Highs and lows from the World Cup

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An unpredictable tournament was, in the end, won by the favorite, when Spain emerged from a brawl of a final against the Netherlands clutching the prize. Spain becomes only the third nation to win the World Cup while holding the European title (the others being West Germany and France) and the first to triumph in the final after losing its first match. Spain's occasionally explosive but predominantly neat and composed soccer produces unfathomably flawless statistics. The trophy rewarded its loyalty to that approach regardless of its reception elsewhere around the globe and in the face of a violent final.

The Netherlands, has raged at the referee's handling of Sunday's match, in which the Oranje saw nine yellow cards and one red, but its two midfield enforcers could both have been sent off before halftime, and probably would have been in a less important match. Dirk Kuyt has publicly railed against the referee, but most of his teammates acknowledged that Spain had been the better team. The Netherlands' reputation has taken something of a nosedive in the eyes of many neutrals, but will not suffer for reaching a first final since 1978.

On Saturday, the Germans made certain of a European sweep of the top three spots, a result that had looked incredibly unlikely midway through the tournament. Embroiled in scandal from the moment they stepped off the plane, the French at least laid down their farcical exit as a crash mat when Italy later hit bottom. Having squeaked through qualifying, Portugal only really roused itself against North Korea, while England proved that qualifying strongly doesn't always mean much. Denmark was knocked off its stride by an effervescent Japanese side and even Spain lost to Switzerland.

While the harbingers of Eurodoom solemnly rang their bells, the Central and South Americans made hay. Uruguay, Argentina, Mexico, Brazil, Chile and Paraguay all emerged from the group stage playing, for the most part, the tournament's most adventurous football. A maximum of four could survive the round of 16, since Chile and Mexico faced Brazil and Argentina, respectively, and all four duly went through. Doo-oom! tolled the bells. Doo-oom!

But as quickly as the storm clouds had gathered over Europe, they dispersed. The Netherlands forced Brazil into a calamitous second-half capitulation and Spain refused to share the ball with Paraguay. Argentina was poleaxed by a Germany side that picked up where it had left off against England. Had Uruguay not (literally) snatched victory from Ghana in the 121st minute, South America would have been cut from the fixture list entirely.

The near-absence of African nations from the knockout stages bucked the trend of unpredictability. Ivory Coast's labored efforts mirrored those of talismanic striker Didier Drogba, while Cameroon and Nigeria were hamstrung by mismanagement and ill-discipline, respectively. Algeria showed limited ambitions, quite the opposite of the host nation, but the result was much the same. Only Ghana hurtled full speed toward the latter stages -- taking out the U.S.' gallant, if slightly self-destructive, campaign along the way.

But Africa's first World Cup has been, by all accounts, a barnstorming success, despite the rampant skepticism that marked the build-up to South Africa 2010. The fate that befell Togo's squad at January's African Cup of Nations seemed only to confirm the worst fears about security surrounding an event like this -- even Archbishop Desmond Tutu said earlier this year: "We are prisoners in our homes. ... You read something horrific almost every day."

Not only has the tournament passed with relatively little crime (about 100 people have been charged with low-level offenses), but it also has become the third-best-attended World Cup. Though some of the fields have struggled to stand up to the schedule and there have been some problems for fans traveling between cities, the stadiums, which many feared would not be ready, have been excellent.

"The atmosphere was incredible," German Chancellor Angela Merkel said. "South Africa should be really proud of themselves. ... They've gained the respect of the whole world. It's been a huge victory for the people of South Africa."

FIFA's Technical Study Group might have seen fit to restrict him to the Young Player category, but it's absurd to have a conversation about the tournament's best players without including Germany's Thomas Müller. Having made his international debut in March, he still has only eight caps. But Müller was fundamental to the manner of Germany's play in South Africa: always moving, comfortable on the ball and reassuringly direct. With five goals and three assists, he won the Golden Shoe ahead of David Villa, Wesley Sneijder and Diego Forlan.

Forlan was voted the official player of the tournament and he was indeed impressive -- his mastery of the supposedly uncontrollable Jabulani ball was sublime. As was Xavi's -- even before the final, the Barcelona midfielder had crafted 25 goal-scoring opportunities for his teammates and completed 90 percent of the 563 passes he'd made. Müller will be the player I remember from this tournament, but Xavi was quietly brilliant.

A number of star players didn't perform in South Africa, including Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and (an injured) Drogba, while Kaka fizzed only in fits and starts.

But goalkeepers were the most regular occupants of this spot, starting with England's Robert Green. His butterfingered swipe at Clint Dempsey's speculative shot gifted the U.S. a crucial point on the second day of the tournament, and he swiftly passed the baton (managing, miraculously, not to drop it) to Algeria's Faouzi Chaouchi, who completely misjudged a tame Robert Koren effort to present Slovakia with three points.

Claudio Bravo of Chile stained his record with a hair-brained race out of goal against Spain and the otherwise excellent Samir Handanovic's eyes-shut flinch in the face of Landon Donovan's shot helped to kick-start the U.S.' recovery against Slovenia.

We can't let the strikers off scot-free, though -- not when there's Yakubu's miss from three yards for Nigeria to watch over, and over and over again.

A quick look at the 10-man Golden Ball short list will tell you that defenders have a hard time getting recognized for their contribution. So a word for a quartet of fullbacks who caught the eye during the last month: Chile's Mauricio Isla, Portugal's Fábio Coentrão, North Korea's Cha Jong-hyok and Uruguay's Jorge Fucile. Isla and Coentrão were solid in defense and stormed toward the opposition goal at every opportunity; Cha and Fucile were less effusive going forward but were crucial to their teams' resistance -- the former controlled Ronaldo in the first half against Portugal, while the latter was much missed when Uruguay took on Netherlands in the semifinal.

From a U.S. perspective -- or rather, a Brit perspective on the U.S. -- Donovan has had rather more of the attention than two players who really deserve plaudits for their performances: Tim Howard and Michael Bradley. Howard showed his ability to read the field in front of him and start attacks with a well-placed long throw or kick. Bradley produced four sterling midfield performances that impressed scouts on this side of the Atlantic.

The perfect goal is all a matter of taste, and there was something to suit most palates here. A bullet from an unfathomable angle take your fancy, sir? Try Maicon's strike against North Korea. Into back-to-front moves at lightning pace? Argentina's fourth against South Korea (a splendid Lionel Messi-Sergio Aguero-Gonzalo Higuain-Messi-Aguero-Higuain combination) should do the trick. Like to see a dead ball struck with forensic precision? Forlan's free kick against Ghana is just the fix. But my top three for the tournament would be:

3) Mesut Özil's straight-off-the-laces effort to break the deadlock against Ghana for Germany.

2) One of the only marks Italy made on the finals was Fabio Quagliarella's delightful chip over Slovakia's Jan Mucha.

1) David Villa's goal for Spain against Honduras was something special. Receiving the ball wide on the left, he squeezes between two defenders to break into area, wriggles past another and, despite falling over, sends the ball arrowing toward the far post, just evading Noel Valladares' fingertips.

The World Cup is not a uniformly happy time for coaches. A dozen of them ended the tournament circling ads in the jobs pages and there are doubts over the futures of several more. Some were already going, such as France's Raymond Domenech (though he didn't do much to suggest that was a bad thing), while some resigned, such as Cameroon's Paul le Guen. Some, such as Brazil's Dunga, were sacked after flying home. "I wanted to win, but this didn't happen," he told reporters. "What else can I say?"

It was a happier tournament for Joachim Löw, who not only steered a young Germany side to third place, attracting praise from almost everybody along the way, but also became a fashion icon. He and assistant Hansi Flick coordinated their outfits throughout the tournament, drawing a few comparisons with a reunited boy band and emptying stores in Germany of the light blue Strenesse jumper they wore under their blazers.

But no coach's corner would be complete without Diego Maradona, who was, perhaps inevitably, one of the most memorable characters of the tournament. His emotional reactions on the sideline, leaping about, cursing, praying, hugging and kissing anybody in a 6-yard radius, was a joy to behold. His press conferences were always packed with media types desperate to be there for the next gem (explaining his beard, he said: "The dog almost ate my mouth and left me a big scar"). He seems unlikely to continue as Argentina coach, but he certainly spiced up world soccer while it lasted.

"Let us keep celebrating, let the vuvuzelas keep blowing and let the football festival continue at Soccer City and the fan parks. This has been a truly inspiring, moving and uplifting month. Well done, South Africa."-- President Jacob Zuma sums up the mood in the host nation on the eve of the final.

Matches: 64 Shots: 1810 Goals: 145 Passes: 64479 Yellow cards: 245 Red cards: 17