Azzurri were worthy winners
This was not a World Cup for the ages. Far from it, in fact. Granted, there were some memorable moments and elements of drama, but that's inevitable in almost any sporting event. What will be remembered, however, is the lack of quality and flair in general of the play and the one moment of madness from a player who forever soiled his legacy.
Aside from the lack of goals that made this one of the lowest-scoring World Cups ever and evoked comparisons with the dull-fest that was the 1990 World Cup, there were no unforgettable matchups and even fewer moments of individual brilliance that illuminated past World Cups. One can only shudder to imagine just how big of a drought there would have been had there not been the introduction of a match ball designed to facilitate long-range shots.
In the end, eventual winner Italy was the most deserving team, although you could make a strong case that France was the better team in the final. Sadly, though, the everlasting memory most people will have will be of French legend Zinedine Zidane headbutting Italy's Marco Materazzi. That move probably cost the French the game, and to a large degree will tarnish how people remember Zidane. It was always a stretch to compare him to Pelé and Maradona, but on the heels of that act of violence, it's highly doubtful people will ever elevate him to such a platform.
The other story, of course, was the erratic officiating throughout the tournament. FIFA's call to crack down on fouls backfired. The referees were spectacularly inconsistent and, perhaps as a result, there was a proliferation and return to the age-old diving and play-acting by players that had been mitigated in recent years. That said, here's what we can take away from Germany 2006:
Five Players Whose Stock Rose
2. Maxi Rodriguez, M, Argentina If you were making a list of players who were a) likely to score one of the best goals in the World Cup, and b) lead Argentina in scoring, Rodriguez would be far and away off the radar. Entering the tournament, most people's impression of Rodriguez was that of a blue-collar, hard-working midfielder of limited flair. However, after three goals and that winning volley against Mexico, the book on Rodriguez has changed.
3. Philip Lahm, D, Germany He was one of the revelations of the World Cup at left back for the hosts. Lahm returned to action earlier this year after a long injury layoff but impressed throughout the tourney with above-average defensive skills and dangerous attacking verve.
4. Franck Ribery, M, France Ribery played so well that he's been touted by French media as Zidane's successor. The truth, of course, is that they're completely different players, but Ribery offers trickery and pace on the wings. He still needs to refine his shooting touch and pick his spots, but his inclusion in the lineup was the missing piece in the French puzzle.
5. Edison Mendez, M, Ecuador Mendez impressed as the Ecuadorian playmaker in the first round when Ecuador played spirited, attacking football. Despite his slight size, Mendez is versatile enough to also operate as a holding midfielder or in a wide attacking role. Apparently he's now on the wish list for several La Liga outfits.
Five Most Disappointing Players
1. Ronaldinho, M, Brazil Given that the expectations were so great for the current FIFA World Player of the Year, it was almost inevitable Ronaldinho would fail to live up to the hype. Having said that, no one expected him to fall flat on his face and appear peripheral to the action in most of Brazil's games. Perhaps we should have seen this coming. Ronaldinho didn't look sharp toward the tail end of the Spanish domestic season and his performance in the Champions League final indicated he was far from his best form. To be fair, it wasn't entirely his fault; unlike at club level, he simply wasn't the fulcrum of the Brazilian team. Often he would demand the ball on the field from his Brazilian teammates and yet would not receive it.
2. Frank Lampard, M, England Touted by his club manager, Jose Mourinho, as the best player in the world, Lampard had a horrid World Cup. He failed to mesh with Steven Gerrard in a disappointing English midfield, and his fabled scoring touch wasn't just off, it seemed to have deserted him completely. No player took more shots on goal with less accuracy than Lampard at this World Cup. A cynic would argue that Lampard was merely exposed for what he really is: an excellent domestic league scorer who lacks the creative qualities and vision to be a truly world-class midfield player.
3. Juan Riquelme, M, Argentina Argentine coach Jose Pekerman basically placed the burden on Riquelme's shoulders and built the team around him. As a result, his lineup was devoid of the creative talents of players such as Pablo Aimar, Lionel Messi and Carlos Tevez. Pekerman believed that their styles wouldn't mesh with Riquelme's and that Riquelme would provide all the guile Argentina would need. He was wrong on both counts, and for the most part Riquelme failed to dominate in the manner expected of an Argentine No. 10.
4. Raul, F, Spain It now seems so long ago that the case was made for Raul being one of the top three strikers in the world. His game and scoring touch have fallen off so dramatically that it's hard to believe he's same person. The reality hasn't seemed to hit the Spanish media yet, because they still trumpet him as a pivotal part of the team and champion his dubious leadership qualities. Was it merely coincidence Spain's performance rapidly dropped off the moment Luis Aragones restored Raul to the starting lineup? A completely innocuous performance against France in the second round would suggest not.
5. Michael Ballack, M, Germany The stage seemed set for Ballack to make his mark. A German team playing at home, playing above expectations and with a new attacking mind-set built around him. Unfortunately, Ballack was plagued by injuries throughout the tournament, although he gamely soldiered on. But truth be told, he failed to have much of an impact.
Five Most Disappointing Teams
1. Brazil A team that had been touted as the most offensively gifted lineup the Selecao had fielded since the 1982 edition, this team turned instead into the biggest flop of the World Cup. Aside from the second half against Japan, Brazil failed to re-create the beautiful style it is famed for. There are a variety of reasons they disappointed -- coach Carlos Alberto Parreira's insistent meddling with lineup combinations, poor play by past-their-prime wingbacks (Cafu and Roberto Carlos) and a general lack of urgency from many of the team's biggest stars.
2. England On paper, this was possibly the finest English team since 1970. In reality, it was one of the dullest English teams to appear in the World Cup in recent times. Obviously the pre-tournament injuries to key strikers Wayne Rooney and Michael Owen, which left both less than 100 percent, didn't help, but neither did coach Sven-Goran Ericksson's insistence the team play long-ball style with lots of aimless punts in the direction of the gangly Peter Crouch. The only time the English team looked inventive and not one-dimensional was when the criminally underused Aaron Lennon took the field.
4. United States No American team had ever entered the World Cup with such a high profile and fanfare. However, the U.S. failed to come close to living up to the hype. The group draw didn't help matters, but other than the inspired performance against Italy, the U.S. disappointed fans by its listlessness and poor technical skill in defeats against the Czechs and Ghana. For a nation that had hoped to validate its soccer pedigree after the '02 run, this was by all accounts a miserable failure.
5. Czech Republic On the heels of its explosive Euro 2004 performance, great things were expected from the Czechs. However, a litany of injuries to key players (Vladimir Smicer, Milan Baros, Jan Koller) left a thin squad shorthanded for its group games. Matters weren't helped by midfielder Karel Poborsky finally showing his age, and even strong individual showings by Pavel Nedved and goalkeeper Petr Cech weren't enough to mask this team's deficiencies.
Five Ways to Improve the World Cup
1. Discontinue the penalty shootout. No one likes to see a game decided on penalty kicks. It's about time FIFA came up with a more imaginative way to settle ties. Here's one crazy suggestion: Play overtime until one team scores, but with a twist -- force the coaches to take off one player every two minutes, up to a maximum of six players. Five-on-five on a full-sized pitch -- at some point someone's bound to score.
2. Seed all 32 teams from top to bottom. This would at least make for some semblance of a balanced draw for the opening group stage, and would avoid situations where some teams face a "Group of Death," whereas other teams face a far easier draw.
3. Add another field referee. Given the pace of today's game and the fact half the time key decisions are made by referees trailing the action by 20 to 30 yards, it's about time FIFA wised up and added another referee. Each referee would have the responsibility of one half of the field. Also, it's time FIFA just picked the best referees instead of feeling obligated to choose by geographic regional representation.
4. Instant replay. Even the best referees blunder when making game-turning penalty decisions. It's time to institute instant replay to analyze every penalty decision that's awarded. Instant replay should only be allowed with a caveat, though -- when the video gives conclusive evidence that the original decision was erroneous.
5. Crack down on diving and cheating. There's no real way to catch every single dive on the field, but there's been an abundance of cheating going on in this World Cup, which has hurt the sport. FIFA needs to have a video panel of referees watch games after the fact and issue fines and postmatch cards for players found guilty of pure play-acting. (Thierry Henry's masterpiece dive clutching his face against Spain despite no contact would be a prime example.)
Five Memorable Quotes
1. Till death do us part.
"I'm not married to David Beckham -- I'm not even engaged to him."
England coach Sven-Goran Eriksson denies giving his captain preferential choice in the England starting lineup, even when on-field performance indicated England might have been better served with Aaron Lennon at right midfield instead.
2. United we stand.
"We have agreed we will take fishing rods to hunt these frogs."
Ukraine central defender Vladislav Vashchyuk offers a novel excuse for his team's woeful display against Spain, complaining that frogs were disturbing the team's sleep at their lakeside hotel in Potsdam. Still, at least they didn't point fingers at each other the way certain members of the U.S. team did after its opening loss to the Czech Republic.
3. The perfect regimen.
"I have sex, although not much lately, and I sleep a lot. I don't smoke and I don't drink alcohol -- though I do drink Coca-Cola. Can I say that?"
Italian captain Fabio Cannavaro reveals how he maintains his physical condition. If only all players had it so good.
4. Fat or fiction?
"The lads were surprised at the size of Ronaldo -- he looked tubby."
Lloyd Owusu of Ghana (who missed the World Cup because of injury) and his teammates were unimpressed with the Brazilian star's conditioning.
5. Don't judge a book by its cover.
"Kasey Keller is a very educated man -- he wears spectacles off the pitch."
English TV commentator John Helm was impressed by Keller's intellect during the Italy-USA game.
The all-tournament team reflects the preponderance of the 4-5-1 throughout the World Cup and the lack of great play from strikers in general:
GK: Gianluigi Buffon, Italy
Buffon actually didn't have that much to do throughout the tournament, although when he was needed, he came up huge. His saves against Lukas Podolski in the semifinal and Zidane in the overtime period of the final were memorable.
RB: Gianluca Zambrotta, Italy
This was a tossup between Zambrotta and Miguel of Portugal, but Zambrotta gets the nod. His attacking play down both flanks gave the Azzurri an attacking dimension that was lacking in the past.
This was a no-brainer, as Italy's defensive lynchpin was unequivocally the best player in the tournament.
CB: Lilian Thuram, France
Once the world's best right-back for France, Thuram is now employed in the center back role on the international stage. Thuram oozes sheer class at either spot and was one of the primary reasons for France's stinginess on D.
LB: Fabio Grosso, Italy
Grosso gets strong competition here from Philip Lahm of Germany, but for his superb play in general and match-winning moments, Grosso gets the slight edge.
M: Maniche, Portugal
One of the driving forces behind Portugal's run, Maniche is a genuine two-way midfielder who offers strong defensive versatility while offering a threat to score. In fact, he's one of the few Portuguese players who looked to take a shot with the game on the line.
M: Michael Essien, Ghana
Essien reminded everyone why Chelsea paid such an astronomical fee to buy him from Lyon. Those who had seen him only in a defensive midfield role at club level in the English Premiership will have been shocked to see the way Essien powered forward offensively and controlled the middle of the field.
M: Andrea Pirlo, Italy
Displaying sheer class all tournament long, Pirlo showed great technical quality and creativity. Not your traditional playmaker, Pirlo prefers to operate in a deep-lying role but provides a unique link from the defense to the midfield. His setpiece delivery was critical for Italy throughout the tournament.
M: Arjen Robben, Holland
The Dutch were disappointing but one player who looked lively throughout was Robben, who virtually won the game against Serbia and Montenegro single-handedly. Ironically that performance earned him only criticism from his teammates for ball-hogging. Robben edges Ghana's electric Sulley Muntari, who also impressed with his guile in midfield.
M: Zinedine Zidane, France
Zidane's image will be tarnished forever by the infamous headbutt, but that aside, he put to rest the theory that he was finished as a player. While not the force day in and day out that he was when younger, Zidane still had enough in the tank to dominate in spurts. He drove the French past Brazil and only a superb save by Buffon kept him from repeating his two-goal heroics in a World Cup final in 2006.
F: Miroslav Klose, Germany
In a World Cup devoid of great striker performances, Klose is the choice. By spreading his goals evenly throughout, Klose also shed criticism that his '02 tally was the sole result of feasting on weak opposition. Fernando Torres of Spain and Klose's strike partner Lukas Podolski of Germany gain honorable mentions.
Coach: Jürgen Klinsmann, Germany
He defied his critics and implemented his own training regimen and went with youth over veterans. He also cultivated an attacking mind-set and coaxed a German team with far less talent compared to previous generations to a stunning third-place finish.
Jen Chang is the U.S. editor for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org