Opinion

Van Dijk makes a case for the defence

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Defender Virgil van Dijk, who is a cross between the elegance of Franz Beckenbauer and the tenacity of Franco Baresi, has taken his sumptuous game to such a high level that it would surprise nobody if he were to become FIFA's best player for 2019.

The fact that he is not a headline-grabbing striker whose goals thrill the fans and the media should not be a deterrent.

The Liverpool and Netherlands star has been named in a shortlist of 10 players that are vying for the annual honour known as The Best FIFA Men's Player.

The others are fellow Dutchmen Frenkie de Jong (Ajax/Barcelona) and Matthijs de Ligt (Ajax/Juventus), Belgium's Eden Hazard (Chelsea/Real Madrid), England's Harry Kane (Tottenham Hotspur), Senegal's Sadio Mane (Liverpool), France's Kylian Mbappe (Paris Saint-Germain), Argentina's Lionel Messi (Barcelona), Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo (Juventus) and Egypt's Mohamed Salah (Liverpool).

Two Australians have been named in their respective shortlists for the annual honour.

Matildas captain Sam Kerr and Arsenal's Joe Montemurro are in the running for The Best FIFA Women's Player and The Best FIFA Women's Coach.

Van Dijk has had a stellar season for club and country after trading the serene surroundings of Southampton to the pressure cooker atmosphere of Liverpool's Anfield midway through the 2017-18 season.

At 28 he is at the peak of his might and is seen as one of the main reasons Liverpool were able to win the UEFA Champions League and come within a whisker of landing the Premier League title.

The Reds' defence came in for some criticism in the early part of the season, particularly in Europe, but the influence and composure of van Dijk steadied the ship to such an extent that the rearguard became as strong and reliable as the team's midfield and attack.

And if the man who is regarded by many as the world's best centre-half carries off the trophy that rewards excellence in performance and behaviour, he would become only the second defender to win the award since it was inaugurated in 1991.

Italy captain Fabio Cannavaro so far is the only defender to be recognised as the game's finest. In 2006 he beat such crowd-pulling attackers as France's Zinedine Zidane and Brazil's Ronaldinho after helping the Azzurri win the FIFA World Cup.

FIFA will name the final three contenders early next month and announce the outright winner at Milan's La Scala theatre on September 23.

The winner will be chosen by a process involving the coaches and captains of all national teams, a select group of media representatives from around the world and a public fan ballot.

It is hoped that the game's key stakeholders will forego a glaring bias towards goal-makers and goalscorers and, for a change, reward the efforts of the goal-preventers who, as everyone would tell you, are just as important to any team's functionality.

There have been several top defenders who might feel they were unjustly snubbed in favour of the more popular exponents of the game.

It is not quite a mystery but it is still rather surprising that guys like multi-UEFA Champions League winner Paolo Maldini and World Cup and Champions League winners Carles Puyol and Roberto Carlos never got the recognition they deserved, probably because they were merely defenders not free-scoring strikers who were treated as demigods.

The nomination of midfielder Luka Modric as the world's best player last year was met with consternation by those who were expecting the likes of Messi, Ronaldo, Salah or Antoine Griezmann to prevail.

Never mind that Modric had helped Real Madrid win the Champions League and led Croatia to the World Cup final.

God forbid, one can only imagine the outrage and gasps of disbelief if a defender had won the FIFA award!

This infatuation with goal-makers or goalscorers is wrong and unfair. Which is why the game needs such sterling efforts as van Dijk's to be fully appreciated and duly rewarded.