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Saturday, Dec. 2, 2006

PREMIER REPORT

Zidane's spot in last three a joke, no matter who says otherwise


LONDON -- Managers and players know football best because they are involved in it.

Christopher Davies

"We've played the game," they say in an almost dismissive manner when making a reference to opinions from those who have not.

Their judgment is held up as the best (by themselves), yet the inclusion of Zinedine Zidane in the final three nominations for the FIFA World Player of the Year is probably the strongest argument that managers and players should be banned from ever having a vote for the award again -- even if they have played the game.

FIFA asks national coaches and captains from every country around the world to vote for their three best players of the year. To even consider Zidane in the 2006 reckoning is absurd -- for him to make the final trio makes the award a nonsensical farce.

Rest assured Zidane won't win it. Fabio Cannavaro, the Real Madrid defender who captained Italy to the World Cup in July, will add FIFA's trophy to his European Footballer of the Year award, piping Barcelona's Brazilian forward Ronaldinho to top spot.

How Zidane even qualifies for the World Player of the Year award is a mystery as the Frenchman retired after his ignominious departure from the sport he once graced when he head-butted Marco Materazzi in the final.

If it was called World Player of HALF the Year Zidane would have the proper credentials, but to include him for ALL the year is preposterous.

Zidane was a pale shadow of his former self in his last six months as a player.

Even in his six games at the World Cup he was cautioned three times and ultimately shown the most unforgettable red card in the competition's history.

His form for Real Madrid from January to May was ordinary at best, and any vote for the former France captain could only have been for nostalgic reasons.

How any national coach or captain could say Zidane is one of the three top players of 2006 defies belief. At his peak, Zidane made football into an art form, but that was then . . .

Cannavaro was Italy's inspiration and the heartbeat of the team that won the World Cup. Yet by his own admission, his form has dipped since joining Real from Italian League champion Juventus after the finals.

"Since I arrived [in Madrid] my level hasn't been the same as it was at the World Cup," he said. "If you look at how I played at the World Cup it is not surprising that people say I'm not playing as well now.

"It's usual for this to happen when a player changes team and city. It's always difficult after a World Cup."

Ronaldinho, too, has yet to rediscover the form he showed in the second half of 2005-06 when he helped Barcelona win the Spanish League and Champions League. In Germany, the Brazilian displayed few of the tricks and flicks that have become his trademark.

For sheer consistency with club and country throughout the year there are a number of far more worthy candidates, certainly far better than Zidane.

This correspondent's choice would be Kaka.

The AC Milan forward has been outstanding for the Italian club all year and was Brazil's most influential player in Germany this summer. Kaka may not have the profile of the three competing for FIFA's trophy but in terms of what the award is presumably for -- being the best player of 2006 -- the Brazilian ticks all the right boxes.

Arsenal's Thierry Henry has justifiable grounds for frustration that he is not the Frenchman represented in the final choice for the trophy.

Henry has been generally superb for the Gunners and was far more effective at the World Cup than Zidane.

Cristiano Ronaldo (Manchester United and Portugal) and the World Cup's leading goal scorer Miroslav Klose (Werder Bremen and Germany) are two others who have consistently produced the goods for both club and country in 2006, but they did not convince the near-200 national coaches and captains who choose the year's best player for FIFA.

Only three defensive players have ever won the European award selected by the correspondents of France Football -- Soviet Union goalkeeper Lev Yashin in 1963, West Germany sweeper Franz Beckenbauer (1972, 1976) and Germany's Matthias Sammer, who was also playing as a sweeper when he won it in 1996.

Cannavaro, 33, is the first recognized center-back to win the honor and will almost certainly be named World Player of the Year on Dec. 18.

France coach Raymond Domenech, Olympique Lyon's Gerard Houllier and former AC Milan coach Arrigo Sacchi are among the high-profile figures who said they would not have given Italy's World Cup-winning captain the European award or presumably the World trophy.

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger has said that Henry should have been the choice.

Cannavaro was clearly unconcerned by the comments.

"Houllier said it was madness," he said. "I respect his opinion, but the Ballon d'Or is now in my house."

Zidane's trophy cabinet is full of such trophies and rightly so, but the suspicion is that ZZ will be embarrassed to collect even the "bronze medal" from FIFA this year.

The biggest embarrassment is that anyone voted for him.

The Premiership is dumbing down this season. With almost half of 2006-07 played, Portsmouth, which was battling against relegation for much of last season, is the third best team in England.

Manchester United (38 points) and Chelsea (35) have their private battle for the title. In the "other" Premiership, Portsmouth trails Chelsea by 11 points while Arsenal and Liverpool are 13 points adrift of the Blues.

Come May, Arsenal and Liverpool will probably occupy third and fourth places, but the overall level of the Premiership has gone down a peg or two this season.

In some ways it is refreshing to see the likes of Portsmouth, Bolton, Aston Villa and Reading chasing a Champions League spot, but if any of those teams should sneak into European football's top club competition, they would probably be beaten in the qualifying round.

Arsenal and Liverpool have been hugely disappointing, showing away day frailties and none of the spirit or inner strength United and Chelsea possess.

The Premiership's two heavyweights will fight it out for the title, but Arsenal and Liverpool have already been knocked out.



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