Cannavaro becomes first defender in a decade to win Ballon d'Or

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Italy captain Fabio Cannavaro won the Golden Ball award yesterday, the first defender in 10 years to be named Europe's best player.

Cannavaro, who played for Juventus last season but then moved to Real Madrid after helping Italy win the World Cup, got 173 points in France Football magazine's annual poll of 52 journalists from around the world.

Juventus goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon was second with 124 points, followed by Arsenal striker Thierry Henry in third with 121. Fifty players were nominated.

"This is a double honor," Cannavaro said. "It is given to the best player, and the fact I am a defender makes it even more special."

FC Barcelona playmaker Ronaldinho, who won the award last year, was fourth with 73 points, and Zinedine Zidane was fifth with 71.

Cannavaro was only the third defender in 30 years to win - Matthias Sammer won the award in 1996 and Franz Beckenbauer took it in 1976.

He was also the fifth Italian to win, following Roberto Baggio (1993), Paolo Rossi (1982), Gianni Rivera (1969) and Argentina-born Omar Sivori (1961).

"I am the first to be surprised," Cannavaro said. "This means everything to me."

Cannavaro and Buffon were arguably Italy's best players at the World Cup in Germany, where the team conceded only one goal before the final against France, which Italy won on penalty kicks after a 1-1 draw.

"The Italy team did not have a Zidane or a (Diego) Maradona," Cannavaro said. "We didn't have one player who could win the match. It was a credit to coach (Marcelo) Lippi that he was able to create this group."

Cannavaro made his 100th international appearance in the final and was voted the World Cup's second-best player behind Zidane, who has retired. Buffon made a superb diving stop to keep out Zidane's header in extra time.

"It is a fantastic award, the crowning achievement of an exceptional year," former Italy coach Marcelo Lippi said. "And Cannavaro as captain of a phenomenal group brings it back a bit for everybody."

Just 16 days after leading Italy to its fourth World Cup title, Cannavaro moved from Juventus to Real Madrid, where his form has been erratic.

The 33-year-old defender has also played for Napoli, Parma and Inter Milan. At Parma, he played 212 league games and formed one of Serie A's best defensive partnerships with Lilian Thuram.

"I think he deserves the award if we take into account the World Cup as a whole," Thuram told French television.

It was with Juventus that Cannavaro won his first Italian league titles in 2005 and '06, but the club was stripped of those honors after it was relegated to the Serie B in a match-fixing scandal.

Henry, the English Premier League's leading scorer with 27 goals last season, was also the top marksman in 2002, '04 and '05. He was voted player of the year for a record third time by English soccer writers.

"Henry has amazing qualities," Cannavaro said. "I'm sorry he couldn't win it this year."