The three masters of football


By Rob Hughes

It was a year when nothing happened. No World Cup, no European Championship and an European Champions League final that ended in a painfully goalless draw. And the coaches had to pick the world's best based on talent, not achievement. The choice, in the end, was almost obvious

LONDON: When three of the world's leading footballers are persuaded to dress like politicians, it puts them momentarily into an uneasy pose. 

Zinedine Zidane, Thierry Henry and Ronaldo are not natural models for sober suits and club ties. They are creatures of movement. Zidane is incomparable at moving his feet and making other men move their minds. Henry is the swiftest human equivalent to the cheetah, but can control the ball at such pace. Ronaldo can make his feet dance and make the goalkeepers bend and stretch to pick his shots out of their nets. 

They were honoured, in Basel, Switzerland, on Monday as the one-two-three of global football. 

THE TOP THREE: Ronaldo, Zidane and Henry after receiving their awards in Switzerland. Despite the cries of foul play, particularly in England, there was little reason not to give the awardsto the French wizard of Algerian descent.- APpic

There was no surprise, and in a sense no story, because Zidane was chosen for a third time as the FIFA World Player of the Year. Henry, his younger French compatriot, came second. Ronaldo, last year's player of players, was third. 

The great players keep on dominating the awards, and Ronaldo and Zidane have now topped the polls in six of the last eight years. Some journalists and broadcasters were uncomfortable with that. The BBC denounced the vote as a “snub” to Henry, a failure to ring the changes, an aversion to acknowledging that England's Premier League, in which Henry plays for Arsenal, is better than all the rest. 

It is bias, of course. Henry himself acknowledges that “Zizou does things with a ball at his feet that you cannot do with your hand.” 

England has a league basically of three dominant teams: Manchester United, Arsenal, and now Chelsea.  

It has an attrition and a physical robustness seen nowhere else on earth. But France produces finer techniques, and Spain exhibits the most evolved form of European play laced with Latin flair. 

In a year when nothing special happened – no World Cup, a goalless Champions League final from two obdurate Italian sides – what else were the 142 national team coaches to do but vote for simply the best? 

The “problem” for those who come for a story at such a ceremony is that it isn't news to salute Zidane for his mastery. He is the most complete footballer in the modern game, the playmaker, the orchestrator. He is only that. He plays the game, he changes from Real Madrid white or French blue into jeans and a leather top, and drifts off home to the family. 

It is hardly the fault of the coaches that, given no irresistible story like Ronaldo's come-back from career-threatening injury to principal goalscorer at the 2002 World, they will go for consistency.  

If Zizou is the finest exponent one year, why vote for another if he maintains form and keeps proving his decency as a man, and his enthusiasm to keep on dictating the rhythm and flow of the game? 

Put him among the “galactico” collection at Real Madrid, and he will still outshine. 

The media might march to the new drums of David Beckham, but the only coaches who bought the hype of a gifted but heavily marketed Englishman hailed from Azerbaijan, the Czech Republic, Fiji, Niger, the Philippines, and the Solomon Islands. 

No disrespect to Beckham. On the pitch, he honestly does his best among a hallowed set of stars in Madrid. His accuracy with the right foot and his industry win new admirers in Spain. 

Indeed, Beckham's stock among the professionals in the game reaped seventh place in the FIFA poll. Pavel Nedved, the effervescent Czech at Juventus, finished fourth; Roberto Carlos of Real Madrid, fifth; Ruud van Nistelrooy of Manchester United, sixth. After Beckham came Raul, yet again Madrid, and Paolo Maldini, who captained AC Milan to the Champions League crown. 

The modesty of Zidane cannot hide the pride. Of the 142 coaches, precisely 71 named Zizou among their top three performers - which means obviously that the other half did not. 

In a team game, it is subjective and in the eye of the beholder which individuals influence the play most. For the record, Zidane won it comfortably, Henry pipped Ronaldo for second, and the trio were well clear of the field. 

The suits that they wore camouflaged what they really represent.  

Zidane, Henry and Ronaldo, worth a combined US$200 million on the football transfer market, have in common that they each rose from humble origins, they all play in foreign lands, they all are examples of a game that places skill above any other consideration. 

Zidane's story is well told: The proud son of Algerian immigrants, his parents were from the Berber-speaking Kabylies of northern Algeria. He and his brothers played street soccer in Marseille. 

When France won the 1998 World Cup, when the whole nation applauded, there was something unique in St. Denis, where the stadium is situated. 

I counted 12 Algerian bars or restaurants in the vicinity, and in none of them were there people with tickets for the big France matches. 

“It doesn't matter,” said Khedidja, a bar owner from the same region of Algeria as the Zidanes. “When Zizou is playing for France, we are more French than the French.” 

Beautiful. 

When you look at Thierry Henry, whose parents were also immigrants to France, though they are now back on the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, you see again that football absorbs and blends a player and his background.  

Henry's swiftness is a family trait. His uncle became French 400m hurdles champion. Henry's technique was schooled at Clairefontaine, the French federation youth academy, and the instinct for improvisation takes wing in London with Arsenal. 

Zidane is 31, Henry is 26. And Ronaldo? In between them in calendar age, but a child he will always be in terms of playing his game. 

Born in Rio de Janeiro, his mother selling pizzas to feed him, unlucky so far in his attempts to settle down in marriage, desperately unblessed by the succession of knee injuries, he keeps coming back. 

There are two principle reasons: God gave him both the skill to finish off chances as few others can, and a simple philosophy that nobody can take away his right to play. – IHT 

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