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Sneijder tipped for top gong

PARIS, October 27- Despite the heartbreak of losing the World Cup final with the Netherlands, Wesley Sneijder is the bookmakers' favourite to walk away with the inaugural FIFA Ballon d'Or award.The attacking midfielder was on the losing side in Johannesburg on July 11, when Spain defeated Holland 1-0 to claim their first ever World Cup title.

Spanish midfielders Xavi and Andres Iniesta are also strong contenders for the prestigious prize, but the presence of the Barcelona pair on the shortlist could split the pro-Spanish votes to Sneijder’s advantage.

More significantly, the 26-year-old Dutchman enjoyed a glittering debut season at Inter Milan that culminated in an unprecedented treble of the Italian league title, the Coppa Italia (Italian Cup) and the European Champions League.

Sneijder leads the running for the award at 6-4 with British bookmakers William Hill, while Xavi is at 7/2 and Iniesta, who scored the extra-time winner in the World Cup final, is at 11/2.

The FIFA Ballon d’Or gala takes place in Zurich on January 10 and the ceremony will mark the marriage of FIFA’s World Player of the Year prize and the Ballon d’Or, which has been awarded by France Football magazine since 1956.

In recent years the two awards have often gone to the same player and Barcelona forward Lionel Messi is the current holder of both trophies.

The prolific Argentine attacker failed to truly sparkle at the World Cup, as his country fell to Germany in the quarter-finals, but he is at 4/1 with William Hill after netting 45 goals in all competitions for Barcelona last season.

The shortlist for the FIFA Ballon d’Or is dominated by players who starred at the World Cup in South Africa and the award has traditionally been awarded to players who have excelled in the quadrennial showpiece.

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Fabio Cannavaro doubled up in the Ballon d’Or and the FIFA World Player of the Year after captaining Italy to World Cup glory in 2006, four years after Ronaldo’s feats with Brazil in 2002 were similarly rewarded.

David Villa, Spain’s top scorer at the World Cup with five goals, is at 9/1 with William Hill, with Uruguay striker Diego Forlan, the player of the tournament, at 16/1 and Germany’s Golden Boot winner Thomas Mueller at 33-1.

Seven Spanish players made the shortlist, with goalkeeper Iker Casillas, centre-back Carles Puyol and midfielders Xabi Alonso and Cesc Fabregas joining Xavi, Iniesta and Villa among the 23 nominees.

Conspicuous by his absence, however, was Inter’s Argentine striker Diego Milito, who scored 32 times last season — including both goals in the 2-0 Champions League final victory over Bayern Munich — but failed to make an impact at the World Cup.

High-profile failure at the World Cup was also responsible for the absence from the shortlist of any players from European heavyweights England, France and Italy.

Combining the voting criteria from the FIFA award and the Ballon d’Or, the winner of the new prize will be voted for by the captains and head coaches of the national teams as well as media representatives chosen by France Football.

January’s ceremony will also see FIFA issue their first ever award for the World Coach of the Year.

Spain coach Vicente del Bosque leads the 10-man shortlist, but he is likely to face a strong challenge from Portuguese tactical maestro Jose Mourinho, who led Inter to the treble before joining Real Madrid in the summer.

In the women’s FIFA World Player of the Year award, star Brazilian forward Marta is aiming to win an unprecedented fifth consecutive gong following her move to American outfit FC Gold Pride.

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