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Biggest flops of the World Cup

July 1, 2010
By Luke Cyphers
ESPN The Magazine

JOHANNESBURG -- You could spend hours debating who's been the standout player of the World Cup and still not come to a consensus. But on the flip side, picking the tournament's biggest flops has been, well, easy. Easier than those tap-ins Gonzalo Higuain has been getting, in fact.

Seldom have so many fallen so short of their pre-event hype. If there were a Golden Fall for biggest flop of the tournament (and no, we're not talking about you, Kader Keita), you'd go to penalty kicks to decide it. And even then, nobody would convert.

That's why Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo are tied atop our list. Nate Silver and a squadron of supercomputers still haven't calculated the final hype-to-performance ratio for the duo -- and probably won't.

That's why we're here. But first, a note on the highly scientific selection process for determining the World Cup's biggest disappointments. To make our list, a player couldn't merely fail at the World Cup. Many players do that. It's a difficult game … against the best competition in the world. Failure is part of the gig, at times a poignant part. That's why Japan's Yuichi Komano, who missed the only penalty kick in Japan's overtime loss to Paraguay, or the U.S. forwards who failed to produce a goal in four matches won't make this list. None of them is a world figure who was expected to star here.

Robert Green doesn't make it, either, because who expects an English keeper to succeed? Nor does his teammate, Dishonest John Terry, join the list. He made himself a laughingstock long before South Africa.

For inclusion here, the player needed to generate huge expectations, then fail to meet them in thoroughly memorable fashion. To use a sportscasting term of art, you had to be "special."

If nothing else, the following guys succeeded at that.

Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo

Sports history has given us the M&M Boys. These two should forever go down as the R&R Boys because both earned their teams some extended rest and relaxation with awful play.

Two of the most prolific goal-scorers in the world, co-stars of a costly sneaker-company ad campaign that goes into the same dustbin with "Dan and Dave" (if you're under 25, don't ask), Rooney and Ronaldo scored exactly one goal between them, a garbage-time effort by Ronaldo in a 7-0 rout over a self-destructing North Korea side.

Who was worse?

Initially, Rooney jumps out. He played on a much-hyped England side that barely escaped one of the easier groups in the tournament. In the second round, Germany beat the Three Lions so soundly that even the Homeric homers of the British press couldn't blame it on a disallowed goal. He and his teammates squabbled all tournament long, and Rooney went huge stretches with nary a touch. In the end, he set up fewer goals than the beleaguered U.S. forward pool.

But Rooney was part of a group failure. At least Ronaldo's team played defense the entire tournament and conceded just one goal in four matches. To win against admittedly tough opponents such as Brazil and Spain, Portugal needed Ronaldo to create chances by himself. He converted just one of his 21 shots, and he passed poorly, too, completing just 60 percent, according to FIFA stats. Compare that to the tournament's top gunner, David Villa, who in addition to converting four of 19 shots, has completed 70 percent of his passes.

Like Villa, Ronaldo is paid to score. Like Rooney, Ronaldo didn't. So, as we said, a tie. These guys couldn't even win for losing.

Fabio Cannavaro

The cornerstone of Italy's "Berlin Wall" that frustrated Zinedine Zidane and won the 2006 World Cup, Cannavaro was expected to anchor Italy's title defense. And that he did, if by "anchor" you mean prevent something from advancing.

The center back's once-spry legs couldn't keep up with anyone in Italy's group, and he and his teammates conceded three goals to juggernaut, er, Slovakia to fall out of the tournament after three matches. One lasting image of the World Cup will be Cannavaro being burned for a goal by New Zealand's Shane Smeltz.

Fabio Capello

Bad month for Fabio. The England coach and master tactician still stars on scoreboard promos here for a FIFA African health campaign, musing over a chessboard. But the celebrated coach lost control of his ego-laden squad and, in the end, was a mere pawn, overrun by Germany and outcoached by Bob Bradley.

Nicolas Anelka

The French do love a man on horseback leading them to glory. And Anelka led a revolt of a revolting Les Bleus side that will make history long after the team's three-and-out demise. He played only 118 minutes and didn't score, but that doesn't begin to account for his work rate. The French striker cursed coach Raymond Domenech, refused to apologize, gave new meaning to the term "sent off" after the coach put him on a plane home, inspired a player work stoppage and paved the way for a government investigation that could lead FIFA to throw France out of international tournaments. Truly revolutionary.

Yakubu Aiyegbeni

Google "worst miss 2010" and you'll see everything you need to know about why the Yak makes this list. Yes, it's one mistake, but what a mistake! The Nigerian striker symbolized the possibilities for Africa in this tournament -- an EPL player with the gumption and skill to make history on the home continent. Instead, the Everton man epitomized the frustrations of the African continent in the first round, with a point-blank brick in front of an open net against South Korea. If Yakubu made that, it might have put the Super Eagles through to the second round. Instead, they drew 2-2 and failed to advance.

Luke Cyphers is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.