighting up the stage a deserved standing ovation, setting the seal on a quite exceptional night.