Outside looking in

Tuesday November 20th, 2007

It's that time of the year when attention turns to the annual individual player awards.

Kaká, AC Milan's brilliant Brazilian forward, is the overwhelming favorite to land a clean sweep of all the leading prizes, including FIFA's World Footballer of the Year, France Football's European Footballer of the Year and the World Player of the Year, voted by readers of my own magazine, World Soccer.

Kaká is likely to beat his closest challengers -- Lionel Messi of Barcelona, Cristiano Ronaldo of Manchester United and Didier Drogba of Chelsea -- by a larger margin than in previous years, despite awards in non-World Cup years being harder to call.

Last year, Fabio Cannavaro, Italy's World Cup-winning captain, was the obvious choice, just as Ronaldo, Brazil's match-winner in the 2002 World Cup final, swept the board five years ago.

There will be few complaints that Kaká does not deserve his awards. He was the central figure in Milan's Champions League campaign, particularly in the semifinal victories over Manchester United. Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Drogba will all pick up votes for their Champions League performances for their respective clubs. The '07 player awards will demonstrate, above all, that the Champions League is the only competition that matters.

One player is likely to be missing from the top of the rankings, though. JuanRomán Riquelme has been in outstanding form throughout the whole year, for Argentina in both the Copa América and World Cup qualifiers, and for Boca Juniors in their victorious Copa Libertadores campaign.

Yet crucially, his standoff with Villarreal coach Manuel Pellegrini means he hasn't taken part in this season's European-tournament play. And, in 2007, if you are not playing in the Champions League, you are not considered a truly world-class player.

Yet, to my mind, there is no better player in the world right now than Riquelme. He was at it again last weekend, scoring both goals for Argentina against Bolivia in South America World Cup qualifiers, to add to his pair against Chile in October.

Last summer, he was the fulcrum of an Argentina side that played the most entertaining soccer at the Copa América, only to be outmuscled by Brazil in the final. A Brazil side, remember, that was missing Kaká because the Milan star wanted a summer break.

Riquelme provided the inspiration for Boca Juniors during a loan spell at the start of the year and it was a mystery that no major European club came in for him during the summer. Instead, the stand-off with Pellegrino had continued, with the Villarreal coach concerned about building his side around the player whose penalty miss in the '06 Champions League semifinal against Arsenal cost Villarreal a place in its first European club final.

The situation may change in the January transfer window, with Juventus and Inter Milan the latest teams to be linked with a move for Riquelme. In the meantime, the Euro-centric world game will hail Kaká as the star of '07. But Riquelme's achievements deserve as much recognition.

Gavin Hamilton is the editor in chief ofWorld Soccer Magazine. He contributes to SI.com on alternate Tuesdays.

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