By Adrian Harte
The composition of the uefa.com Team of 2003 suggests that the status quo has returned to European football. The big names are all included in a star-studded selection chosen by almost 1.5 million votes from users of the official UEFA website.
Giants to the fore
While the Team of 2002 included players from Fenerbahçe SK, AFC Ajax and Blackburn Rovers FC, the Team of 2003 is dominated by Real Madrid CF, Juventus FC, AC Milan and FC Porto. Last year, FIFA World Cup form was a key factor in users' deliberations - this year, club form was crucial.
Crucial but not paramount, our e-electorate showed that, in football at least, familiarity breeds respect. Thus, four Madrid players made the team despite the Spanish side relinquishing their UEFA Champions League title in 2002/03, with Roberto Carlos polling some 63.14 per cent of the vote in the left-back category. And voters deemed Madrid's midfielders the best of the season. Luís Figo was selected on the right, David Beckham in the middle and Zinedine Zidane was chosen as best attacking midfielder for the third year in succession.
Zidane, who polled 43 per cent of the vote to see off a strong challenge from Porto and Portugal star Deco with 38 per cent, shares that accolade with compatriot Thierry Henry. Despite Arsenal FC relinquishing their Premiership title and failing to reach the latter stages of the Champions League, Henry polled over 44,000 votes to top the forward category.
Ruud makes the cut
His fellow English-based striker Ruud van Nistelrooij finished fewer than 600 votes back to take the second forward position after missing out on the team last year by just 700 votes.
European champions Milan have to content themselves with just two places. Fittingly, for a team which won the Champions League on penalties after a scoreless draw, the two places are in central defence. Alessandro Nesta topped the voting in the centre back position with over 50,000 votes to make the team for the second successive year, while veteran Paolo Maldini earns the accolade for the first time.
Nedved tops poll
Juventus, the team Milan defeated in the Champions League decider, also take two places in the Team of 2003. Pavel Nedved, recently named European Footballer of the Year, breaks the Madrid monopoly in midfield with his selection on the left, securing the highest share of the vote in any category, with his 64.54 per cent seeing off Ryan Giggs, Rafael van der Vaart and last year's incumbent Damien Duff.
Buffon top keeper
Nedved's team-mate, Gianluigi Buffon, already voted Most Valuable Player in the Champions League by UEFA in 2003, took the honours in the goalkeeper section, finishing well ahead of VfB Stuttgart record-breaker Timo Hildebrand.
Mourinho's huge vote
However, despite the presence of so many familiar names, there was still room for some surprises, as Porto's UEFA Cup success was rewarded by the selection of José Mourinho as best coach and Paulo Ferreira in the right-back category. Mourinho, who also guided Porto to a Portuguese league and cup double in 2002/03 as well as the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League this term, polled over 100,000 votes to comfortably top the voting in the coach category.
Ferreira's selection was arguably the greatest surprise. Only in his third season of top-flight football, the 24-year-old took over 37 per cent of the votes to emerge ahead of Lilian Thuram and Javier Zanetti.
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