Figo is 2001 FIFA 'World player of the year'

Published : Dec 29, 2001 00:00 IST


DOMINATED by the qualifiers and the draw for next year's World Cup to be co-hosted by South Korea and Japan, the year 2001 saw football as zestful as ever. And, before the feverish activity climaxed with all the spots being taken, the plot had quite a few dramatic twists and turns which, in any other sphere of activity, would have caught even the most seasoned observers by surprise.

Perhaps, the most intriguing element of the marathon sequence, which hit the headlines time and again, was the struggle that Brazil faced before it kept its enviable record intact. Indeed, it was a forgettable year for Brazil. For, it was simply unable to recreate the samba magic of yore, to the extent that countries such as Ecuador, Honduras and Australia found pleasure in piercing the fabric of Brazilian pride which had been beyond their reach all these years. That it had to utilise the services of three different coaches and a somewhat dubious record of 59 players should, by itself, sum up the trouble faced by Brazil before it made it to Asia's first World Cup.

Brazil had never come this much close to being eliminated from the World Cup, never spawned so many doubts and had never played as badly as it did during the qualifying campaign. In truth, it looked like a team short of harmony and the root of its problems ran so deep as to cause an identity crisis. This confusion was so evident in its onfield displays and the succession of trainers that Brazil employed - Wanderley Luxemburgo, Emerson Leao and Luiz Felipe Scolari.

All the three tried to infuse physical and tactical football - alien to the Brazilian players - into the side that it only caused to suffocate its beautiful game, the art of attacking and the joy of winning through simple and pure attractive football. In the process, what it achieved was to force 160 million adoring Brazilian fans, and an equal number elsewhere, to keep their fingers crossed right through the campaign before the sheer weight of Brazil's glorious history and the aura of its football pulled it through and saw the side collect enough points to qualify, dumping a charged up Venezuela in the last and decisive match of the 10-team league.

Minus, of course, Ronaldo (who, since then, has made his comeback from injury with Inter Milan in style) and the ageless Romario, the Latin American Player of 2000, whom Scolari quite shockingly continued to ignore. In short, the choices of Scolari were mystifying at times even as the team continued to suffer and struggle. Beyond the qualifiers too, 2001 was a bad year for Brazil as it lost the pride of place in the FIFA rankings for the first time in seven years and also fared poorly in both the Confederations Cup and the Copa America.

France, the last holder of the World Cup to be exempted from the qualifiers, was the beneficiary on at least two counts. Backed by its good run in the friendlies (it won 10 out of the 13 played) and the triumph in the Confederations Cup at the expense of a surprise finalist in Japan, the team, which will be aiming at defending the title won at home three years ago, could not have been more fittingly rewarded. But it now has Argentina, tipped by many to face the moment of truth on June 30, 2002 in Yokohama and the winner of the South American qualifiers by a wide margin, close on its heels. Argentina has overtaken Brazil in the ranking list.

Yet, considering the fact that Argentina has been grouped alongside England, Nigeria and Sweden in what is dubbed as the 'Group of Death', both France and Brazil can still fancy their chances of having an enjoyable and enduring World Cup. France, in particular, should have reasons to be confident with almost the same forces that helped the team triumph at France '98 and then later at Euro 2000.

With the peerless Zinedine Zidane, Lilian Thuram, Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry and David Trezeguet amongst its ranks, France is blessed with such an intimidating line-up that it would require something extraordinary even from the best to defeat it at the World Cup. The only area of concern for coach Roger Lemerre should be the central defence where the team is yet to overcome the massive void created by the retirement of Laurent Blanc.

Argentina, too, will be hard to beat given the fact that the side would comprise players of the calibre of Gabriel Batistuta, Hernon Crespo, Roberto Ayala and Ariel Ortega, to name a few. Then there are, of course, the talented Javier Saviola, who played a prominent role in Argentina's triumph in the World youth championship this year, and Andres D'Alessandro, not to forget playmaker Juan Roman Riquelme, the darling of Boca Juniors.

However, whether Marcelo Bielsa and his men, who slotted wonderfully well in the 3-3-2-2 system to chalk out 13 wins and four draws in 18 matches of the qualifiers, would be able to replicate that success is anybody's guess. No matter, whether one would rank the team below or above France, the millennium's first World Cup (also the first and possibly the last to be co-hosted by two countries) does have potential performers in Japan, Croatia, Paraguay and Nigeria and perennial threats such as Spain, Italy, Germany and Brazil; each capable of upsetting the applecart of Argentina on any given day.

What about England then? A team which recoiled brilliantly under the Swedish-born Sven-Goran Eriksson on the strength of those splendid three goals from Michael Owen and the last-gasp effort from David Beckham to push Germany into the play-offs. True, with a lucky draw, England could have gone far ahead but now it all depends on whether it would be able to get past Argentina and avoid that possible clash against France in the round of last 16. Germany, on the other hand, should be content that luck did not desert it at the draw, though the three-time winner still has, in Cameroon and Ireland, two explosive rivals, at the preliminary stage.

It is quite difficult to forecast on how long the other teams such as Portugal, Poland, Romania and Belgium would stay in the tournament. Among these four teams, it does seem that Portugal, spearheaded by Luis Figo, has the potential to advance further than the quarterfinals and any failure to do so would be a great disappointment. Similarly, the performance of both South Korea and Japan on home soil is also widely expected to have a lasting effect during the month-long championship in which Ecuador, China, Senegal and Slovenia would be cutting ice for the first time.

Clearly, the dice is loaded in favour of a France-Argentina final as the stage for the extravaganza is set. But even if that does look somewhat probable, it would be rather foolish to write off the others if the lessons that the qualifiers gave are any indication. Ask the Dutch or the Colombians, who will be missing what should be an exciting World Cup dotted with some memorable skirmishes.

Colombia, though failing in its attempt to make it to the World Cup, had something to celebrate during the year as it emerged the winner of the Copa America for the first time. The tournament as such was a devalued affair with Argentina staying away and Brazil far from convincing, but all the same nothing could be taken away from Colombia and its key striker, Victor Aristozabal, who converted the show into a platform to prove his striking prowess.

Liverpool clinched the UEFA Cup following its remarkable 5-4 win over Alaves after Real Madrid, Valencia, Barcelona, Inter and Kaiserslautern all fell by the wayside. And in the Champions League, it was Bayern Munich which had the last laugh (for the first time in well over a quarter century) as it came past blazing against Valencia, aided well by Stefan Effenberg who was later voted UEFA's best player. The honours list also included Oliver Kahn (best goalkeeper), Roberto Ayala (best defender), Gaizka Mendieta (best midfielder) and Raul (best striker), all of whom performed well for the respective clubs during the full season.

The year 2001 surely was a memorable one for Mexico's Claudio Suarez who, during the year, became the world's most capped player with 158 appearances. The earlier record was that of Hossam Hassan of Egypt, who had acquired it only earlier in the year from Germany's Lothar Matthaus. The year also saw Australia improve upon the world scoring record twice as it routed Tonga 22-0 and American Samoa 31-0 in back-to-back matches of the Oceania qualifiers. The thrashing of American Samoa also witnessed the Aussie striker, Archie Thompson, establish a new individual scoring record with his tally of 13 strikes and thus reduce the old record of 10 goals each by Sofus Nielsen of Denmark and Gottfried Fuchs of Germany to a thing of the past.

However exceptionally these players performed, the arc light nonetheless was firmly trained once again on Zinedine Zidane as he made waves with a record transfer of 47.2 million pounds from Juventus to Real Madrid. The year's major transfer deals also involved Javier Saviola (River Plate to Barcelona), Juan Veron (Lazio to Manchester United), Robbie Keane (Inter to Leeds), Emmanuel Petit (Barcelona to Chelsea), Sol Campbell (Tottenham to Arsenal), Rui Costa (Fiorentina to Milan), Fillippo Inzaghi (Juventus to Milan), Pavel Nedved (Lazio to Juventus), Lilian Thuram (Parma to Juventus), Hidetoshi Nakata (Roma to Parma), Francesco Toldo (Fiorentina to Inter) and Gianluigi Buffon (Parma to Juventus) - all in transactions which saw football's hyper-inflationary market showing no signs of slowing down.

Ironically, while the details of Zidane's record-breaking contract were being finalised, the extraordinary FIFA Congress in Buenos Aires was approving the details of a new transfer system, which, from now on, will force players to sign contracts for a period between one and five years. If they break these deals within the set period - three years for those under 28 and two years for those above 28 - the players will then face an initial ban of four months. In addition, signing clubs will also be forced to pay compensation to the clubs that developed the player up to the age of 23.

FIFA was again in the news during the year when the crash of the financially crippled ISL group - FIFA's marketing partner - suddenly plunged world football into a financial chaos and left a massive hole in the budget for the next year's World Cup. ISL held the worldwide (with the exception of Europe and the United States) broadcasting rights for the World Cup and the crisis put pressure on the FIFA President, Joseph S. Blatter, to postpone the World Club championship (scheduled to be held in Spain) to 2003. Though FIFA was also quick to act in seeing that the Confederations Cup, regarded as a dry run for the World Cup, was conducted to demonstrate that its business was normal, the full impact of the ISL crash, when it explodes, could still leave many scurrying for cover.

The year left football poorer with the death of two eminent personalities - former England captain Stan Cullis whose playing career was cut short by the second World War and Ken Aston, who gave the game the card system which, over the years, had proved so vital in the conduct of matches. Tragedies on account of stampede in Ellis Park, Johannesburg, in Ghana and the Democratic Republic of Congo also left at least 170 dead and many others injured, thus bringing the game into disrepute. Then, there were also the incidents involving Edgar Davids, Fernando Couto, Frank de Boer and Jaap Stam who were caught on the wrong side of law after being tested positive for drugs, which cast a shadow on the image of the world's most popular game.

The year 2001, incidentally, was also a bad one for coaches, many of them losing their jobs. Yet, one man stood tall even in this time of adversity for his brethren - Bora Milutinovic - who guided China to its first World Cup and thus emerged as the first man to have done so with five different countries in successive World Cups. Having helped all his earlier sides - Mexico, Costa Rica, United States and Nigeria - to the second round, the genial Serb, for sure, will face his sternest test next year as it remains to be seen whether China, taking advantage of his presence, could march into the second round. Come June 2002, and we will know.

And finally, another person was in the news towards the end of the year. The one and only Diego Maradona whose testimonial match also coincided with the decision of the Argentine FA to retire the No. 10 jersey, which the legend wore all through his illustrious career, from all its future National squads. An ultimate reward for any player.

* * *

PORTUGAL'S Luis Figo was named the 2001 FIFA 'World player of the year' following a vote by football officials worldwide.

It is the first time a Portuguese player has won the annual award presented by the sport's world governing body, which asked 130 national team coaches to name their top three players for 2001.

Figo beat challenges from England and Manchester United midfielder David Beckham, who came second, and Real team-mate Raul, who finished third in the voting.

Honduras has been named the 2001 FIFA team of the year ahead of Colombia and Costa Rica. Costa Rica was also given a special mention as the most improved team of the year ahead of Australia and Honduras.

Honduras won the award after winning the most points, based on the seven best performances multiplied by a co-efficient which increases or decreases depending on the place of the opponent in the FIFA rankings.

2001 FIFA team of the year award: 1. Honduras 39.7, 2. Colombia 38.4, 3. Costa Rica 37.8, 4. Australia 37.4, 5. Uruguay 36.3, 6. Bahrain 35.8, 7. Mexico 35.7, 8. China 35.1, 9. Ecuador 34.4, 10. Venezuela 34.1.

Special mention for most improved team in 2001: 1. Costa Rica, 2. Australia, 3. Honduras, 4. Venezuela, 5. Bahrain.

FIFA world footballer of the year winners: 1991: Lothar Matthaus (Ger), 1992: Marco van Basten (Ned), 1993: Roberto Baggio (Ita), 1994: Romario (Bra), 1995: George Weah (Lbr), 1996: Ronaldo (Bra), 1997: Ronaldo (Bra), 1998: Zinedine Zidane (Fra), 1999: Rivaldo (Bra), 2000: Zinedine Zidane (Fra), 2001: Luis Figo (Por).

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