The World Cup's best starting 11
In theory, has there ever been a World Cup in which picking a Not Quite All-Tournament Team (NQATT) should have been easier? The only challenge was to find a formation that would incorporate Messi, Rooney and Torres up front and Kaka, Ronaldo and Ribery in midfield. But then they actually played the games.
Despite all the glossy, megamillion-dollar ad campaigns -- when Nike said, "Write the future," perhaps it meant 2014 -- many of the world's elite players sank to the occasion in South Africa, opening the door for the lesser-known names to show that you don't have to make $250,000 a week and own a fleet of Lamborghinis to strut your talent on the big stage.
So for now -- before the semifinals kick off and change everything -- we salute the guys behind the guys, because let's face it, it might be back to normal in four years.
Goalkeeper -- Maarten Stekelenburg, Netherlands
It's doubtful that the 2010 World Cup will go down as the Year of the Goalkeepers. Whether it was the unpredictable aerodynamics of the Jabulani or simply poor technique, no keeper threatened to enter the goalkeeping pantheon of Lev Yashin, Gordon Banks and Gianluigi Buffon.
Without Mark Paston's heroic efforts, New Zealand would probably have remained a soccer punch line rather than shocking the world by finishing off Italy in their group. Ghana's Richard Kingson, who could hardly get a game for Wigan Athletic in the EPL, gave a Man of the Match performance against the U.S. Portugal's Eduardo commanded one of the tightest World Cup defenses in 2010, though he learned a painful lesson in the knockout-round showdown with Spain: Never give David Villa a second scoring chance inside the 6-yard box.
And so our last man standing (or, in this case, diving) is Maarten Stekelenburg, the 6-foot-5 Dutch keeper whose last name aptly translates into "prickly mountain." The successor to the iconic Edwin van der Sar produced a string of life-saving stops in the knockout rounds, not least the instinctive double-save against Slovakia and the full-stretch acrobatic lunge to turn Kaka's curler around the post that would have given Brazil a 2-0 lead and sent the Dutch on an early vacation.
With so few goals being scored this tournament (except by Germans) you could fill an entire NQATT with defenders. Did anyone put his body on the line more than New Zealand captain and spiritual leader Ryan Nelsen, who, at 32, managed to close down much younger, faster opponents while inspiring the Kiwis to three well-earned draws?
Paraguay's Antolin Alcaraz played lockdown defense so well they should name a prison after him. Only the Spanish assassin Villa was able to escape from Alcaraz long enough to win a PK off him in the quarterfinals.
Before the tournament, Portugal's Fabio Coentrao looked to be the left-side answer to Brazil's Maicon, a big attacking fullback who made surging runs up and down the flank. But against Spain, when his team needed him the most, he was lulled into a siesta.
The real defensive stars of this tournament, the ones who make the NQATT, played with speed, stamina, power and a set of titanium Jabulanis. Philipp Lahm, at only 25 years old, assumed the captaincy from the injured warhorse Michael Ballack and epitomized the adventurous spirit of this young German side, marauding down the right flank to whip in lethal crosses for Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski to pounce on.
Until he was injured in the Ghana game, Diego Lugano had been the rock of the Charruas defense, anchoring a rearguard that didn't concede a goal in the group stage. John Mensah was a genius in the back for Ghana, doing the dirty work with muscular style, and it is a testament to his dogged efforts that he makes the cut despite missing his penalty in the Uruguay shootout that could have pushed the Black Stars straight into World Cup folklore.
And though Maicon faltered against the Dutch, his Issac Newton-defying strike against North Korea, coupled with his ever-dangerous raids down the right side, still made him one of the most formidable defenders in this tournament.
Where are the heirs to the elegant midfield maestros of the past -- Cryuff, Platini, Zidane -- who were able to dictate the rhythm of the game and orchestrate the attack to perfection? Out of the tournament, alas. Neither Messi nor Kaka was able to imprint his talent on the World Cup, both finding themselves stifled by the less glamorous players who win balls and games with their strength and stamina.
Only Xavi Hernandez remains, but even the world's best pure passer has not carved his initials into games like he does with Barcelona. With the exception of a couple of sweet back-heel flicks that freed Villa to score against Chile and Paraguay, Xavi has not been the midfield deity we've seen in La Liga and Champions League. Forced to play deeper than he's used to, he has been harried out of possession by swarming defensive midfielders who deny him time and space on the ball.
Speaking of which, the Dutch boast a pair of tireless, tough midfielders in Nigel De Jong and Mark Van Bommel, who are known for their ankle-rearranging tackles. This NQATT is long on skill and short on mayhem, so they're left out. And then there's their teammate Arjen Robbin, who when the tournament ends should consider retiring from soccer and auditioning for the roles Anjelina Jolie isn't tough enough for. This drama queen can writhe on the ground in faux agony all he wants, but he's still not making my NQATT.
Before the tournament began, Landon Donovan was another player I thought of as a diva, but with three goals heard 'round the world (which now includes America), he's shown why he's considered the greatest U.S. player of all time, not including Mia Hamm. But as Donovan knows, winning counts for something. Had the U.S. beaten Ghana, he'd be on the NQATT. As it stands, he'll have to settle for a hug from Bill Clinton and all the new sponsors he's about to pick up.
The rise of Germany's Mesut Ozil has been one of the feel-good stories of the tournament, but unfortunately for him, two of his fellow midfielders -- Bastian Schweinsteiger and Thomas Muller -- have been far more instrumental in the team's stunning success. Schweini has been Der Mann in Germany's dynamic run, delivering bone-rattling tackles on opponents (auf Wiedersehen, Herr Messi) and igniting the attack like a modern-day Lothar Matthaus. The 20-year-old Muller, meanwhile, has been a revelation, accounting for four goals and three assists, including a gorgeous reverse pass against Argentina while laying on the ground.
It took Wesley Sneijder a game or two to warm up, but the Dutch firebrand is displaying all the skill and savvy that inspired his club side, Inter Milan, to its historic, treble-winning season. Neither of his goals against Brazil could be considered classics, but they were notable for their timing and composure. And unlike Robben, his teammates actually like him.
Finally, props to Keisuke Honda for showing us that he still has plenty left in the tank, especially if you give him a free kick within 30 yards of goal. As one of the few to master how to hit that dastardly Jabulani from a set piece, he deserves a place on the NQATT as the 2010 bottle-blonde version of David Beckham.
Forwards -- Diego Forlan (Uruguay), David Villa (Spain)
At 32, Miroslav Klose is having the tournament of his life. He's inches away from breaking the World Cup scoring record held by Brazil's Ronaldo (Klose has 14 to Ronaldo's 15), and coincidentally, that's also where most of his goals come from -- inches away from the net. He's raised the tap-in to a devastating art form, but to make the NQATT you have to at least be able to strike one from mid-box.
It would be easy to dislike Ghana's Asamoah Gyan. After all, his winner against the U.S. sent the boys home in time for Fourth of July barbecues. Had he converted the PK against Uruguay, he would have not only propelled the Black Stars into the semis but also made the NQATT.
Finally, we'll shed a tear for Robinho, but not too many. The last of the Joga Bonito tricksters looked as though he might be Brazil's hero against the Netherlands with his rapier strike to open the scoring. But then he lost his cool, and for that, he's being frozen out of the NQATT.
After being branded a Man U reject for years, Uruguay's blond bombshell, Diego Forlan, has proved himself a world-class goal scorer for Atletico Madrid. Now he's doing it with a billion people watching while carrying the Charruas to their first final four since 1970.
And where would Spain be without Villa? Probably at the beach. With his more famous pretty-boy strike partner Fernando Torres struggling to justify his reputation, Villa has kept La Furia Roja in the competition with five goals in five games to lead all players. They're not just close-range toe-pokes, either, but a highlight reel of YouTube strikes including his beat-three-defenders-and-hit-upper-90 against Honduras, the double effort to send Portugal packing, and the post-to-post-carom shot to oust Paraguay.
David Hirshey is the co-author (with Roger Bennett) of "The ESPN World Cup Companion: Everything You Need to Know About the Planet's Biggest Sporting Event."