Best Player: In the first half of the tournament, I was very impressed with Argentina’s Lionel Messi, which is why I’m so dismayed by the talk that his goalless World Cup was somehow on the same level with Cristiano Ronaldo’s or Wayne Rooney’s disappointing performances. Granted, I’m a fan, and I won’t claim to be unbiased, but focusing on the fact that Messi didn’t score betrays a rather narrow understanding of an elite player’s impact on a game. Goals are nice, goals are wonderful (see below) but fútbol is more than statistics, and we all know a final score does not reveal the true complexity of a match—unless that score is, say… Portugal 7, North Korea 0. In Argentina’s early outtings, Messi was creating dangerous opportunities all the time, opening space which his teammates were taking full advantage of. Higuaín surely owes him a couple. So he had a tough match against Germany? Well, so did all of England. Having said that, now I’m going to contradict myself enirely: the best player of the World Cup has to be David Villa. Perhaps most important player would be a more apt phrase. He scored five of his team’s seven goals, each more timely and audacious than the other. Spain would be nowhere without him.
Most Frustrating Team: Spain. They dominate completely, utterly. They even dominated their opening match, which went down almost exactly as they’d hoped, but for the inconvenient Swiss goal. The Spanish have the skill to shut down almost any opponent, and yet they play at times as if the match were purely an aesthetic exercise, a possession game, as if scoring were not the way to win, but a blemish on an otherwise elegant ninety minutes of ballwork. The ideal Spain victory: 70% possession, final score, 1-0. The ideal play: a majestic build-up with seven men involved, seven one-touch passes, and then a shot with the inside of the foot, low and just barely wide. Striker grimaces. Or smiles ruefully. Or places hands over face. Repeat.
Biggest Revelation: I’m going to agree with Rabih on this one: Mezut Ozil and the entire German team. I’ve always admired German sides, but never enjoyed their style of play. This World Cup was different. They were dynamic, fast, driven; and with Ozil making daring runs, for once they were fun to watch. They dismantled the English, embarrassed the Argentines. They stopped Messi without fouling him once, a trick no other side even contemplated. They may have lost to Spain, but the tournament was far better for their presence. Honorable mention goes to Uruguay—a strong South American side to be sure, but few thought they’d go so far, and play so valiantly. Diego Forlán was simply outstanding, by far the best Diego at the tournament in my opinion—but don’t tell fat Maradonna in his baggy suit and two wristwatches that I said that.
Worst Miss: Nigerian striker Yakubu Aiyegbeni, with this dud. It sort of broke my heart, because Nigeria was one of those teams that deserved better, but they had a tough draw. Or maybe all the draws are tough now. They played a very entertaining, very fluid match against South Korea, and a goal there would might have put them through to the second round. Aiyegbeni’s miss was one of dozens—those inconceivable moments when the world’s finest athletes forget how to do what they do best. If there were no such misses, the game wouldn’t be half as fun. Thanks, Yakubu!
Best Game: With all its controversy, I have to say Uruguay v. Ghana. This match had it all: impressive goals, spirited play, heroes, villains, tears, reversals, penalty kicks. So much has been written about this gut-wrenching match, so much has been argued. When it was finally over, I was so exhausted I felt as if I’d played those hundred twenty minutes.
Most Odious Team: Les Bleus, hands down. So farcical was this squad that at times it began to feel scripted, as if French had collectively decided to expiate Thierry Henry’s handball sin against Ireland by imploding on the world’s biggest sporting stage. Quelle catastrophe!
Most Memorable Goal: Siphiwe Tshabalala’s strike against Mexico was a thing of beauty. I can only imagine how much joy that goal gave the host country. What a strike!
Best Keeper: Not Tim Howard that’s for sure. He had one good match against England, and then four mediocre outings. In fairness, the American defense did him no favors, but for all the hype surrounding him, I was expecting a bit more. Ghana’s Kingson was very good, as was Nigeria’s Vincent Eniyeama was as well. But I’m going with Uruguay’s Fernando Muslera, who kept Uruguay in the game (with a little help from Luís Suárez and the crossbar) and then saved two Ghanaians’ penalties in the shootout.
Dirtiest player: Holland’s Mark Van Bommel. What does this man have to do to get a red card? Where and how does one get such immunity? It was as if Sepp Blatter had given him a special dispensation. Brazil may have lost their heads against the Dutch, and Melo was rightly sent off, but anyone watching could see that Van Bommel should have been gone too. He fulfilled the same despicable role for the Dutch all month long—which leads me to believe he’s sent in for this specific purpose. It’s an important skill in modern soccer, I suppose. He knows when to foul, how to get away with it, and when to dive. Awful, just awful. What’s sadder is this: I bet nearly every coach out there would love to have one player just like him.