When AC Milan defender Cosmin Contra was voted Romanian Player of theYear for 2001 it didn't really come as a surprise. Because as years go, the flying full-back enjoyed a sensational 12 months.
The attack-minded 26-year-old catapulted himself into the spotlight by playing an integral part of unfancied Alaves' run to the UEFA Cup final last season. Setting up Ivan Alonso with a trademark run and cross down the right, Contra was unfortunate to be on the losing side as Liverpool beat nine-man Alaves 5-4 after nicking a golden goal. The watching world had seen enough and the Italian giants splashed out €7million to secure his services.
Not content with rising through the ranks in club football, Contra also dislodged Romania stalwart Dan Petrescu from the national team to make the right-back spot his own. Unfortunately for Contra, however, he will not get the opportunity to showcase his talents in next summer's 2002 FIFA World Cup finals after Romania lost their play-off with Slovenia in November.
That match saw the end of coach Gheorghe Hagi, who resigned after just five months in charge and all eyes now turn to the UEFA European Championship in Portugal in 2004. Contra's development remains a positive. After making his international debut in April 1996, he only featured sporadically at his preferred right-back position due to the presence of Petrescu.
But his incisive running and link-up play with the midfield has allowed Romania an extra dimension. The Romanian coaches, sports journalists and FA officials certainly think so. In this year's annual poll, organised by Romania's oldest sports daily Gazeta Sporturilor for the last 36 years, Contra streaked in ahead of Sporting Lisbon forward Marius Niculae to land the award. Ajax's Cristian Chivu was third.
2004 the target
Over the past decade the award has been dominated by Hagi and Gheorghe Popescu, who have won ten of the last eleven between them. At 26, Contra is one of the senior members of the new generation of footballers in Romania. Along with 20-year-old Niculae and Chivu (also 20), Contra and his compatriots will be a force to be reckoned with when next summer's showpiece tournament in the Far East is but a flagging memory. And there is no doubt that the Portuguese sun will already be pencilled in Contra's diary for the 2004 summer holidays.
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