David de Winter – Sports Writer
31 days, 64 matches later, Brazil 2014 is finally over. Slightly over-hyped as the best of recent times (that honour goes to France ’98), it nevertheless more than satisfied my footballing taste-buds, the odd dreary bore-draw knockout tie aside. As the TLE’s apparent football ‘expert’ (not my words – please direct your complaints to the editor), I have selflessly studied hours of footage in compiling the totally unofficial Team of Tournament. So here are the 11 chaps that impressed me the most out in Brazil.
Goalkeeper: Manuel Neuer (Germany)
There have been a plethora of outstanding goalkeeping performances in this World Cup, but none come close to rivalling those of the Bayern Munich stopper. Four clean sheets and only four goals conceded were one of the main reasons Deutschland lifted the trophy for the fourth time in their history. His marauding interceptions outside his box were entertaining but always decisive and effective, unlike other recent exponents of the sweeper-keeper (yes René Higuita and Pepe Reina, I’m talking about you) and he wasn’t too shabby at claiming crosses and shot-stopping either. If it wasn’t for the German Wall (awkward analogy), any of USA! USA! USA!’s Tim Howard, Costa Rica’s Keylor Navas or Mexico’s Guillermo Ochoa could have claimed the award. However Neuer was head and shoulders (little Joe Hart analogy for you there) above the rest. Inspired total confidence in his defence. The complete goalkeeper.
Right-Back: Philipp Lahm (Germany)
I think I have a new man-crush. Simply, the best defender in the world. Unlike almost every other full-back, Lahm doesn’t have a weakness. He is excellent going forward, his crosses are accurate and dangerous, he hardly ever gives the ball away, he never misses a tackle and he is surprisingly accomplished in the air for his relative lack of height. Lahm is also a very unassuming character on and off the pitch. He rarely does anything flashy but he does the basics brilliantly. His tackle on Marcelo in the semi-final was so perfect that it slightly turned me on. Argentina’s Pablo Zabaleta and Belgium’s Toby Alderweireld had good tournaments too but were not fit to even lace up the boots of the German maestro.
Centre-Back: Vincent Kompany (Belgium)
A colossus in defence, Kompany marshalled his troops superbly and hardly put a foot wrong in Belgium’s impressive run to the quarter-finals. His performances were consistently high-class and the main reason Les Diables Rouges (The Red Devils, since you ask) only conceded three goals all tournament. Significantly, Kompany seems to have got rid of his penchant for high-profile mistakes that blighted his 2013/14 season for Manchester City. A worthy selection.
Centre-Back: Mats Hummels (Germany)
Got given the run-around by Lionel Messi and co. in the final exposing his lack of pace but otherwise the big German was nigh on flawless as the rock of his country’s defence. He only conceded three goals in six appearances with four clean sheets and popped up with two goals (as many as the whole England team), one of them the crucial winner in the quarter-final against France. Exceptional in the air, he also reads the game well – his calm exterior belies his relative inexperience on the international stage (Hummels is only 25). Scary to think his best years are ahead of him. A special mention must go to Ron Vlaar who played his heart out for the Netherlands throughout the tournament and, despite his shoot-out miss, was unlucky to end on the losing side in the semi-final against Argentina after a monumental performance.
Left-Back: Daley Blind (Netherlands)
Admittedly I didn’t see him play very much but his pass for Robin Van Persie’s diving header was trouser-bulgingly delicious. Going forward he was a constant menace and, like Lahm, his delivery into the box has strikers rubbing their hands with glee. The Dutchman scored in the pointless third-place playoff and was part of a defence that conceded only four goals all tournament, including none in the knockout stages. A rare full-back in that he is equally adept at defence and attack, Ajax will have difficulty keeping hold of Blind this summer as Europe’s elite come sniffing round him like a randy dog.
Midfielder: Toni Kroos (Germany)
The most complete all-round midfielder at the World Cup, Kroos was an ever present in the German midfield that dominated all and sundry. He came into the tournament rather under the radar but has enhanced his reputation exponentially with his intelligent passing, positional play and industry. He was unreal in the semi-final demolition of Brazil, completely overrunning the opposition, and Real Madrid will be licking their lips at the prospect of pairing Kroos with Luka Modric, Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedeira. A significant cog in the German juggernaut.
Midfield: Bastian Schweinsteiger (Germany)
A controversial choice I know, but his performance in the final was remarkable, even upstaging ‘the Duracell bunny,’ Javier Mascherano who also had an exceptional tournament. Schweinsteiger’s vast experience (at 29 years of age he has over 100 caps) came good in the knockout rounds when his nation needed his big-game nous. Defensively more impressive than going forward, he nevertheless added a steely intensity to Germany’s game and his never-say-die attitude was never more evident when playing victim to Argentina’s (particularly Sergio Agüero’s) roughhouse tactics. An unsung hero. Paul Pogba also impressed me as the engine of France’s midfield – a future star for sure. Quite why Manchester United let him leave for pittance is beyond me.
Right Wing: Arjen Robben (Netherlands)
The Dutch wing-wizard finally showed what he is capable of on the international stage. Often Robben looks good with the ball but flatters to deceive – rather like an impotent sperm-doner, a lack of end product has been cited as one of his pitfalls. Not in Brazil. Robben was the life and soul of every attacking move the Dutch put together and, ignoring his rather embarrassing diving, was arguably the most exciting player at the tournament. He seemed to have a lot more purpose to his play than in previous tournaments and his run to set up Memphis Depay to score Holland’s second against Chile in the 90th minute was one such example. His dribbling, balance and poise on the ball are staggering to watch. A joy to behold.
Attacking Midfielder: James Rodriguez (Colombia)
Who else? The winner of the Golden Boot was the revelation of the World Cup. Everyone knew Rodriguez was talented, his £38 million transfer fee to Monaco was a hint, but to announce himself to the footballing public on the biggest stage of all and in such style was pure perfection. His dipping volley against Uruguay in the last 16 will be played on highlight reels for years to come and for an attacking midfielder, not a striker to finish as leading scorer is a remarkable feat in itself. He was the fulcrum of every Colombian attacking move, and had Falcao been available, who knows how much further they could have gone?
Left Wing: Neymar (Brazil)
What’s that? No Lionel Messi? Scandalous! No it isn’t. Whilst Adidas-sponsored Messi may have won the suspiciously Adidas-sponsored Golden Ball, he doesn’t come close to making this team. Brazil’s golden boy is my choice for the left attacking berth and he did not disappoint. Whilst the rest of his team mates were busy fouling, diving, being a bit shit and crying, Neymar almost single-handedly dragged his lacklustre team to within two games of the ultimate prize, only to be cruelly denied his opportunity in the limelight through injury (with David Luiz offering free entry to the Brazilian goal to any German within sight, I doubt Neymar would have made much of a difference). However he managed to live up to the pre-tournament hype by scoring four goals and creating two others. Inventive with wonderful vision and great passing ability, not to mention an eye for goal, Barcelona will be hoping the boy wonder’s form for his country can be transported to the Nou Camp for years to come. Honourable mentions go to Switzerland’s brilliant Xeridan Shaquiri and France’s diminutive Mathieu Valbuena.
Forward: Thomas Müller (Germany)
Ja. The sixth German to make it into this team, Müller was easily the best striker on show in Brazil in a tournament that was not a vintage one for the front men. Joel Campbell sparkled intermittently for Costa Rica, Robin Van Persie socred ‘that’ goal and Karim Benzema finally showed his true class as France’s talisman, yet Müller trumped them all not only by his goalscoring feats, but also his all-round abilities and industry. The man just never stops running. Let’s overlook his pretty scandalous behaviour with Pepe in Germany’s opener against Portugal (yes Müller can act like a bit of a prick sometimes) and focus on his footballing talents. Equally comfortable as an inside right as a forward, the really impressive part of Müller’s game was his teamwork. He was always willing to run the extra mile for his nation and that extra desire pervaded Germany’s whole squad. Five goals for the second tournament running says it all really. If he can eradicate his sometime histrionic conduct, he could go on to become one of the all-time greats.