After every major tournament, journalists and the tournament organizers do their best to come up with a starting 11. Often the vast majority of the 11 consists of players from teams who participated in the semis and finals and there is an obvious logic to that.
More often than not, those are the best 4 teams in the tournament, and it’s their players who got them there. That coupled with the last 3 games (4 if there is a placement game) being the most memorable and people tend to forget about outstanding individuals from teams earlier in the competition.
Knowing this, I tried from the group stage on, to remember certain players and keep my eyes on them. I have lists of notes that make no sense to me now, and in the end a lot of the more exciting games were due to sloppy play rather than brilliance.
I often have trouble making final decisions and go back and forth ad nauseam, so I gave myself an escape clause by coming up with an honorable mention for each position. As usual, we welcome your comments!
For this team we’re going to use the formation du jour, the 4-2-3-1.
Diego Benaglio – (Switzerland)
There were many great performances by keepers in 2010, though no one was perfect. The ones that stood out were often from the “lesser” teams. Paston from New Zealand and Enyeama from Nigeria, to name a couple. In the group stages, Kinson, Neuer and Stekelenburg all kept their teams in the tournament, though all could have done better with some of the goals they let in.
Switzerland were the only team to keep a clean sheet (and beat) the eventual champions, and that was all to do with Benaglios acrobatic saves and fantastic positioning. Against a prolific Chile, he thwarted Sanchez, Gonzales and Suazo, as the South Americans attacked in waves. When he was finally beaten, it had more to do with poor defending than his skill.
He’s only 26 and currently plays in the Bundesliga for Wolfsburg, but look for some of the bigger clubs to call on him soon!
Honorable mention – Iker Casillas (Spain)
The Real Madrid keeper had a dodgy World Cup by his usual high standards. He was clearly responsible for the goal against Switzerland and never looked comfortable with the Jubalani. He didn’t pull a “Green” but there were plenty of bobbles and awkward parries.
That said, when he was called into action during the group stages, he performed admirably, finely saving a penalty against Paraguay, a volleyed shot from Podolski, and a one-on-one with Robben to name just a few. He captained his country, and his fine saves ensured they went home as champions.
Fabio Coentrao – (Portugal)
The Portuguese left back was one of the bright moments in a disappointing campaign. Surprisingly, Portugal, with their abundance of creative and attacking players, took a “park the bus” mentality against their opponents (North Korea aside). Coentrao was the exception.
His forays up the wing were always productive and exciting and he was responsible in some way, shape and form for most of Portugal’s World Cup goals, as his attacks from the left side were deliberate and precise.
He also formed a great partnership with Ronaldo, so look for the Spanish giants to inquire about the Benfica defender’s availability!
Honorable mention – Giovanni Van Bronckhorst - (The Netherlands)
The 35-year-old captain of The Netherlands team was one of the few Dutch players to play the final with the classiness that has been prevalent throughout his career. His wonder strike in the semis was a thing of beauty, and his intelligent positioning and experience made up for the lack of speed in his “old” age.
The final was his last game, as he retired from international and club football and he will be missed greatly.
Carlos Puyol - (Spain) and Juan – (Brazil)
The floppy haired defender was the rock in the Spanish defense. He had a lot of help from his club-mate Pique, but it was his controlling and tireless effort in the back that was the major reason for Spain keeping clean sheets in the knock out rounds.
Not only did he marshal the defense, but he was always a threat in the (h)air of set pieces, and it was his thumping header that secured their passage into the finals.
Juan, like Puyol, is a rock in the center of a defense on a team that is best known for its attacking and fluid play. Often the forgotten one amongst his more celebrated and flashy teammates, the Roma defender has almost 80 caps for his country, and it’s his solid and fundamental play that has enabled Maicon, Lucio and Bastos to venture up field.
Also like the Catalan defender, Juan is a danger on set pieces, and it was off one that he scored the first goal for Brazil against Chile. Sadly, his defensive partners let him down in the quarters, as mistakes by Cesar and Lucio failed to deal with the ever present Sneijder, whose two goals sent Brazil and Juan packing for home.
Honorable mentions – Diego Lugano – (Uruguay) and Marcus Tulio Tanaka – (Japan)
Both center halves were instrumental in their teams’ advancement into the knock out stages. Sadly for Lugano, he was hurt midway through the first half of his quarter and had to miss the semi’s. He came back for the third place game, but was sorely missed against the Dutch.
Marcus Tulio Tanaka not only possessed one of the best names of the tournament, but was tenacious at the back for the Blue Samurai. After dispossessing any attacker, he used his considerable ball skills to bring the ball up from the back to initiate Japan’s attacks. Many a mid-level European team could do with someone of his skill set.
Phillip Lahm – (Germany)
The German captain was a constant threat to his opponents as he marauded up and down the right flank. Unlike other attacking right backs, namely Maicon and Ramos, he is just as good at his defensive duties as he is at causing his counterpart fits.
What sets him apart is that he is clinical and rarely makes a mistake. If he does, he gets it back immediately.
One of the elder statesmen of a young German side, the Bayern right back is only 26 and entering his prime. Look for him to continue to be a threat at the Euros and in Brazil in 2014.
Honorable mention - Cha Du Ri (South Korea)
Maicon and Ramos might be more worthy and certainly played big roles in their countries progression out of the group stages, but the former was notably absent in the quarters and the latter’s defensive lapses were well masked by Busquets and Puyol.
The Korean defender was a constant threat down the right, supplying many dangerous crosses and often taking a crack or two that would sting his opponents gloves. Aside from one lapse in concentration that enabled Nigeria to equalize, he was a solid and strong at the back, and his industrious play caught the eye of Scottish giants Celtic, who signed him from Frankfurt a few days ago.
DEFENSIVE MIDFIELDERS –
Bastian Schweinsteiger – (Germany) and Diego Perez – (Uruguay)
After a promising World Cup on home soil, a lot was expected from the young Bayern midfielder. However, a slight dip in form and Ballack’s commanding presence in the midfield left many wondering if the Pig Boss would ever reach his full potential.
His chance came in South Africa after Ballack was ruled out with an injury. Not only did he step up to the plate admirably, but also provided valuable leadership to a very young German side.
In the two demolitions of England and Argentina, he was immense, stopping many attacks before they could form, and in the quarters, effectively shutting Messi down (as best one can). He also turned provider as he set up two of the goals and finished the tournament with three assists. He was also a finalist for the Golden Ball.
Forlan and Suarez might have scored the goals and added the flair, and Lugano and Godin got the plaudits for their defensive stances, but it was the Monaco midfielder that inspired all their comebacks.
Perez was a bulldog in the mold of Keane, Veira and Gattuso, winning all the challenges and inspiring his countryman to never give up. Uruguay never won a game comfortably, were correctly labeled the comeback kings and it had all to do with the tenacious Uruguayan. His value was perfectly illustrated when he tackled Schweinsteiger in the third place game, won the ball and released Suarez who set Cavani with the equalizer.
The others may get the credit, but if it wasn’t for Perez, Uruguay wouldn’t have made it as far as they did.
Honorable mentions - Xabi Alonso – (Spain) – Michael Bradley – (USA)
The Spanish attacking midfield is what it is because of the anchoring play of Alonso and Busquets. They did all the dirty work. Whereas they both handled their defensive duties with aplomb, it was Alonso’s forays up field which gave the additional plan of attack they needed to breakdown opposing defenses.
His outside shots drew out the German defenders, and when they did charge him down, it was his incisive passes that would find Iniesta or Xavi. He was unlucky not to score against Switzerland, and if it wasn’t for overexcited team mates, his penalty would have stood against Paraguay.
In the final, he shut down the Dutch engine, playing most of the game with a potential broken rib courtesy of De Jong. It was this manner of play that Liverpool sorely missed this past season. Nice one, Rafa!
Michael Bradley might not yet possess all the skills and field sense of the other defensive midfielders mentioned, but he had an immense World Cup for the USMNT. He controlled a shaky back line with little to no help. His energy and determination were infectious, and most of the US’s positive attacking moves stemmed from his vision and play.
Like Alonso, his attacking contributions were just as great as his defensive ones, including an excellent predatory goal to tie the game up against Slovenia.
Currently plying his trade with Borussia Monchengladbach, Junior is looking to move on, and his fine play in South Africa has garnered interest from Premiership clubs. This would be great place for him to grow and improve, and look for him to be the first name on the USMNT team sheet in Brazil 2014.
Xavi Hernandez – (Spain), Wesley Sneijder - (Netherlands) and Thomas Muller – (Germany)
All three players were the catalysts for their respective nations. They often took the game by the scruff of its neck and in their own way carried their nations on their shoulders.
In the semi final Xavi completed 105 passes. That’s more than most teams! He was the ambassador for the beautiful game, connecting everyone on the pitch like a station hub for an underground system. Everything went through him.
If he didn’t set up the goal directly, he helped to create it by making an intelligent run. When most are trying to do too much, the little Spaniard did the most by doing so little. A quick one two here, a back heel there and ending it with a defense splitting pass, he never tired. The quality of his play was just as good at the end of the game as it was in the beginning.
Sneijder was a Robben finish away from having the perfect season. He and GVB were the only beautiful aspects in an ugly Dutch final. His pass to set up Robben’s breakaway was sublime.
All thoughout the tournament, it was the little Dutchman carrying the Oranje on his back. He scored with his feet and his head… sometimes a little lucky, but the best create their own luck.
Before the tournament, he was as seen as a poor man’s Xavi, and the emphasis was on teammates Robben and Van Persie. Where as Robben had a good tournament (minus a poor final), RVP was noticeably absent. Sneijder picked up where the Arsenal man failed: he scored 5 goals and set up a couple of others.
I watched several of Bayern’s Champions league games toward the end of the season and was very unimpressed with Muller. Whereas it was obvious he had talent, his finishing and choices were poor.
Boy did he make up for his mistakes in South Africa. Winner of the Golden Boot award as well as the young player of the tournament, he scored 5 goals and was involved in almost all the rest. He was a constant threat down the wing, and with Ozil, led breakaways and counters with perfection…and…HE’S ONLY 20!
Honorable mentions Andres Iniesta – (Spain), Alexis Sanchez (Chile) – Andre Ayew (Ghana)
Nothing really needs to be said about Iniesta. Often playing second banana to club mate Xavi, he benefits from his partner’s play to be more proficient in front of goal. He, too, is a Maestro and to say who is better is a useless debate.
The only reason I didn’t include him as a starter is that he missed a game. His finish against The Netherlands was calm and collected and unstoppable. He was rampant against Germany, and if his teammates’ finishing was better he would have had an assist or two.
Sanchez spearheaded Chile’s attacking triumvirate. Picked to have a breakout World Cup by Matt from TSG, he did just that. Chile were an exciting team to watch and it all started with the young Udinese midfielder. His pace and ball control were a marvel to watch, and it won’t be long before the big offers come pouring in.
The young Ghanaian winger was a constant in their run toward the semi’s. Overshadowed by Gyan, he did a lot of the thankless work of setting up the Rennes striker. It was his pass that set up Gyan for the winner against the USA.
Sadly he picked up a yellow in the round of 16 and FIFA’s stupid rules blocked him for playing the quarters, where he was sorely missed.
Another 20-year-old who will also be entertaining offers from big clubs, Ghana will definitely be a team to watch out for in 2014.
Diego Forlan – (Uruguay)
The Atletico Madrid striker was the best of the player of the tournament. He did everything. He took all of Uruguay’s set pieces, sent in crosses to set up goals and scored a couple of lovely long range efforts.
In the end, he was inches away for sending one of the best games of the tournament, the third place match, into extra time.
In a never-say-die team, Forlan was the star who oozed class. He also did the dirty work, coming back in defense when his team needed him, defending from up on high and chasing balls down the wing.
The 31-year-old is unlikely to see another World Cup, but you never know. He has a penchant for making average teams great as he makes everyone around him better. He did that for Atletico and did the same for La Celeste.
He was given the Golden Ball for the best player of the tournament, and a more deserving one I cannot think of.
Honorable mention Carlos Tevez - (Argentina)
At first I had David Villa penciled in here, but as good as he was, Tevez was better. Villa scored some good goals but he also missed some easy ones as well as a penalty. It should be noted that he never scored in a game that Torres didn’t start.
Tevez worked his socks off, often taking on two or three defenders, never going down cheaply and always looking to set up his team mates. His second goal against Mexico was a thunderbolt straight out of Thor’s arsenal.
His partnership with Messi was a joy to watch and where as he will be 30 in Brazil, they should flourish on the South American stage.
Well that’s my 22. Apologies to Gyan, Villa, Van Bommel, Donovan, Honda, Pique, Ozil etc…but c’est la vie.