ESPN FC Player of the World Cup
The top performers from the 2014 World Cup have been whittled down to a five-man short list by stats website WhoScored.com and our panel of experts. The nominated players are Arjen Robben, James Rodriguez, Lionel Messi, Neymar and Thomas Muller.
Each has his merits, as detailed below -- but it's up to you to select who deserves to be crowned the ESPN FC Player of the World Cup.
Thomas Muller (Germany)
Germany's go-to guy for goals, Muller just loves the World Cup. Picking up where he left off in 2010 in South Africa, Muller helped himself to another five goals in Brazil on the way to claiming a winners' medal at the Maracana on Sunday, and few would bet against him usurping teammate Miroslav Klose as the tournament's all-time leading scorer by the time his World Cup career is over.
Muller kicked things off in style with a hat trick in the 4-0 win against Portugal in Germany's Group G opener and scored the winner against the U.S. to help his side progress as the group winner. Against Algeria and France he was a little quieter, but in the semifinal he began the scoring in the 7-1 thrashing of Brazil, with the Selecao unable to track his runs throughout a wonderful evening for Die Nationalmannschaft.
Germany blogger Stephan Uersfeld says Muller's unpredictability is his greatest asset, while John Brewin reckons there is no better player for the big occasion. "Muller saves his best for the big matches," notes Brewin. "He is not to everyone's taste, but few could argue when it comes down to effectiveness. When Germany fell short in 2010 and 2012, it was said they had lost the edge of their '70s and '80s forebears; Muller is just as nasty and competitive as any of them were."
James Rodriguez (Colombia)
Despite not picking up the Golden Ball, James can rest safe in the knowledge that he was the 2014 World Cup's breakout star. Although he moved to Monaco for big money last year, the Colombia international was not on everyone's radar prior to this summer. After five standout performances in Brazil, with six goals and two assists, his name is on everyone's lips.
Playing the No. 10 role for Jose Pekerman's side, James shouldered the scoring responsibility following the pre-tournament injury to Radamel Falcao. And in what style -- taking home the Golden Boot while firing Colombia to their first World Cup quarterfinal.
James remarkably scored in every one of Los Cafeteros' five games -- including one of the finest goals of the tournament, against Uruguay -- while he became the second-youngest player to notch six at a World Cup. Had Colombia's quarterfinal loss to Brazil possessed a stronger referee and James not been kicked out of the game by the Selecao, he could have added even more to that tally.
Miguel Delaney describes James as "Colombia's golden boy," while Michael Cox says that "when you break it down game by game, I can't see another winner." Andy Brassell, too, believed James was the tournament's leading light, saying: "Quite apart from being the star of the most aesthetically pleasing team, he kept going in the quarterfinal despite being kicked all over the place, showing fortitude as well as ability. You wonder what he might do in Russia, when he'll still be only 27."
Lionel Messi (Argentina)
When Messi was named FIFA's Golden Ball winner, a few eyebrows were raised, and the player himself looked totally nonplussed at receiving the award after Argentina's World Cup final loss to Germany. An addition to his already bulging collection of individual honours was not what the Argentine wanted from the tournament; the famous gold trophy was all he craved.
Despite failing to inspire when it mattered most, there is no question that Messi was one of the stars of the tournament, helping to carry his side to a first final in 24 years. The group stage was where his impact was felt most, as he put paid to a previously poor scoring record of one goal in eight World Cup appearances. A pair of wonderful solo strikes won matches against Bosnia and Iran before his brilliant brace saw Argentina beat Nigeria.
He didn't score in the knockout stages, but with teams usually designating two players to mark him, it gave his teammates the chance to find space, enabling Angel Di Maria and Gonzalo Higuain to grab match-winning goals in the round of 16 and quarterfinals. In the semifinal and final, Messi was kept relatively quiet, though he still kept his nerve in the penalty shootout in the last four, showing unerring cool to dispatch Argentina's first penalty.
Michael Cox notes that Messi "scored three great goals in three group games, controlled the Switzerland match despite being double-marked and played the pass of the tournament in the quarterfinal." John Brewin says Messi "didn't deliver the World Cup but did deliver his team to the final. By anyone else's standards, it was a fine World Cup."
He came into the World Cup with the weight of a nation on his shoulders. Up until a certain Juan Zuniga challenge, the tournament's poster boy delivered. Charged with the task of inspiring an average Brazil side to a first World Cup win on home soil, Neymar's four goals in five games had kept that dream alive.
Two against Croatia helped Brazil avoid any opening-day embarrassment, while as others crumbled around him, Neymar showed nerves of steel to score the winning penalty against Chile in the round of 16. But 88 minutes into a feisty quarterfinal against Colombia, the forward's tournament -- and ultimately, Brazil's chances of success -- was ended by a fractured vertebra.
While Neymar likely would not have prevented any of the 10 goals the Selecao would go on to concede in their remaining two games, it is no coincidence that the side's form dropped dramatically after the injury. A nation mourned the loss like a death, and his teammates' shambolic performances in the defeats to Germany and the Netherlands were proof that they were unable to recover from a psychological blow of such proportions. Had Neymar stayed fit, things may have turned out differently -- or at least respectably.
As John Brewin notes: "Brazil 2014 may still be recalled as Neymar's World Cup. Its narrative altered once he was lost from the field of play. His team showed why he was so important. Forget attack; they couldn't defend without him either. He alone of the host team looked in any way capable of winning the World Cup."
Arjen Robben (Netherlands)
Love him or loathe him, Robben is one player at the World Cup you could not take your eyes off. The Netherlands winger scored twice in the 5-1 mauling of Spain as the holders were unceremoniously pulled apart by the 30-year-old's frightening pace and mesmeric link play with Robin van Persie. Another goal followed with a quicksilver burst of pace in a nervy 3-2 victory against Australia, while a selfless assist against Chile secured the top spot in Group B and highlighted a player reveling in the role afforded him by Louis van Gaal.
Shorn of the injured Kevin Strootman and forced to rip up his best-laid plans, the Dutch coach put an emphasis on solid defending and speed on the counter -- a tactical regression that saw Robben bloom under the extra responsibility. His menacing runs into the area resulted in the late penalty that won the round-of-16 clash against Mexico, though Robben was hit by a wave of criticism. He perhaps made the wise choice of admitting to an earlier dive during the game, yet his propensity for hitting the deck too easily has somewhat marred his stunning performances.
Despite the Oranje exiting the semifinals on penalties to Argentina, Robben made no mistake in the box. He converted against both the Albiceleste and in the quarterfinal shootout win over Costa Rica, while (predictably) winning the early penalty that sent the Dutch on their way to a third-place victory over Brazil.
It is tempting to wonder whether Robben will be in Russia for the 2018 World Cup, when he will be 34, but on this form, he simply terrifies defenders. He could not guide the Netherlands to the ultimate prize, but few have had such a lasting impact in Brazil as the "Flying Dutchman."