PLAYER OF THE DECADE: Zinedine Zidane, FranceZizou gets our Player of the Decade nod, barely beating out Ronaldinho, who also won two World Player of the Year awards this decade but didn't have anything approaching Zidane's longevity at the top of the global game. No player since Diego Maradona has provided as much joy to viewers who love the artistry of soccer. Case in point: France's stunning upset of Brazil in the 2006 World Cup quarterfinals, in which Zidane rediscovered his mojo on the game's biggest stage. (Bonus points for scoring the greatest goal of the decade in the 2002 Champions League final against Bayer Leverkusen.)
Click here for World Soccer's nod for Player of the Decade
BEST MANAGER: Guus HiddinkIn Guus We Trust: That's the slogan that has defined Hiddink, who overachieved with so many teams this decade, at both club and national-team level, that it was easy to lose count. There was South Korea (World Cup '02 semifinalist), Australia (World Cup '06 second round), Russia (Euro 2008 semifinalist), PSV Eindhoven ('05 Champions League semifinalist) and Chelsea ('09 Champions League semifinalist). Hiddink may not have qualified Russia for the 2010 World Cup, but he will be in demand everywhere the game is played.
Click here for Grant Wahl's complete All-Decade team
Click here for Soccer America's MLS All-Decade team
BEST WORLD CUP GAME: USA 3, Portugal 2 in 2002If you weren't from this part of the world, you'd probably come up with other choices here, such as Brazil's 2-1 win over England in the '02 quarterfinals, Argentina's 2-1 extra-time victory over Mexico in the '06 second round, Germany's thrilling quarterfinal victory over Argentina in '06 or Italy's 2-0 win over Germany in the '06 semis. But I'm going with the U.S.' upset special over Portugal for a few reasons: 1) The U.S.' early 3-0 lead was absolutely stunning (and deserved), 2) Portugal gave it drama by striking back twice, 3) both teams actually played well, and 4) it set the stage for the Americans' run to the quarterfinals, easily the most impressive World Cup performance in U.S. men's history.
BEST NON-WORLD CUP GAME: Liverpool beats AC Milan, 2005 Champions League finalIt seemed like an insurmountable advantage when Milan took a 3-0 lead that night in Istanbul. But soccer is an unpredictable game, and Liverpool proceeded to make history, scoring three unanswered goals before prevailing on penalties. Easily one of the greatest games in the history of the sport.
BEST NATIONAL TEAM: BrazilIt may not feature the no-holds-barred attacking of its glorious teams in the 1960s and '70s, but Brazil was still the gold standard of world soccer in the first decade of the 21st century. Paced by the remarkable comeback of Ronaldo, Brazil won its fifth World Cup in 2002, and while the yellow-jerseyed magicians crapped out in the quarters in '06, they also managed to win two Confederations Cup titles (in 2005 and '09) and two Copa América crowns (in 2004 and '07). It would be nice if current coach Dunga abandoned his two-defensive-midfielder approach, but why would he? After all, Brazil is the odds-on favorite to win the 2010 World Cup.
BEST CLUB TEAM: Manchester UnitedSir Alex Ferguson's magisterial outfit won only one Champions League title in this decade, but those six English Premier League crowns are easily enough to be recognized as the team of the decade. What's remarkable about Ferguson is his ability not just to spot talent (Cristiano Ronaldo, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Nemanja Vidic) but also to know when to discard it (David Beckham, van Nistelrooy, Ronaldo). Does anyone doubt that Ferguson will be able to reinvent this team again?
CINDERELLA: South Korea, 2002The South Koreans had never won a World Cup game until co-hosting the '02 tournament, but they made up for that in a hurry. the Reds won their first-round group and took down European powerhouses Italy and Spain to reach the semifinals. Soccer fever gripped the Korean peninsula, and even if there will always be questions about the refereeing in the Spain and Italy games, the South Koreans' march to the final four of global soccer (where they finally fell to Germany) was a sight to behold.
BIGGEST OVERACHIEVER: Greece, '04 European championThe European Championship is considered by most pundits to be the highest-quality soccer tournament in the world (the World Cup has too many also-rans), which makes the Greeks' out-of-nowhere triumph even more stunning. Coached by a stubborn German (Otto Rehhagel) who favored stifling defenses over entertainment, Greece took out France, the Czech Republic and host Portugal in the knockout rounds to book its place in sports history. At the '04 Olympics in Athens, you got the sense that the Greeks were prouder of their soccer championship than of hosting the Games.
BIGGEST UNDERACHIEVER: ArgentinaThe magnificently talented Albicelestes may have won World Cups in 1978 and '86, but this decade has been one long disaster. Favored by many to win the World Cup before both the '02 and '06 events, the Argentines went out in the first round in '02 and in the quarterfinals in '06 (on penalties to Germany). Nor could Argentina even manage a triumph in the Copa América (losing in the final to Brazil in both 2004 and '07) or in the Confederations Cup (losing to Brazil in the '05 final). Has one of the world's great soccer countries forgotten how to raise a trophy?
BIGGEST CONTROVERSY: Italian soccer scandalThe corruption in Italian soccer was deep-seated in the mid-2000s, but no Serie A club was shadier than Juventus, which was demoted to Serie B in '06 after its director Luciano Moggi was found to have manipulated the assignments of referees for Serie A games. Juve earned its way back to Serie A for the following season, but the scandal caused dozens of players to change teams and left a bitter aftertaste that continues to haunt the Italian club game, which is a shadow of what it was a decade ago.
HOTTEST FEUD: Landon Donovan-David Beckham, Los Angeles Galaxy (2009)It isn't often that the two biggest stars of a team get into a public war of words, but that's exactly what happened when Donovan questioned Beckham's leadership, effort and commitment in the book The Beckham Experiment. In his European career, Beckham had never been called out so directly by one of his teammates. Donovan and Beckham eventually patched up their differences, Donovan apologizing for the way his comments were delivered if not for their content. The Galaxy would go on to rebound and reach the MLS Cup final, and even the commissioner of MLS would say that the publicity surrounding the feud had been good for the league.
SIGNATURE PLAY: Zidane's pirouetteThe greatest soccer player since Maradona could do many things with unparalleled aesthetic grace, but none more so than the maneuver in which a moving Zizou would place his toe onto the ball, turn and pivot in one fluid motion to skin an unsuspecting defender. Zidane's move combined the spatial awareness of Michael Jordan with the artistry of Rudolf Nureyev. No one today does it like Zizou did.
UNDER-THE-RADAR STORY: The MLS players' lawsuit (2000)In late 2000, a federal court in Boston ruled that Major League Soccer's single-entity structure was legal, finding for the league owners in a lawsuit brought by the MLS players with the help of the NFL Players Association. The players claimed that MLS was an illegal monopoly designed to rein in spending on players, but the court found otherwise, creating a precedent that may eventually be followed in other leagues around the world. As European leagues seek to rein in costs, they may try to follow MLS' example, if not by becoming single-entity businesses but at least by instituting hard salary caps.
BIGGEST MELTDOWN: Zinedine Zidane, FranceIn the final game of his remarkable career, minutes away from perhaps winning his second World Cup, Zidane did the unthinkable. After a garden-variety verbal exchange with Italian defender Marco Materazzi, Zidane turned and head-butted his foe in the chest with so much force that it knocked Materazzi onto his back. It was an obvious red card. Italy would go on to win the trophy on penalties, and Zidane would leave us wondering how on earth he could have lost his composure, leaving such an indelible final image.
BEST TRASH TALKER: Marco Materazzi, ItalyNot many trash-talkers are so convincing that their words can provoke targets to respond with physical brutality. Dennis Rodman was one who could, but so is Materazzi, who delivered his mot juste to Zidane with such conviction ("I'd rather have your sister") that the Frenchman lost his mind. Love the Matrix or hate him, but you have to respect the fact that he knew how to sell the line.
MOST INSPIRATIONAL STORY: U.S. women's team, 2008 Olympic gold medalYou could have forgiven the U.S. women for thinking their chances of winning gold in China were dashed when leading scorer Abby Wambach -- by far the team's most dangerous attacking threat -- broke her leg on the eve of the tournament. But the Americans bounced back from an opening-game loss to Norway and went on a stunning run to win the tournament, knocking off heavily favored Brazil in the final. The star of the game was goalkeeper Hope Solo -- the same Solo who'd been involved in the team's greatest controversy after being benched for the '07 World Cup semifinal, a 4-0 loss to the same Brazilians. The lesson? Perseverance pays off.
BIGGEST VILLAIN: Cuauhtémoc Blanco, MexicoThe old string-puller for El Tri is the kind of cartoon villain you love to hate. A tireless instigator whose job is to get inside his opponents' heads, Blanco will do whatever it takes: diving, elbowing, kicking and even standing over his foes with theatrical bravado. That he still has the skills to win games makes him all the more maddening (unless he's on your team).
PYRRHIC VICTORY: France vs. Ireland, 2009The historical record will show that France prevailed in its World Cup 2010 qualifying playoff against Ireland by an aggregate score of 2-1. But anyone who saw Thierry Henry's blatant hand ball on France's decisive extra-time goal will know that les Bleus and Henry lost far more than they won in this game. When the whistle blows on France's opening game in South Africa next summer, les Bleus and their biggest star will be playing without the world's respect.
BEST CLUB RIVALRY: Manchester United vs. ArsenalThe venom going back and forth between United and Arsenal in the mid-2000s was often just as entertaining as the majestic games themselves. Both teams won multiple Premiership titles this decade, and Arsenal's undefeated 2003-04 season remains the league's greatest achievement of the past 10 years. Best of all, the constant sniping between Ferguson and Arsène Wenger is guaranteed to add a storyline to the pre- and postgame festivities.
BEST NATIONAL-TEAM RIVALRY: France vs. ItalyEven if we can't count the '98 World Cup quarterfinal, in which France outlasted Italy on penalties, les Bleus and the Azzurri engaged in two of the most memorable big games of all time this decade. In the Euro 2000 final, Italy was seconds away from winning 1-0 in Rotterdam when Sylvain Wiltord's last-ditch goal sent the game into extra time. David Trézéguet's golden goal gave France a 2-1 win and made les Bleus the first team to hold the World Cup and European Championship trophies at the same time since West Germany in '74. The tables turned, though, in the '06 World Cup final, when Italy came from behind to tie the game, then profited from Zidane's legendary ejection to prevail on penalties.
OUTSIZED PERSONALITY: José MourinhoEven before he dubbed himself "the Special One," Mourinho had established himself as the new standard bearer for highly quotable, wildly arrogant and undeniably successful soccer coaches worldwide. Knocking off Manchester United and going on to win the Champions League in '04 with small-market FC Porto gave Mourinho a launchpad and a soapbox, and he did not hesitate to use both, whether he was leading Chelsea to two Premier League titles (and filling the pages of the British tabloids) or guiding Inter Milan to back-to-back Scudettos (and causing even the pink pages of La Gazzetta dello Sport to blush).
BEST INNOVATIONHigh-definition soccer broadcasts. Soccer is all about creating and maximizing space, and HD broadcasts are a revolutionary advance in presenting those spatial relationships to soccer-addled viewers worldwide. No sport improves more in HD than soccer does. It's that simple.
WORST INNOVATION: Tinkering with the ballBefore every World Cup we hear from the maker of the official ball that the newest version represents some revolutionary technological advance that will change the game forever. Just as predictably, goalkeepers will hate the new ball, which they say knuckles and acts unnaturally. What's the point? Find a ball design, stick with it, end of story.
BIGGEST NEAR-MISS: Torsten Frings' uncalled penaltyIt's the great what-if question of American soccer: What if Frings' obvious goal-line handball had been deemed a penalty by referee Hugh Dallas in the second half of the U.S.' taut World Cup quarterfinal against Germany in '02? Well, let's see: The U.S. probably would have tied the score at 1-1 on the ensuing spot kick, and the Yanks could have taken control of the game with the man advantage that would have resulted from Frings' ejection. Had the U.S. won the game, in which it outplayed Germany, it would have set up a semifinal matchup with South Korea, a team the Americans had beaten and tied before. Long story short: If Frings's handball is called, it's not hard to imagine the U.S. playing in the '02 World Cup final against Brazil.
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