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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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Puyol powers Spain into final

Carles Puyol

Not only will a European nation win the World Cup outside Europe for the first time, but the tournament is now guaranteed a first-time winner as well, after Carles Puyol’s second half header gave Spain a 1-0 victory over Germany, sending the European champions into Sunday’s final against the Netherlands. It’s the first final for Spain and the third for the Dutch, who lost in 1974 and 1978.

Paul the Octopus was right again and is a perfect 6-0 on German results. Before the Spanish turn him into a soupy pulpo, I’d love to know who he thinks will win Sunday in what looks like a fascinating clash of first-class football teams, both stacked with talent all over the field.

Germany will no doubt wonder whether things might have gone differently for them had young midfielder Thomas Mueller been available for selection. Gotta say I’m not a fan of keeping the yellow card count going all the way through to the quarterfinals…I’d prefer they were reset after the group stages and recounted from there, and I’m sure many Germans agree, although the idea was apparently to keep players alive for the final. German fans might also have preferred to see their team take the game to the Spanish a bit more, rather than sitting back and trying to hit off the counter. About the only time Spain wasn’t passing the ball crisply was when a vuvuzela-toting Italian invaded the pitch to belatedly make a case for Antonio Cassano.

Spain, who left the struggling Fernando Torres on the bench to start this one, moved the ball around with characteristic flair, but couldn’t break the deadlock until the peerless Puyol, his curly mane trailing behind him, rose to hammer Xavi’s corner into the back of the net in the 73rd minute, all they would need to secure their third straight 1-0 victory and book passage to Soccer City.

I’m no octopus, and while Spain does make me right on one pre-tournament final pick, this is a tough one to call. Joachim Loew says Spain are the best team in the world, which might just be true. I expect the Netherlands will demand a bit more possession and open the game up enough that there’s more than one goal in it, but Roja will win out over Oranje in the end. Can’t wait for Sunday!!

Ian Harrison

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