World Cup

James Downie's Best and Worst

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Best Goal: By miles (which, ironically, seemed like the distance the ball traveled), Giovanni van Bronckhorst against Uruguay. Simply unstoppable.

Most important goal (to Americans): Landon Donovan against Algeria, of course. To prove that soccer is now "mainstream," all you have to do is look at the many sports columnists (Bill Simmons, most notably), in their obligatory Lebron articles, using Donovan's goal as an example of what sports can be. Soccer in the United States needs to go from strength to strength to maintain its popularity (when the sport plateaued in the early 80s, it crashed, and took two to three decades to recover), and Donovan's goal has kept that momentum going. 

Dumbest myth: "Spain are boring." This myth was predicated on the belief that any of their opponents actually tried to beat Spain. With the exception of Chile (whose 2-1 defeat to Spain was quite entertaining, and would have been more so but for a red card early on), every team Spain faced played not to lose. The precision and inevitability of Spain's victories were a sight to behold, and we may not see a side so clearly better than anyone else for a long time. If you want boring, look at England-Algeria.  (Runner up: "Luis Suarez is a cheat.")

Best player: Xavi Hernandez, which makes sense, since he's also the best player in the world. Messi did not hurt his reputation, carrying Argentina through several games, but his struggles without service (especially against Germany, where he was often dropping back 35 or 40 yards to pick up the ball) showed how dependent wingers inherently are on playmakers like Xavi. Xavi, as always, took the blinding pace of the modern game, and made it look like everyone else was standing still. Runners up are Messi, Arjen Robben, and Diego Forlan, who showed the rest of the world what Atletico fans like myself already knew - he's the best striker in the world at the moment. Also of note: there was no individual equivalent in this World Cup to Fabio Cannavaro's airtight defense in 2006.

Worst performance: I was going to say "the refs," until my brother pointed out that their 2002 performance (US-Germany, Italy's 3 disallowed goals in the group stages, the shameless favoritism of South Korea) was at least as bad, if not worse. Instead, let's go with Wayne Rooney. The complete failure of many of his teammates did not hide the fact that he fell far short of the goalscoring heights some people predicted for him.

Biggest disappointment: England, and here's why: Italy were old. Very old. France had a terrible manager, and everyone knew that. But Fabio Capello was supposed to show previous England managers how these players could be turned into something at least equal to the sum of its parts. But can anyone think of a single moment that would have been different had Erikson or McClaren still been the manager? The 4-4-2 was supposed to have died (or at least put on temporary hiatus) when Capello came on board; instead, never has a footballing nation looked more out of ideas.

Biggest individual surprise: Mesut Ozil. Was already he a bright young talent at Bremen? Yes, but his play went above and beyond expectations at this Cup, as he executed Joachim Low's counterattacking style to perfection.

Biggest team surprise: Ghana coping relatively easily without Michael Essien.

Funniest moment: Iker Casillas's emotional post-game interview, mostly because of his girlfriend's stunned reaction.

Most disappointing punditry: Dave Zirin of The Nation, whom I normally like, worrying about the jingoistic implications of rooting for the United States while stumping for Argentina. The current Argentine team may renounce their country's past, but I'm sure the current US team would too.

Most important lesson: During the European club season, Chelsea's consistent steamrolling won out over Man Utd's dependence on Wayne Rooney, Barca dispatched Real's unbalanced galacticos, and Mourinho's Inter proved that a well-knit team can win even with 19% of possession. While other sides (Brazil, the Netherlands, and Germany especially) may have had flashes, or even extended patches of brilliance, Spain entered the tournament with the best overall starting XI, and they left it convincing (if not universally popular) victors.  In short, soccer is, more than ever, a team sport.

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