In this FIFA Centennial year, it was wholly fitting that the FIFA Centennial World Player Gala 2004 should be a unique occasion. And so it turned out on the night of 20 December, as the sumptuous Zurich Opera House became the stage for a superb spectacle attended by over a thousand guests. Studded with stars and exclusive images, the ceremony culminated in a tribute to Ronaldinho and Birgit Prinz, who go down in history as world football's two leading lights of 2004.

The Zurich Opera House laid out the red carpet for its prestigious guests, and what a line-up it was! Bobby Charlton, Michel Platini, Ali Daei, Roger Milla, Franz Beckenbauer, George Weah and Lothar Matthaeus were all on the VIP list. The evening kicked off with a vibrant rendition of "Toreador" sung by the American Thomas Hampson, accompanied by a giant slide show celebrating 100 years of FIFA.

The night's proceedings were officially set in motion with a few warm words from Joseph S. Blatter: "Welcome to the Zurich Opera House for the FIFA Centennial World Player Gala 2004, where football and opera meet." Then, former Arsenal striker Ian Wright and Kelly Dalglish , daughter of Scottish legend Kenny Dalglish, picked up the baton to conduct the rest of the ceremony.

Haiti and Brazil rewarded
The first award was a double one: the FIFA Fair Play Award coupled with the FIFA Presidential Award . The winner was the match on 18th August between Brazil and Haiti in Port-au-Prince. The game was organised at a time when the island was in total chaos , as part of the "Football for Peace" inititive.

The award constitutes deserved recognition from FIFA for what was a superb gesture. Accompanied by Sir Bobby Charlton, a 1966 FIFA World Cup winner with England and member of the FIFA Football Committee, Joseph S. Blatter presented the Fair-Play Award to Ricardo Terra Teixeira, the chairman of the Brazilian Football Federation, and the Presidential Award to his Haitian counterpart, Yves Jean-Bart. Sir Bobby emphasised that the game had "brought joy to a boundless number of people and proved that football's stars are aware of their social responsibility."

One emotional moment followed another, as previously unseen video footage of the very first FIFA World Cup Uruguay 1930 was watched in rapt silence before being enthusiastically applauded. Then it was time to return to the present, with the presentation of the first two nominees in alphabetical order ( Mia Hamm and Thierry Henry ) for the FIFA World Player Awards. The two took to the stage accompanied by a duet between Russian soprano Anna Nebretko and Argentine opera singer José Cura, and this format continued throughout the evening, with each pair of nominees being serenaded by its own classical duet.

There followed a look back at the defining moments of 2004 in image form, evoking numerous events held during the year, including the Olympic Tournaments and the Futsal World Championship. This was the ideal way to introduce the next award, which was attributed to the FIFA Futsal World Player 2004. The winner was announced by a certain Boris Becker, someone who is more commonly associated with the small yellow ball, and the trophy, the first in the history of Futsal, went to the best striker and best player at Chinese Taipei 2004, Brazil's Falcao .

After the presentation of the next pair of nominees, fellow Brazilians Marta and Ronaldinho , it was time to move on to the next trophy: the FIFA Interactive World Player Award 2004, which went to the champion gamer to have emerged from four months of competition worldwide. The award in this category went to the Brazilian Thiago, courtesy of his victory in the Final on Sunday at FIFA headquarters. Visibly moved at receiving his award from the hands of one of football's true greats, the very real Lothar Matthaeus of Germany, the young man just could not thank football's governing body enough.

The "Princess" and the Brazilian wizard
Time was flying by, and the evening was now approaching its crescendo. After the presentation of Birgit Prinz and Andriy Shevchenko , accompanied by Verdi, it was time to get down to the serious business. To the awesome sound of the Opera House orchestra and choir directed by the great Valery Gergiev, the three nominees for the title of FIFA Women's World Player 2004 came on stage. Each was briefly interviewed by Ian Wright, but everyone was now awaiting the verdict, which was duly delivered from the mouth of Pia Sundhage, a Swedish pioneer of women's football. Birgit Prinz was crowned for the second consecutive year, thereby joining Mia Hamm with two titles. The 2003 world champion had beaten both the legendary American and Marta. Modest by nature, but resplendent with a beaming smile, the German striker congratulated her team-mates: "Without them I would not be at that stage. Coz to score goals, you need to have good passes."

Then it was the turn of the men. Would Thierry Henry, Ronaldinho or Andriy Shevchenko succeed Zinedine Zidane? This was the question on everybody's lips and the answer aptly came from a former winner, George Weah, still the only African to win this coveted trophy. A murmur heavy with curiosity could be heard throughout the theatre, before the name of Ronaldinho rang out. The Brazilian from FC Barcelona, the fourth auriverde to lift the prize (after Romario, Ronaldo and Rivaldo) had edged out Henry and Shevchenko. The genial star was heartily applauded by the guests, but his soft words betrayed the emotion of the occasion. "I'm very happy for my family and for the Brazilian people above all," he whispered. "And just very honoured to join the three other Brazilian players to have won this award."

All the nominees then joined "Ronnie" on stage to accept the audience ovation, and the ceremony concluded with "Nessun dorma" ("Nobody sleeps" in Italian) intoned by José Curo. Outside, in Zurich's legendary Sechseläuten-Platz at the foot of the Opera House steps, a 20-metre-high, 50-metre-wide 'Centennial Dome' awaited the elite of world football to extend the night's entertainment.