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By ESPN Staff

Defenders shine as stars fail to dazzle

BERLIN, July 10 (Reuters) - In the age of instant celebrity, the 2006 World Cup finals failed to deliver an individual star who outshone the rest.

There was no one of the calibre of Pele, Paolo Rossi, Diego Maradona or Ronaldo to steal the headlines with audacious skills or inspired acts.

Instead, this World Cup produced excellent teams built on solid defences, industrious midfields and attacks capable of punishing mistakes.

France captain Zinedine Zidane, who ended his career in shame after being sent off in the final, only flickered and flashed at his best after two mediocre games and a suspension.

Others, like Germany striker Miroslav Klose, Italy midfielder Andrea Pirlo and Portugal's midfielder Maniche shone, too, but not with the dazzling durability that lifted them above the rest.

With no new individuals arriving on the greatest stage to demonstrate exceptional creative or attacking talent, it was a World Cup for defenders to prove their value.

Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, his captain and central defender Fabio Cannavaro, who won his 100th cap in Sunday's final against France, and right back Gianluca Zambrotta were all impeccable performers.

So, too, was Pirlo, whose rare mixture of industry, subtlety and vision stimulated Italy's attacking play, and his midfield 'minder' Gennaro Gattuso.

Pirlo's pass for left back Fabio Grosso to open the scoring against Germany in their semi-final was a masterly example of selflessness and intelligence, and he produced another fine display to be named man-of-the-match in the final.

France had Zidane, whose array of feints, flicks and tricks caught the eye against Spain and Brazil particularly, but they also had major influences in central defender Lilian Thuram, midfielder Patrick Vieira and Franck Ribery, the young winger whose darting sprints turned French defence into attack.

Of the rest, German Philipp Lahm confirmed himself as a world-class left back, the Netherlands left winger Arjen Robben rose, dazzled and fell away like his team and Argentina's midfielder Maxi Rodriguez shot himself to fame with his performance against Serbia & Montenegro and his superb winning volley against Mexico.

Robinho's marvellous outing for Brazil against Japan promised great things to come, but he was not selected to start again and Harry Kewell's late equaliser against Croatia, for Australia, made sure not only that the Socceroos went through to the second round, but that he remains a star Down Under.

But the greatest performers, arguably, were three goalkeepers - Buffon, whose authority and ability defied Andriy Shevchenko's Ukraine, Jens Lehmann whose penalty saves against Argentina carried Germany through to the last four and Portugal's Ricardo, who did the same to eliminate England and carry his team into the semi-finals for the first time in 40 years.