Over a month ago, we invited more than 50 ESPN FC writers, editors and analysts to participate in #WorldCupRank. It was an exercise of surprising difficulty in parsing through the World Cup teams, their stars and their eye-opening inclusions (or omissions) in a bid to create a comprehensive list of the top 50 players likely to shine in Brazil this summer.
Like so many lists, it deflated as soon as the games began. Injuries on the eve of Brazil vs. Croatia caused some key late scratches (Marco Reus, Radamel Falcao and Franck Ribery, Nos. 33, 19 and 5, respectively). Others saw so little in the way of meaningful minutes either due to tactics (Didier Drogba, No. 43) or group stage elimination (Samuel Eto'o, No. 48) that they couldn't possibly influence as the world expected.
Then there was Spain, whose litany of entrants failed miserably. Iker Casillas (No. 49) confirmed why he plays more sporadically these days at the club level. Cesc Fabregas (No. 42) enjoyed the final 12 minutes of their 5-1 shellacking vs. the Netherlands and a breezy, meaningless 22-minute cameo vs. Australia. Sergio Busquets (No. 40) enjoyed one of the best seats in the house, the heart of midfield, for humiliations at the hands of the Dutch and Chile. David Silva (No. 26) was on the pitch for 175 minutes, according to FIFA.
Oh, and Diego Costa (No. 21), about whom the choice to represent Spain over Brazil ended up being the most exciting thing.
Eighteen of our Top 50 didn't escape the group stage, though 11 made it all the way to the final. Several teams that hit the round of 16 or further -- Costa Rica, Greece, Algeria and the U.S. -- had no representatives, their spaces taken up by the likes of Dani Alves (No. 44) and, ahem, Steven Gerrard (No. 37).
David Luiz (No. 50) scored more goals (two) than Daniel Sturridge (No. 46), Gonzalo Higuain (No. 41), Angel Di Maria (No. 23), Wayne Rooney (No. 14), Eden Hazard (No. 10) and Cristiano Ronaldo (No. 2).
Luis Suarez, No. 4 in our final list, bit someone. Again.
The biggest indictment of all? The tournament's arguable standout player, Colombia's James Rodriguez, he of the superb dances, boyish charm, spectacular goals and incredible insect allure, didn't even make the list! (Full disclosure: He finished 51st in the overall vote.)
This is always the fun and folly of such lists. We gravitate toward the stars, the individuals who light up their club teams and routinely perform in competitions like the Champions League, which is (only just) a more important tournament in context than the pageantry, potential, power and pathos of the World Cup. What you've done always matters more than what you could do.
In the end, the World Cup is its own beast. Its own glorious, unpredictable organism that bows to no one (except, of course, Sepp Blatter). The strength of the collective routinely trumps the awe of the individual, which explains why Cristiano Ronaldo will never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever lift the World Cup.
Of our top 10, there's plenty of feast and famine.
No. 10, Eden Hazard -- Largely peripheral, save for a crucial late assist vs. Russia for Divock Origi.
No. 9, Arjen Robben -- Superb throughout despite a (gasp) admitted dive. The Dutch would have fallen well short without him. His sprint-and-finish vs. Spain was symbolic, leaving La Roja for dust as easily as he did.
No. 8, Xavi -- Couldn't lift himself against younger, hungrier competition. Time and success rendered him sadly unable.
No. 7, Yaya Toure -- His side's failure to once again escape the group stage is his harshest condemnation.
No. 6, Neymar -- Carried Brazil's pressure admirably, scoring timely goals and raising a tired side behind him. His broken back wasn't just Juan Zuniga's fault; it was a stress fracture.
No. 5, Franck Ribery -- Bowed out late due to lingering back issues. Les Bleus did him proud.
No. 4, Luis Suarez -- Eliminated England, bit Giorgio Chiellini, picked up a lengthy FIFA ban and got a dream transfer to Barcelona. So probably a good tournament then?
No. 3, Andres Iniesta -- A man adrift. Not his fault Spain sank.
No. 2, Cristiano Ronaldo -- A killer assist vs. the U.S. and precious little else. Must secretly curse being surrounded by that team.
No. 1, Lionel Messi -- Did everything but lift the World Cup. Considering that his tournament will be viewed as a disappointment because of this is a shame.
Why such disparity? Beyond the obvious above -- team vs. individual -- there's the fact that the world's best players have put so many miles, goals and high-stakes games into their legs over the past 12 to 24 months that sustained excellence simply isn't always possible. Add the heavy lag of Brazilian heat and the weight of expectation from fans and media alike and it's a wonder any of them could last the pregame warm-ups.
Yet their mixed performances don't matter. Part of the fun, beyond the sticker books and inspiring fans, has always been the discovering of new talents and the hailing of fresh heroes.
James has been around for ages, thrilling large crowds at Porto and, later, sparser ones at AS Monaco. But the World Cup has pushed him where he belongs, to a plane that transcends rankings or opinion polls. He's a World Cup star. He may backslide or regress, but it will never matter.
In some circles, Tim Howard was still remembered for washing out at Manchester United. Why, I'm not sure, given a long and excellent career for Everton plus over 12 years of sterling service for the United States. Since his World Cup ended in the round of 16 vs. Belgium, his personal brand has skyrocketed with "dozens of offers in the past two weeks" from companies eager to use his photogenic stoicism in their portfolios.
(Credit to Howard; when asked if this was his big chance to "cash in," the answer was one of comforting disdain. "I suppose so. That's what everyone's telling me.")
Daley Blind is another to watch, simply to see if he's capable of not only emulating his father, Danny, in Oranje colors but if he can also keep supplying passes like the one he put on Robin van Persie's forehead for one of the World Cup's most breathtaking goals.
Then there are the minnows, who should be insulted by such terms. Transfer rumors always gravitate toward the bigger brands, but there will be room in the summer's steady hum for Giancarlo Gonzalez, Keylor Navas and DeAndre Yedlin; for Guillermo Ochoa, Rais M'Bolhi and Muhamed Besic. Ron Vlaar also burnished his reputation and will have gained more fans beyond those at Aston Villa.
Overall, the 2014 World Cup didn't disappoint -- even if our #WorldCupRank list did in the end. See you for Euro 2016.