If the World Cup final was a clash between the best team and the best individual, it was the best team that won out in the end. That might explain why this World Cup Best XI has so many German players in it. After all, this was meant to be the competition in which Neymar, Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and James Rodriguez were almost solely responsible for their teams’ success.
It did not turn out that way, and if there are any lessons to be taken from Brazil 2014, it is that the team remains the most important aspect of this beautiful sport.
Here is my Best XI (position-by-position to create a realistic team formation, not just a list of the best individuals) of the 2014 World Cup, followed by some superlative teams:
Goalkeeper: Manuel Neuer (Germany)
The Bayern Munich stopper had a few rivals for this crown, among them CONCACAF standouts Tim Howard and Guillermo Ochoa, who both put in one-game performances that defied belief, and Golden Glove finalists Keylor Navas and Sergio Romero. But for his consistency, shot-stopping (even when rarely called upon), and the sweeping that led to German publication Bild nicknaming him "a false number five," he cemented his status as the best No. 1 in the world.
Right back: Philipp Lahm (Germany)
Was it a coincidence that Germany’s midfield clicked when Lahm moved to right back against France, and Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira were paired together in the middle? Probably not, but it meant that Lahm was able to give Germany attacking width down the right against France, and, in particular, Brazil, where he destroyed Marcelo in the semifinal. Pep Guardiola says he’s the most intelligent player he’s ever coached – he’s also the best fullback in the world.
Center back: Ron Vlaar (Netherlands)
In the first game, he kept Diego Costa quiet, and in his last one, he did similar to Lionel Messi. The Aston Villa defender has been an unsung hero in Brazil, guiding a defense in which he was the only player to have more than 18 international caps to his name. The fact he missed a penalty in the semifinal shootout should not detract from a marvelous tournament.
Center back: Mats Hummels (Germany)
This could just as easily been his defensive partner, Jerome Boateng, brilliant in the final against Argentina, but Hummels came into his own in the knockout stage. He was excellent against France, scoring the winning goal but also marshaling his back line superbly. It has been a complicated journey for the former Bayern player, who was blamed for Germany’s Euro 2012 semifinal exit, but vindication has come in Brazil.
Left back: Ricardo Rodriguez (Switzerland)
The left wingback set up both goals in Switzerland’s opening-game 2-1 win over Ecuador, but throughout the tournament, he provided defensive solidity and attacking edge down the left side. He was always highly rated in Switzerland, where he was part of the Under-17 World Cup-winning side and just one year later, took the place of Swiss veteran Ludovic Magnin at FC Zurich. “He is brilliant going forward and is already one of our most important players,” admitted teammate Valon Behrami.
Defensive Midfield: Javier Mascherano (Argentina)
Messi may have donned the Argentina armband, but Mascherano was the team’s leader. We knew that before the tournament, when it was Mascherano who phoned coach Alejandro Sabella to convey the information that yes, Messi would accept the captain’s armband (which used to belong to him). And we saw it before extra time in the final, when it was Mascherano and not Messi exhorting his teammates. When Sabella started talking, Messi even walked away. Mascherano was superb in Brazil, and came up with the tournament’s best tackle, a sliding challenge on Arjen Robben which stopped a possible semifinal winner.
Defensive Midfield: Bastian Schweinsteiger (Germany)
Joachim Low said that he only played Lahm in the midfield early on in the tournament because Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira were not fully fit. By the end of the tournament, Schweinsteiger certainly was and his final performance summed up the fight and spirit of this technically gifted Germany side. Schweinsteiger timed his best games for the semifinal and final – he showed leadership when it was needed, and bravery too. This was his crowning moment.
Attacking midfield: Arjen Robben (Netherlands)
Was there a better individual performance in Brazil than Robben’s against Spain? It may have been Netherlands' first game, but it lit up the tournament on Day 2 as his two sublime goals – and there could have been a third – seemed like retribution for his miss in the final four years earlier. As the games drew on, the Dutch became more and more reliant on Robben, who won the match-winning penalty against Mexico, scored in both shootouts and came closest to breaking the deadlock against Argentina. Reports from inside the Dutch camp suggest that he was also the vocal leader that Robin van Persie was not, and he might well inherit the armband under next coach Guus Hiddink.
Attacking midfield: Toni Kroos (Germany)
Will Bayern Munich live to regret its decision to not cave in to Kroos’s contract demands and allow him to join Real Madrid? Kroos put in one of the best performances of the competition in the semifinal win against (admittedly, a woeful) Brazil but his vision, composure and dead-ball delivery, which helped Germany so much with its set-piece goals, was a crucial element of the winning side.
Attacking midfield: James Rodriguez (Colombia)
Can it really be called a breakout tournament for a player who cost AS Monaco €45 million last summer? However you see it, James made his country forget about the injured Radamel Falcao, playing with a verve and zest that embodied this Colombia side. He won the Golden Boot for top scorer and will deservedly go down in history. He also scored the best goal in Brazil – the left-footed volley against Uruguay that crashed in off the crossbar – and another beauty, his second in the win in Japan.
Forward: Thomas Muller (Germany)
The Bayern Munich forward said before the World Cup that he would rather win the final than the Golden Boot. He got his wish, but almost had both, as he finished one goal behind James (but had more assists). Still, a total of 10 goals and six assists in 13 World Cup appearances is impressive and suggests that if he stays fit, Miroslav Klose’s recently-set record of 16 World Cup goals might go soon. Does Muller get the credit he deserves?
Maybe it’s because he doesn't have a stylish haircut, or a trademarked goal celebration; or maybe it’s because he’s a nightmare to play against and not afraid to ruffle up opponents if it gains an advantage (see his role in the sending-off of Pepe against Portugal in the first group game). Either way, the general perception is that Germany’s recent preference for entertaining football has come at the expense of the mental resilience that used to be the hallmark of this side.
Muller, as German football writer Bernie Reeves put it, “is the bridge between the old and the new Germany. He is just as exciting a player as Schweinsteiger or Ozil, but he is also a throwback to the likes of Paul Breitner, Lothar Matthaus and even Franz Beckenbauer. He is exactly the type of personality this German team needs.” The throwback footballer helped his side over the line.
Goalkeeper: Keylor Navas (Costa Rica)
Defenders: Serge Aurier (Ivory Coast), Jerome Boateng (Germany), Ezequiel Garay (Argentina), Marcos Rojo (Argentina)
Midfielders: Nigel De Jong (Holland), Sami Khedira (Germany); Xherdan Shaqiri (Switzerland), Juan Cuadrado (Colombia), Lionel Messi (Argentina)
Forward: Karim Benzema (France)
PRIMED FOR BIG THINGS XI
Goalkeeper: Guillermo Ochoa (Mexico)
Defenders: DeAndre Yedlin (USA), Jose Gimenez (Uruguay), Stefan De Vrij (Netherlands), Eugenio Mena (Chile)
Midfielders: Charles Aranguiz (Chile), Hector Herrera (Mexico), Muhamed Besic (Bosnia-Herzegovina)
Forwards: Ahmed Musa (Nigeria), Enner Valencia (Ecuador), Mathew Leckie (Australia)
BIGGEST FLOPS XI
Goalkeeper: Igor Akinfeev (Russia)
Defenders: John Boye (Ghana), Pepe (Portugal), Gerard Pique (Spain), Benoit Assou-Ekotto (Cameroon)
Midfielders: Alex Song (Cameroon), Wilson Palacios (Honduras), Shinji Kagawa (Japan)
Forwards: Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal), Fred (Brazil), Diego Costa (Spain)
UNSUNG HEROES XI:
Goalkeeper: Rais M'Bolhi (Algeria)
Defenders: Paul Aguilar (Mexico), Giancarlo Gonzalez (Costa Rica), Raphael Varane (France), Daley Blind (Netherlands)
Midfielders: Andre Schurrle (Germany), Jermaine Jones (USA), Ogenyi Onazi (Nigeria), Mathieu Valbuena (France)
Forwards: Tim Cahill (Australia), Ezequiel Lavezzi (Argentina)