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Jul 9, 2006

Team of the tournament

A month ago, any talk of a team of the tournament would have brought thoughts of Ronaldo and Ronaldinho, Adriano and Kaka. Not now.

The stars have come from elsewhere. With some justice, most of the outstanding individuals have come from sides who reached the semi-finals - the impressive Argentineans providing an exception - so the Soccernet team of the tournament is packed with achievers. And here it is:

Goalkeeper: Gianluigi Buffon (Italy)

What Andriy Shevchenko, Miroslav Klose, Lukas Podolski, Mark Viduka and Pavel Nedved couldn't achieve, only Christian Zaccardo and Zinedine Zidane did: beat Gianluigi Buffon.

The penalty-saving exploits of Jens Lehmann and Ricardo have been more eye-catching, but Buffon's quiet consistency and unflappable keeping under pressure have consolidated his position as the best in the world. An own goal and a penalty was all he conceded.

And though Italy's late, late show against Germany will live long in the memory, it would not have been possible without Buffon's world-class save from Podolski a few minutes earlier.

Right back: Gianluca Zambrotta (Italy)
To judge by this tournament, Gianluca Zambrotta may be one of those irritating people with a natural aptitude for everything, for the best left back in the world has also proved himself the finest right-back in the World Cup.

Judging by the incision of his attacks and his clean strike in the win against Ukraine - not to mention his younger days in a more advanced position - he is also a highly capable midfielder.

Christian Zaccardo's fallibility led to Zambrotta switching flanks and no left winger has bettered him yet while, on the overlap, as a genuinely two-footed player, he can go inside or outside his opponents with equal ease.

Centre back: Fabio Cannavaro (Italy)
Immaculate and impeccable, there are few superlatives that suffice in describing Fabio Cannavaro's World Cup. The Neapolitan had called for a return to old-school Italian defending, yet never required the recourse to the underhand himself; it is an indication of his excellence that, in a tournament that has seen in an upsurge in yellow cards, he was not booked.

Although his alliance with Alessandro Nesta has stood the test of time, it is a sign of Cannavaro's class that he has had four different central defensive partners - including Gennaro Gattuso in a makeshift role after Marco Materazzi's dismissal against Australia - and remained as unflustered.

The world's best defender in the World Cup's best defence, and the player of the tournament.

Centre back: Lilian Thuram (France)
None acquitted themselves with as much quiet dignity in the French cause.

Lilian Thuram returned from international retirement to justify Raymond Domenech's request and excel in a French defence that conceded only three times in the World Cup. A perfect tackle on Luca Toni in the final provided an illustration of his quality: wonderful athleticism matched by the judgment all outstanding central defenders possess.

Left back: Philipp Lahm (Germany)
From a German perspective, he set the tone for the entire tournament after six minutes when, cutting in from the left flank, his unstoppable shot nestled in the Costa Rican net for the first goal of the competition.

Philipp Lahm certainly set his own stall out; he spent much of the subsequent six matches going forward, establishing himself as the tournament's best attacking left-back in the process.

A key component of Jurgen Klinsmann's more youthful, progressive German side, at 22 his best is yet to come.

Defensive midfielder: Andrea Pirlo (Italy)

Demonstrably unique, Andrea Pirlo brings a refinement and a timeless class to his duties at the base of the Italian midfield.

His craft and clear-headed approach were still apparent deep in extra time against Germany with the clever reverse ball to enable Fabio Grosso to open the scoring. His set-piece expertise was in evidence throughout the final, with the curling corners France could not defend, and the magnificent penalty in the shootout.

Fabio Cannavaro's only serious rival for the title of Italy's player of the tournament, Pirlo may have acted as the most elegant of assassins of hatchet men everywhere; the quest is surely on to find more who prioritise passing to shield the back four.

Central midfielder: Gennaro Gattuso (Italy)
It is a partnership of opposites. Gennaro Gattuso provides the snarl to complement Andrea Pirlo's style. Despite obvious differences, the pair dovetailed superbly in perhaps the best midfield of the competition.

Gattuso's fierce competitiveness ensured an awkward afternoon or evening for all opponents and, though his standards never slipped, it is testament to his stamina and spirit that he was arguably at his finest when they were reduced to 10 men. With Gattuso absolutely indefatigable, Italy owed much to the midfield axis from Milan.

Central midfielder: Patrick Vieira (France)
For Patrick Vieira, read France; deeply average to begin with and then, in the matches that mattered, a force to be reckoned with.

Vieira's personal renaissance started against Togo, but it was more apparent in the knockout stages when he rediscovered his old understanding with Zinedine Zidane and grew to appreciate the cover Claude Makelele provided.

Two vital goals were testament to his new-found enthusiasm for barnstorming forward runs while defensively, Vieira continued to present a huge obstacle to opponents; it is notable that Ronaldinho, Kaka, Deco, Cesc Fabregas and Raul made little headway against the French. And had he not been injured in the final, would France have won the World Cup?

Attacking midfielder: Zinedine Zidane (France)
It was the saddest of finales, a career and a World Cup final curtailed by the most senseless of headbutts. And yet, before then, Zinedine Zidane had welcomed us to the past. Such are his gifts that few things seemed beyond him. Time-travel, however, was assuredly one. Or was it?

Because Zidane, for two games, transported us back to Euro 2000; Spain and Brazil were on the receiving end of the greatest individual performances of the World Cup though, in years to come, they may be grateful for a last sight of Zidane's sorcery. Who else would have the cheek to chip a penalty in the final? And who else, sadly, would have the idiocy to tarnish his legacy so needlessly?

Striker: Miroslav Klose (Germany)
There has long been a temptation to damn Miroslav Klose with faint praise; in 2002, his World Cup goals were all headers, four of them against an incompetent Saudi side.

Now he has matured into a much more complete striker, becoming the senior partner in a promising alliance with prodigy Lukas Podolski.

Five rather different goals are testimony to his improvement and an invaluable equaliser against Argentina took Germany somewhere they never imagined they would be: the semi-finals of the World Cup.

Striker: Fernando Torres (Spain)
As they do every four years, Spain can reflect on what went wrong at the World Cup.

Unusually, they can also ponder what went right. Fernando Torres will top that list, scoring three goals in his four World Cup games. The first was an absolute beauty, a rasping volley to complete a superb move.

His burgeoning alliance with David Villa helped the sense that a much-touted talent is developing into a world-class player.


And if they need some opposition, how about, the second-best XI of the tournament?

(Playing 4-1-4-1): Lehmann (Germany); Sagnol (France), Carvalho (Portugal), Ayala (Argentina), Grosso (Italy); Mascherano (Argentina); Rodriguez (Argentina), Ballack (Germany), Riquelme (Argentina), Ronaldo (Portugal); Henry (France).

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