Michael Brown at the World Cup
Michael Brown blogs from the Fifa World Cup

Soccer: Wonders of the World Cup


Herald on Sunday sport writer Michael Brown reviews 'The Best Of' after the end of the FIFA World Cup tournament group phase.

Messi stands just 1.69m tall but is a giant on a football pitch.

An excitable din bounces around each stadium every time he touches the ball. Fans don't know what he's going to do, his team-mates don't know what he's going to do and, crucially, opposition players have no idea what he's going to do. They might guess, but it doesn't mean they can stop him.

Messi plays like he has a magnet in his boot. He makes the most difficult look easy and the only surprise in the first round of matches is that he hasn't scored yet. He's come close, hitting the post, but it hasn't mattered because Argentina have still scored seven goals in three games and comfortably progressed to the second round.

In the past he hasn't always shone in an Argentinian shirt in the way he has for Barcelona but he's on track to do it at this World Cup. If he can, La Albiceleste could well add a third world title and Messi will take his place alongside Diego Maradona in the affections of a nation.

Honourable mention: Xabi Alonso (Spain), Wesley Sneijder (the Netherlands).

It hasn't been a great tournament for the stars. Fernando Torres looks like he should be playing for Livingstone, not Liverpool; Fabio Cannavaro was made to look as old as his 36 years by New Zealand striker Chris Wood; and Cristiano Ronaldo is more worried about the vuvuzelas than victory. Wayne Rooney, though, tops the list of underachievers.

In reality, a lot of England's players would be among a first team of flops - Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard et al - but Rooney is the one truly world-class player in Fabio Capello's squad. He banged in goals for fun for Manchester United last season but it hasn't been much fun in South Africa so far. He hasn't scored for England in 11 hours of action, berated their fans for booing and was subbed after 72 minutes against Slovenia.

Nike are running a Write the Future advertisement featuring Rooney. (See bottom of this article.) One part shows him as a ginger-bearded vagrant living in a caravan and eating baked beans because he failed to shine. The other shows him being knighted after a glorious victory. So far, the former storyline is winning out.

The All Whites wouldn't have achieved what they did without Nelsen. Not even close. They have become the fairytale story of this World Cup and Nelsen is the handsome prince. That's why he gets the nod here ahead of someone like Messi. The Argentinian is crucial to their hopes of lifting the World Cup but they have other great players who can carry the side. Nelsen is the All Whites.

The skipper's contribution has been widely recognised and he has been included on various Team of the Week lists. Respected website goal.com even named him their Player of the Week while All Whites coach Ricki Herbert even suggested he hadn't seen a better centre back at this tournament.

Nelsen has had a great professional career. You just wonder what it might have looked like if he had played for a truly great side, like one of the top four English Premiership outfits. He's shown at this World Cup he is good enough to do that.

If it had been anyone other than a Brazilian, you might have said Maicon was trying to cross the ball in the game against North Korea. Instead, he audaciously slashed the ball from an acute angle near the byline with the outside of his right boot and curled it in between the goalkeeper and upright. He didn't have any room to spare. It wasn't as if Brazil were cruising at this stage and they won the game by only 2-1. This was football samba style. Long may it continue.

Honourable mentions: Spain's David Villa's goal against Honduras, Slovenia's Valter Birsa's long-range strike against the US.

This was a chance you would expect Billy from the Takapuna under- 9s to tuck away. A perfect ball was rolled in from the left that beat both the goalkeeper and South Korean defender. It landed on Yakubu's foot and, somehow, he stabbed it wide. He was just three yards from goal. In the middle of the goal. Incredible.

Nigeria would have been heading to Port Elizabeth for a second round match with Uruguay if they had scored one more goal and beaten South Korea. Instead, they are heading home.

"He said he was confident it was a goal," veteran team-mate Nwankwo Kanu said afterwards. "He did not believe he could miss from that kind of position." The whole world didn't think he could miss from that position, either.

There have been some fine refereeing performances at this World Cup and, on the whole, the whistleblowers have done a good job. But there have been a couple of notable exceptions. Sadly, one of those came in New Zealand's 1-1 draw with Italy. Carlos Batres had, according to Ryan Nelsen, "stars in his eyes" as he happily awarded Italy a free kick any time they wanted one. The biggest decision was the controversial first half penalty when that hard man of the Azzurri, Daniele Di Rossi, showed his softer side. It was a dreadful call and cost New Zealand any chance of claiming all three points.

Batres has been matched only by Mali's Koman Coulibaly, who saw things no one else did during Slovania's dramatic 2-2 draw with the US. Some of his decisions were puzzling, others just plain wrong, and his decision to disallow a late American goal cost them the game.

As comfortably as Argentina and the Netherlands qualified for the second round, you still wonder whether those teams can hold it all together. Neither have been tested by a good, well-organised side and both give the impression they could implode at any time. Argentina have the Maradona factor and a suspect defence, the Netherlands have their own egos to contend with.

Spain are bursting with talent and Germany are Germany but Brazil have the experience and personnel to go all the way. They have a tricky draw, with Chile in the second round before a possible quarter-final against the Dutch. It would mean doing it the hard way but they've done that five times before.

Karma is an incredible thing. France qualified for the World Cup only after the 'Hand of Frog' incident involving Thierry Henry got them through over the Republic of Ireland. They have turned into the disgrace of this tournament. Even coach Raymond Domenech, who has a predilection for astrological charts, couldn't have foreseen what would unfold in South Africa.

Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised. No one in France believed in Domenech so why would a collection of 23 overpaid, over-hyped footballers? Regardless, their disdain for their coach as unforgivable and their boycotting of training after Nicloas Anelka was sent home was childish.

France lacked class to the end, with Domenech refusing to shake South African coach Carlos Alberto Parreira's and after Bafana Bafana's 2-1 win. The French Football Federation helped restore some of it by booking their players on cattle class for the 12-hour flight home. Many French supporters probably hoped some had to sit next to that slobbering fat bloke who sleeps on your shoulder.

- Herald on Sunday

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