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Europe’s Poor Performance… and Other Useless Stats

Ronaldo_2956126bThe major story lines leading up to this World Cup were all about things that had little or nothing to do with football.  Faulty or incomplete stadiums, paltry labour conditions, a populace acting as unhappy hosts, the ever-present whispers of bribes and corruption… this is how we talked about Brazil.

Two weeks into the tournament, however, and the story is very much about the game itself.   Wide-open play has meant a treasure chest of goals, the most ever for the group stage.  Out of the 48 matches so far, only eight of them have been draws, and only five of those have been nil-nil.  Meanwhile, there have been a lot of shutouts (almost half of the matches) but only 13 games have been either 0-0 or 1-0 finals.  For this writer anyway, this has been the best World Cup since France ’98.

However, several European nations might disagree with me.   Out of the 13 UEFA teams in the tournament, only the Netherlands, Greece (a first for Ethniki), Belgium, Germany, France and Switzerland are going to the Group of 16.   For the second World Cup in a row, less than half of the European teams are progressing.  Is this because the former colonial powers can’t play away from their home continent? Maybe… but the European influence has been declining for some time.

If you take the percentage of total participants in each tournament* allocated to UEFA (in 2010, that was 13/32 or 40.625%) and multiply it by the percentage of European teams that make the knockout round (again in 2010, it was 6/16 or 37.5%), you can — imperfectly — see well how the confederation performs.

There are a couple of trends that emerge.  First of all, the number of UEFA spots have pretty much stayed the same, with one or two additions or subtractions.  But as the tournament has expanded, this has meant the Europeans’ share of World Cup berths has declined.  Nothing shocking here.

A familiar sight for England fans over the last half-century

A familiar sight for England fans over the last half-century

What is changing is who are winning the knockout berths.  At least three CONMEBOL teams have qualified for the next round in three out of the last five tournaments; they only got two spots in 1994 and 2002, and Brazil won both of those anyway (FYI the Brazilians have only missed the knockout round once, in 1966… between World Cup victories in 1962 and 1970).   Last tournament, two CONCACAF teams reached the knockout stage; this year, there are three.  For the first time ever, two African teams have reached the Group of 16 in 2014.

The reason for the European decline are fuzzy.  Some blame the flood of foreign players — particularly South Americans — into the big European leagues, pushing home-grown players aside and making big clubs less likely to develop their own youngsters.  Others say European players lack the desire to achieve greatness for country, because they are getting paid so much by their clubs.

However, it could all back to simple maths.  The change starts to be noticeable in Mexico’s 1986 World Cup.  João Havelange had won the FIFA presidency in 1974 on promises to let more developing nations into the tournament.   Twelve years later, Morocco was the first African Nation to qualify for the knockout round along with hosts, Mexico.  It was the first time two teams from one of the “other” confederations made it through with the big boys.   Since then, both CAF and CONCACAF have had at least one team in the elimination rounds, and CONMEBOL get at least 50 percent of its teams into the knockouts.

Capello

Capello thinks about how to spend his millions

What is more interesting is who is out.  The platinum generation of Spanish footballers finally ran out of currency, dropping out at the group stage for the first time since 1998.  Their Euro 2012 final opponents, Italy, missed two successive knockout rounds for the first time since the 1960’s.   The “golden generations” of Portugal and England both finally sputtered out.   Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia still have far to go to match the prowess of their Yugoslavian predecessors.  Russia may be rethinking Fabio Capello’s £6.7M annual salary… although the gaffer claims he did his job by getting the side into the tournament for the first time in 12 years.  In fairness to Capello, he didn’t have his talisman, Roman Shirokov.  Imagine if Óscar Tabárez’ Uruguay had to play with Luis Suarez… oh right.

Some caveats:

– like Brazil in ’94 and ’02, Spain won in 2010 despite a record-low representation by European teams.  However, the other three tournaments that had a low knockout representation by Europe went to South American sides: 1950, 1970, and 2002.

– a more likely determinate of World Cup success is tournament location.  If it’s in Europe, a UEFA team will likely win the whole thing.  If not, look to CONMEBOL.  The only exceptions are South Africa 2010 for Europe and Sweden 1958 for South America (where UEFA had seven of eight playoff births but Brazil still won).

– the set up of this year’s tournament tree means that only one of Brazil, Chile, Colombia and Uruguay will advance to the semi-finals, while the Europeans could still end up having six teams in the quarter-finals.

Brent P. Lanthier

*Only post-war World Cups. The three tournaments before 1950 had no group stage, and were straight knockout competitions.

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Spain’s Pain, Dutch Dreams and Chile’s Voodoo on the Socceroos

THAT goal...

THAT goal…

After seven blindingly-good matches over two days, I’m already a bit knackered (several pints of cider having nothing to do with it).   There have been some shockers and lots of goals… good thing I’ve cleared my calendar.

After almost 48 hours, I’m still trying to wrap my brain around the Dutch win over Spain.  Five goals against the defending World champions would be unheard of two years ago.  Both teams played high and aggressive, but it was power that won over possession, as the Netherlands seemed to find space for their runs.  Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie were as good as they’ve ever been, with RvP scoring his Superman header, imitating Bobby Orr in the 1970 Stanley Cup finals.  Nigel de Jong dominated the midfield… but strangely, Wesley Sneijder was not as involved as he may have been in the past.  Meanwhile Spain’s spine seemed to shut down: Iker Casillas were horrible, Sergio Ramos and Gerard Piqué were caught with their pants down, and Xavi seemed to falter.

The Dutch had Spain on her knees...

The Dutch had Spain on her knees…

Some pundits say the warning signs were there that this is a team in its autumn years… although you could also argue these are players that have come off punishing domestic and Champions league campaigns.   Also noteworthy is that Spain had most of the possession, but as Bobby McMahon wrote for Forbes magazine, possession means nothing.  Is this the end of Spanish dominance and tika-taka?  Netherlands 3-1 Spain

Bad officiating reared its ugly head in this match as well.  The second Dutch goal went in as RVP bonked Casillas in the noggin.  It should have been foul; instead it was 2-1 and changed the tone of the game.

Nothing dirty about Sanchez' goal

Nothing dirty about Sanchez’ goal

Meanwhile, Australia performed admirably against a lightning-quick Chile on Friday.   Both teams stuck to form, with the Chileans scoring early and dominating the first third of the game.  However, the Socceroos gathered the wits and Tim Cahill scored a trademark header.   Note: the Chileans are tiny.  Who knew?  However, they gave as good as they got, with almost as many tackles as the Aussies… but the South Americans had far fewer fouls.  The Chileans will get through (especially now that Spain is there for the taking), the Aussies won’t… but neither will be taken lightly from here on in.  Chile 3-1 Australia.

Brent P. Lanthier

 

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World Cup 2014 Preview: Groups A & B

brazuca

It’s finally here: the high holiday for soccer geeks, er, fans like myself.  The World Cup is one event that lives up to its hype, and the world is really watching.  You look at the field and you see that everything is as it should be this year.  Every nation that deserves to be in Brazil will be there, starting June 12.  Here’s At The Rail’s predictions.  I’ll go through two groups a day, finishing on Thursday with my bracket.

GROUP A

Can Neymar and Brazil live up to the hype?

Can Neymar and Brazil live up to the hype?

Let’s get this out of the way right now: there is little reason to think that Brazil won’t win the whole damn thing.  After demolishing the World and European champions in last year’s Confederations Cup, A Selação was dismissed in some circles because they didn’t face a qualifying campaign (because they are the home nation).  But if you look at this side’s roster, there are no weak spots.   Brazil’s national team has 35 titles from Europe’s Big Five leagues, and 10 players have Champions League medals (along with five players with Copa Libertadores gongs).  Fifteen players are returning from last year’s Confederations win… as is World Cup-winning manager Big Phil Scolari.  Anything less than the World Cup trophy will be viewed as failure.  CHAMPIONS

How far can Modric lead Croatia?

How far can Modric lead Croatia?

Meanwhile, Croatia are back in the tournament after missing out on South Africa, and then getting knocked out in the European Championship by eventual champions, Spain.  Several veterans are travelling to Brazil, including captain Darijo Srna, Danijel Pranjić, Vedran Ćorluka (really?!? Ćorluka?!?) and Ivica Olić… players who have all seen better days.  But Luka Modrić is coming off a Champions League win, Ivan Rakitić won the Europa League with Sevilla (and could be on his way to Barcelona), Mario Mandžukić came second in the Bundesliga scoring race while securing another league title, and Dejan Lovren played so well for Southampton that he’s now on the shopping list of several big clubs.   They’ll progress, where they’ll likely meet Spain again.  ROUND OF 16

It could be frustrating tourney for Chicharito

It could be frustrating tourney for Chicharito

Mexico no longer have their dark-horse caché anymore… in fact, they have no caché whatsoever.  Winning only two of 10 games in the CONCACAF hexagonal qualifiers, El Tri‘s performances provoked a national crisis when they lost on the last day.  Their collective hides were only saved by a last-gasp win by arch-enemies USA in Panama.   The Mexicans are led by mercurial defender Rafael Márquez, with bullet-headed Carlos Salcido marauding around the pitch.  Javier Hernandez had a terrible year with a terrible Manchester United side, so he may be motivated to rediscover his scoring touch, especially since he is only five away from surpassing the legendary Cuauhtémoc Blanco… but don’t bet on it.  THREE AND OUT

Wham, bam, thank you Sam...

Wham, bam, thank you Sam…

Cameroon appear to have more problems than just football.  At the time of writing, the Indomitable Lions  had failed to depart for Brazil over a pay dispute.  This is not the first time this has happened… but it points to a problem where players’ heads aren’t where they should be.   No matter: this is not the golden generation of a decade ago.   While Stéphane Mbia had a decent season with Sevilla, Alex Song has spent much of his time at Barcelona on the bench, and Samuel Eto’o has left Chelsea without any silverware to show for his short time in England.  Most of the other squad members ply their trades for middling teams in the European leagues.  Cameroon haven’t reached the knockout stages in quarter-century.  That streak should remain intact.  THREE AND OUT.

 

GROUP B

Nine of these 11 players have returned for the World Cup.

Nine of these 11 players have returned for the World Cup.

Destiny awaits for Spain. No team has retained the World Cup since Brazil did it in 1962… and in all four World Cups held in South America, it was a Sudamericano nation that won.  But Spain are no ordinary side.  This is a team retaining 18 players from its Euro 2012 victory, 15 players from its World Cup win in South Africa… and 12 players from a thunderous night in Vienna in 2008.   Twenty-two Champions League medals sit in the homes of this Spanish side… and despite advancing age, they don’t seem to be slowing down.  Spain is Football Heaven right now, with the World Cup, European Championship, Champions League trophy and Europa League trophy all residing in España.   Win the World Cup and they are the best football team, ever.  Period.  Fall a little short, and no one will begrudge them anything.  They’ll lose but only because it’s Brazil… in Brazil.  FINALIST.

Sanchez: he runs, he scores.  'Nuff said.

Sanchez: he runs, he scores. ‘Nuff said.

Chile have been one of the world’s most exciting sides to watch over the last few years.   Put that squarely in the laps of Alexis Sánchez and Arturo Vidal.   Sánchez runs riot for both Barça and La Roja, and, at 25 years old, is quickly moving up Chile’s all-time caps and goals charts.  Meanwhile Vidal is the pivot for this team, trying to do what he does for Italian champions, Juventus: score goals or set them up.  This will be a team that attacks, attacks, attacks… all the way to a match-up with fellow South Americans, Brazil, in the next round.   ROUND OF 16.

Oh sure, they're all friends NOW...

Oh sure, they’re all friends NOW…

A finalist in the last World Cup, Netherlands are a shadow of their former selves.  While Mark van Bommel called it quits in 2010, along with his father-in-law-cum-manager Bert Van Marwijk, Van Bommel’s fellow midfield hooligan Nigel de Jong returns.   Arjen Robben has had another fine campaign for Bayern Munich, and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar overcame injury in the season’s first-half to score 12 goals for Schalke.  But who else is there? Jonathan De Guzmán was stuck in Wales and Leroy Fer played on an awful Norwich City side.  Meanwhile, veterans Wesley Sneijder and Dirk Kuyt have been toiling away in the Turkish Süperlig.  Robin van Persie will chomping at the bit to overcome a forgetable season at Manchester United.   But then there is the elephant in the room: how long before the Dutch side self-destructs, turning to frustration against the opposition, referees and ultimately, each other?  THREE AND OUT

Don't get too comfy, lads.

Don’t get too comfy, lads.

Australia, Australia, Australia… we love ya.  But you are not going to make major inroads in this group.   FIFA’s lowest-ranked team in the tournament, the Aussies have the same problem as every other English-speaking former colony in the world: a national side made up mostly of players who play in their small national leagues, or at Europe’s lesser lights (Canada/USA/New Zealand/Jamaica… I’m looking at you).  Crystal Palace’s Mile Jedinak is probably this star of this outfit, the only outfielder to play in one of Europe’s Big Five.  Veterans Tim Cahill and Mark Bresciano return from far-flung clubs to help out… but this is just a brief stay for the Socceroos.  Australia 2022!  THREE AND OUT

Brent P. Lanthier

Up next: Groups C & D  (Shocking, I know)

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Pieces of Eight: Why Spain is So Money and Other Euro Observations

Well that was fun.  Lots of goals, an upset or two, some behind-the-scenes drama… and for what? At the end of three weeks, the new Champions are the same as the old Champions.  The footballing universe is balanced and unsullied, and in six weeks, we can go back to watching club football.  In the meantime, enjoy my little observations about the highlight of the summer.  Don’t you dare mention the Olympics!!!

1) This Spanish side may be the best international side ever.  Duh.
Euro.  World Cup.  Euro.  Nineteen players in the side have now won both tournaments.  More than half of those players will still be under 30 by the time they reach Rio in two years time (not to mention next year’s Confederations Cup).  An average possession rate of at least 65%.  A side that has gone 646 minutes without conceding a goal in a knock-out match.  This is more than a “Golden Generation”;  this is utter and complete dominance.

2) Buffon and Pirlo are studs.
Despite every indication that they would do the opposite, the Italians (the Italians?) took the game to Spain, trying to play offensive and open-pitch football (seriously, the Italians?!?).  Prandelli’s tactics allowed the world to see Andrea Pirlo’s incredible play-making abilities. Pirlo is a big reason why Juventus won the Scudetto this season, and AC Milan (his old team) didn’t.   Meanwhile, Buffon faced a barrage of attempts, especially in the final’s second half. When the winners were getting their medals, Buffon was stoic in defeat.

Prandelli: “Balotelli has to learn to accept defeat.”

3) Balotelli needs to grow up.
He may have put on a clinic against ze Germans… but Mario is still a super baby.  He stormed off the pitch after Italy lost against the Spaniards and was the last person to receive his medal.  That’s too bad because he had an exemplary tournament.   Colourful players with heaps of talent have always made the game more interesting…. but Balotelli can be a detriment to his team(s).  Luckily for both Italy and Manchester City, his behaviour may mellow with time.  Witness another former petulant son in…

4) Cristiano Ronaldo.  He’s an incredible player… he just needs a team.
Like the Italians, the Portuguese weren’t expected to do much.   Critics assumed that Ronaldo would once again be unable to replicate his club form for A Seleccao.  But not only did Ronaldo have a great tournament, he showed tremendous un-Ronaldo-like restraint as teams gave him a kicking.   Old Ronaldo would have flopped around like a fish.   New Ronaldo recorded the most shots in the tournament.   Too bad that he also hit the wood work more than any other player… and let’s not even mention the penalty shot that never was.

5) The end of the Van Marwijk era means the end of the Van Bommel era, et al.  Praise Cheebus.
The Dutch gaffer opted for pretty much the same side as he used in the World Cup. Oops.

Before the tournament even began, the players exhibited symptoms of Dutch Disease: an in-fighting both in and out of the public spotlight that hobbled everyone. Their performance on the pitch reflected the lack of unity and tactics.  One hopes that it wasn’t nepotism that led Van Marwijk to start his over-the-hill son-in-law Mark Van Bommel.  The captain sums up all that’s wrong with the Oranje:  old, dirty, and petulant.  A mid-tournament rebellion in the dressing room, followed by an early exit,would make the Dutch this year’s France, except that…

6) France is this year’s France.
After a disastrous World Cup campaign in South Africa, you’d think Les Tricoloures would avoid their petty squabbles and unite under Laurent Blanc. Malheureusement, it was not to be. Reports of a dressing room bust-up after losing to Sweden in their final group-stage match was followed by Samir Nasri’s unseemly outburst towards a reporter. A tidy loss to the eventual champions meant the end of another tournament… and the dismissal of another manager.

Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité… Someone tell the French players.

The other sad Mario…

7) Das Jahr der Schrecken for Bayern Munich players.
What a season for the eight men out who play for both the German national team and Bayern Munich.  Bayern suffered a double domestic loss to Borussia Dortmund in both the Bundesliga and the DKB-Pokal, followed by a baffling defeat at Chelsea’s hands at home in the Champions League.  Top that off with Germany’s semi-final loss to unfancied Italy and they face a tough summer staring into their schnitzel.  Mario Gomez even lost out on the Euro Golden Boot because he tied Fernando Torres in goals and assists, but took more minutes to do it!  Scheisse!

8) England, thanks for coming out.
Joe Hart and Steven Gerrard played well.  Surprisingly, so did John Terry.  Andy Carroll scored the same amount of goals as Wayne Rooney, but played 50 less minutes.  Theo Walcott had a game to remember.  Now let’s never mention this again.

Brent Lanthier

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Best of the Prem: Swansea City to Wolverhampton

Roy Hodgson does his best George Bailey impression: “Well, I don’t have your trophy. It’s at Roman’s house… and Alex’s house… and Roberto’s house…”

Part Four takes us to a team that squandered their European dreams, another side that dropped like a stone, a third that pulled away from the edge of the precipice, and then two more that found the soft, creamy middle of the table.  Let’s have a look at their best, shall we?

The Dutchman did his part…

SWANSEA CITY
Michel Vorm (NED) – The first Welsh team in Premier League history was the mirror image of its fellow Championship graduate, Norwich.  Just like the East Anglians, the Swans’ gaffer opted for a wide-open system that had trouble on the counter.  Good thing Swansea had Michel Vorm.  The Dutchman faced a barrage of shots, but his save percentage remained in the top flight’s top five.  That’s why he will compete for the honour of being the Oranje ‘s No. 2 in the Ukraine this summer.

Ade wants to stay

TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR
Emmanuel Adebayor (TOT) – I know that many Spurs fans — along with several neutral observers — will take issue with this pick. Why not Gareth Bale, or Luka Modric?  But the stats are pretty clear: more goals, more assists in the league, more possession, more clear chances on goal.  Sure the big man up front was a bit of lazy git at times, and Tottenham fans are worried that they have another Berbatov on their hands.  But the Togolese striker was lethal for the Lilywhites and, more importantly, he wants to stay.  The same might not be said for his teammates in midfield.

The Baggies’ Foster child…

WEST BROMWICH ALBION
Ben Foster (ENG) – Beware when your best player is a keeper.  WBA finished a positively decent 10th place under a positively decent manager, Uncle Woy.  Peter Odemwingie had a decent season with 10 goals in the league.  The Baggies were 12th in scoring, 14th in defence.  Foster was decent in the middle of the goalkeeper pack when it came to saves and goals against.  All of this bodes well for England, doesn’t it?… Doesn’t it?!?

NOT Gary Caldwell…

WIGAN ATHLETIC
Gary Caldwell (SCO) – Hey Wigan! Come here, you! No, go away! No, come here! No, go away! The Latics channeled the ghost of Alexei Sayle by dallying with relegation for the entire season (Editor’s Note: Alexei Sayle is not dead).  Wigan were bottom of the table as late as St. Patrick’s Day, so it was apropos that a former shamrock-wearing defender led the charge to safety.   Gary Caldwell’s team posted a record of eight wins and only two losses in their last nine matches, while only letting in seven goals.  That’s as many as the eventual champions, Manchester City.  (Ed. Note: Caldwell didna kill his brother — and former Wigan teammate — Stephen.  He’s at Birmingham City… )

Wolves say they won’t let Fletcher go…

WOLVERHAMPTON WANDERERS
Steven Fletcher (SCO) – One of the only above-average players on a very sub-par squad, Fletcher had more goals than Frank Lampard, Rafael van der Vaart, Chicharito and Gareth Bale.  ‘Nuff said…

Brent Lanthier

Up Next: Season’s Starting XI and ATR’s PoY!

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I’m on a boat!!

Spain brought the World Cup to Madrid and touched off a celebration that had everyone in the country flying the same flag for once. Even Fernando Torres wore his country’s colours for this one, while perky Paraguayan Larissa Riqulme lauded her Latin cousins by wearing almost nothing.

The Dutch? They brought silver medals back to Amsterdam for the third time, possibly the best footballing nation never to win the big one. But no one was going to let these boys go home without a party, so they hauled out a canal boat, told everyone when to duck for low bridges, pounded some beers and floated through the city to the delight of hundreds of thousands. Rock and roll my friends. We of At The Rails like a party as much as the next person, whether it brings countries together or just gets them out on waterways filled with e-coli and discarded bicycles and shopping carts. Our kudos to both finalists from World Cup 2010 for their memorable performances.

Speaking of memorable performances, local boy Dwayne De Rosario has been picked in the starting XI for the MLS in their July 28 summer classic against Manchester United in Houston, a roster probably deservedly full of Galaxy and Salt Lake players. It’s the fifth straight selection for DeRo, who missed last year’s game because it conflicted with a game in Puerto Rico. The only two-time MLS Cup MVP, he’s scored a team-high eight goals this season .

Check back later to see why Dr. Z says it’s never too early to start thinking about Brazil 2014…and who might be there.

Ian Harrison

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Best of the bunch: WC Starting XI

So, Spain are World Cup champions after beating a Netherlands team that left Dutch legend Johan Cruyff hurting inside. Even on top of the world, Xabi Alonso might also be feeling a bit of pain – as Nigel de Jong can attest. You might be hurting, too, now that the World Cup is over and there’s no footy on every day. It’s back to work for most of us, but a happy retirement for Oracle Paul. My Futbol Guapa, a marine biologist, just wants to know one thing about this super smart octopus: Did he know who was going to win, or did he make it happen? Hmmmm.

It wasn’t the greatest of finals, more a card-strewn affair that left plenty of people upset with Howard Webb, who didn’t have a great game but was in a tough spot with that lot. And while the sport didn’t shine in it’s signature moment, The Globe & Mail’s John Doyle won’t go easy on you if you think that means soccer sucks.
Anyway, before we go, time to hand out the hardware. The award for best young player goes to German Thomas Mueller, whose three assists break a deadlock with the other five-goal men to make him Golden Boot winner, too. Uruguay’s Diego Forlan, the subject of transfer rumours, has been named Golden Ball recipient as the tournament’s best player, the first winner not to play in the final.

No less lucrative and prestigious is inclusion in the At The Rails World Cup Starting XI. Brent and Dr. Z have each picked teams, and present them now for your perusal and pleasure.

Brent’s picks Hadi’s picks
GK: Richard Kingson (Gha): The man made 22 saves, while allowing only three goals all tournament. A big reason the Black Stars made it to the quarters. GK: Manuel Neuer (Ger): Not the busiest keeper in the tournament but solid when called upon. Also had a wonderful assist on the first goal against England.
RB: Maxi Pereira (Uru) Uruguay’s defence was a bit of an unknown quanitity coming into the tournament. But this right back-cum-midfielder kept the goal count down against his country, and even contributed one himself. RB: Philip Lahm (Ger) Doubts about his ability to lead this young German team quickly evaporated thanks to fantastic on field performances and a calmness  even Michael Ballack could admire.
CBs: Carles Puyol (Spa) Scored a massive goal against Germany to get his team into the Final and, along with… CB: Diego Lugano (Uru) Captained the most overachieving side in the tournament.  Anchored a Uruguay defence that was at times impenetrable.
CB: Gerard Pique (Spain) …. served as full-stop, the anchors of a stingy, stingy Spanish team. This pair are coming off another La Liga-winning season, as well as a Champions League semi-final. Its easy to see why. CB: Carles Puyol (Spain) The man with the wonder hair was at his brave best this past month.  Lunging, diving, blocking, and even scoring, he did it all for the Spanish.
LB: Fabio Coentrao (Por) A no-name player for Benfica who was part of a back four that conceded only one goal all tournament. Unfortunately, it was the goal that knocked them out. LB: Ashley Cole (Eng) The lone bright spot on a terrible English team. Equal contribution on offence and defence.  The only world class player who showed up for the Red and White.
MF: Bastian Schweinsteiger (Ger) The man sprayed the ball around like a Wehrmacht machine gun nest. Watch him carve through Argentina to set up Friedrich’s goal. MF: Thomas Mulller (Ger) What more can be said about this guy’s performance. At times seemed unstoppable. Cool on the ball and fantastic movement without it. A star is born.
MF: Xabi Alonso (Spa) Alonso was the first line of defence in solid, unchanging back eight and the pilot of a talented attacking team that knew how to bide its time. MF: Xavi (Spain) The best passer in the world.  Period.
MF: Lukas Podolski (Ger) If it wasn’t Muller, it was Klose. If it wasn’t Klose, it was Podolski. Both he and his fellow Polish-born team mate were written off after terrible club seasons. Two goals and two assists erased that. MF: Bastian Schweinsteiger (Ger) Took over for the injured Michael Ballack and did so to perfection. Considering he started his career as a winger, this central midfielder looks destined to lead a dangerous German team into the 2012 Euros.
MF: Thomas Mueller (Ger) Der Kinder Surprise on a team of babies, this man was sorely missed in the semifinal against Spain. MF: Wesley Sneijder (Ned) Might have challenged for Golden Ball if not for poor final.  The fulcrum of the Oranje, he can seemingly do it all:  pass, shoot, run, and even head.
FWD: Wesley Sneijder (Ned) The man of the tournament, and tied for top scorer with five goals, Sneijder has been a revelation, even after a treble-winning club season, injuries not withstanding. Automatic. FWD: David Villa (Spa) The best finisher in the world today is heading to Barcelona next season… as if they needed any more help.
FWD: David Villa (Spa) I wanted to take Miroslav Klose here because of his remarkable World Cup run. But Villas goals were a lot prettier… including his monster against Chile. FWD: Diego Forlan (Uru) Proved you can hit the Jabulani ball from distance and control it too.  Countless wonder strikes and always a threat to score.
Honorable mentions: Manuel Neuer, Giovanni Van Bronckhorst, Lucio, Ryan Nelsen, Phillip Lahm, Dirk Kuyt, Xavi, Arjen Robben, Andres Iniesta, Diego Forlan Honorable mentions: Iker Casillas, Fabio Coentrao, Da Silva, Maicon, Gerard Pique, Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta, Arjen Robben, Mesut Ozil, Asamoah Gyan, Gonzalo Higuain

Say what you will about the overall quality of the play, I’m just happy only two matches were decided by penalty kicks. I’m also among those impressed by the excellent job South Africa did as host, with the country now considering an Olympic bid. Of course, while there was joy over Nelson Mandela’s appearance at the closing ceremonies, there’ ll still be crushing poverty and racial inequality when the hype dies down. Still, plenty of anticipated problems never showed up, allowing the country to shine on the world stage. For that, and for plenty else, South Africa deserves a lot of credit.

Ian Harrison, Brent Lanthier & Hadi Zogheib

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