Latino conquest of European fields

RONALDINHO has been voted European Footballer of the Year by a distance, and who can object? Shortly before the announcement, he had scored a goal at the Bernabeu Stadium of such individual brilliance that even the ranks of Tuscany could scarce forbear to cheer. Meaning that the Real Madrid fans themselves, notorious for racism, gave a standing ovation to this scintillating black player. He would obviously be an excellent choice even as World Player of the Year but since the votes for this honour are cast by a curious amalgam of international coaches from all over the planet, you can never be quite sure.

Ronaldinho swept in with a massive 225 points; points being based on where players come in the five chosen by each European voter. It was perhaps something of a surprise to find two Englishmen, neither of them the substantially talented Wayne Rooney, coming second and third, albeit a long way behind Ronaldinho. Chelsea's Frank Lampard was in second spot with 148 votes, Steven Gerrard of Liverpool a place behind him with 142. With all deference to both these lively, effective, versatile central midfielders, each of whom can tackle, pass shrewdly and drive through for powerful right-footed shots at goal, I don't think either of them would claim to have the gifts of Rooney.

But Liverpudlian Rooney is the eternal Dead End Kid, supremely talented, wonderfully precocious, masterly in ball control, ever elusive, yet given to sudden fits of ill temper and even violence on the field. Which is, no doubt, why he was snubbed by various voters. But when it comes to the World Cup finals, I know whose contribution can do most for England just as it did in Portugal in the 2004 European finals, when he scored such superlative goals.

When England recently played Argentina in Geneva, the finest man on the field, though Rooney had an excellent game, was beyond question the Argentine midfielder — I would call him a perfect inside forward — Juan Roman Riquelme. He utterly dominated the game with a marvellous array of skills, confidently holding the ball, constantly finding space, shooting and passing with equal facility. Since he now plays in Europe for Villareal in the Primera Liga, he was naturally eligible for choice; but he came in at equal 14th, with a mere seven votes. So did another of surely the finest players in Europe, Germany's Michael Ballack, himself a hugely versatile midfielder with an array of talents. I would tend to use him as an attacking wing half than an inside forward. Certainly I would put him on par with Lampard and Gerrard and a good way ahead of many of those who came between those two and himself.

Thierry Henry was a surprise; ranked only fourth, but so far below Lampard and Gerrard with a mere 41 votes. Arsene Wenger, his manager at Arsenal, a year earlier was trumpeting his claims to be Europe's best. There is no doubt that Henry is a hugely gifted player, again, more so than the likes of Gerrard and Lampard, an attacker of supreme fluency, pace and invention, never so dangerous as when he wanders out to the left, capable of tremendous feats of sudden skill. But it is true that in common with the rest of the French international team he did not have a particularly distinguished year at that level, even if he scored so many goals and had so many fine matches for his club.

Pavel Nedved, of Juventus, the blond midfielder who much to the relief of the Czech team has changed his mind about retiring and agreed to play for them in the World Cup, was somewhat humiliated, finishing joint bottom with a single vote. He's surely worth more than that, even into his thirties remaining a propelling force. And this is a player who previously won the award! Fickle judges indeed.

Another who won it but came down to earth in the voting was Zinedine Zidane of Real Madrid and France. He too changed his mind about retiring from the international game and returned, but the legs seem largely to have gone and his impact, once so immense, has grown steadily smaller. As reflected by the meagre five votes he received.

I would have thought his potential clubmate Samuel Eto'o would have gathered more than 18 votes, which put him level with the versatile, resilient John Terry, Chelsea and England centre back and one of the pitifully few players at Stamford Bridge who were actually home grown. Eto'o, of course, actually joined Real Madrid at only 15, but Real foolishly allowed him to go barely giving him a chance; he flourished with Mallorca, now plays happily along side Ronaldinho for Barcelona. A couple of other young Brazilians gained surprisingly few votes. Kaka of Milan is a splendidly exciting attacking midfielder, Adriano, with his power and his dynamic left foot, scores often for both Inter, the other Milanese club, and of course for Brazil.

I would have thought his spectacular showing in the Confederations Cup in Germany last June would have gained him many more than 22 points and equal 7th place. Kaka could do no better than ninth with 19 points.

Andriy Shevchenko, still scoring goals for Milan and Ukraine and another former winner, had to be content with 5th place on 33 points. Mind you, I'd feel he deserved to have lost points for his assault on the Inter centre back Materazzi in the Milanese derby at San Siro, Milan eliminating Inter from the European Cup. That durable veteran defender Paolo Maldini was ranked 6th with 23 points; a veteran of no fewer than four World Cups and still as he showed in the European Cup final last season able to pop up and score goals.