In arguably the greatest World Cup ever, the five week adventure that is the grand global tournament in Brazil has now concluded.
Now in a fitting conclusion that saw a resilient and mentally strong German side win their fourth world championship (and first as a unified national side), we’ve put together a final team of the tournament that represents the best starting XI. The best eleven includes many of those newly crowned holders of soccer’s biggest prize, but also sees deserving members from other nations that need to be remembered as the best players of this World Cup in not only the modern era, but arguably all eras.
GK: Manuel Neuer (Germany) – It would have been pure comedy if the 28-year-old Bayern Munich rising legend also was named as one of the center-backs of the tournament. Neuer arguably raised the bar of his position. He combined the usual characteristics of world class goalkeeper (no bad gaffes, amazing saves) with his exhilarating pursuit of balls outside of his box domain. He has transformed for just one of several star net-minders into the latest global goalkeeping superstar.
RB: Philip Lahm (Germany) – He may have only played in the position for the final three games, but his main rivals to the best right-back prize didn’t have extraordinary World Cups. Pablo Zabaleta came on in the last three games but had a shaky group stage, Dani Alves lost his starting job as the tournament went on, Stephen Lichtsteiner was solid but not spectacular, and Glen Johnson’s tournament was over before it even started. Juan Zuniga had some nice moments and of course is marred for knocking Neymar out of the tournament (and almost accidentally ending his career). But Zuniga was beaten a few times in the tournament, including by Ivory Coast forward Gervinho’s fine goal. All of them opened the door for Lahm to reclaim his throne as the best right back, with his usual, dangerous forays forward combined this time without getting caught out like he has in the past in big matches.
CB: Mats Hummels (Germany) – His knee problems may have caught up to him in the final as Lionel Messi got by him a couple times, but the Borussia Dortmund man certified himself as one of the best center-backs in the world. His return to the German side for the France quarterfinal was massive and brought the best out of Jerome Boateng. At only 25, Hummels may see himself on another World Cup Best XI before his career is done, and Boateng may join him there as well.
CB: Ezequiel Garay (Argentina) – The top defender of the stingiest defense in the tournament (along with the winners Germany), the former Benfica man completed his own ascent into one the premiere men in his position with outstanding positioning and tackling in front of Sergio Romero. Garay was able to do it with two different partners, holding steady with Federico Fernandez and getting the best out of Martin Demichelis. Doing the latter was probably his greatest feat of the tournament, and sees him barely beat out the incredible revelation that was Giancarlo Gonzalez of Costa Rica.
LB: Daley Blind (Netherlands) – Like Lahm, Blind saw himself in the midfield quite a lot. But he was returned to his proper home of the outside defender’s spot, and showcased why he has developed so well at Ajax. Besides his now renowned deep passing, Blind did so well to recover in numbers and be tactically astute for Louis Van Gaal’s side. Ricardo Rodriguez of Switzerland and Argentina’s Marcos Rojo showed that they are also the future of the leftback spot, while Jan Vertonghen and Benedikt Howedes were commendable in makeshift roles. Not to be forgotten, Patrice Evra exhibited why he once was atop the left back rankings with a fine display for France. In the end, the 24-year-old Dutchman made a global name for himself and won’t be turning back to relative anonymity outside of the Eredivisie anymore.
CDM: Javier Mascherano (Argentina) – Although he had the occasional venture forward to keep the opposition honest, there was no question that in pure destroying play, no one was better than the underrated Barcelona stalwart these five weeks in Brazil. Timely in his interventions whenever his country required of him (highlighted in that gamesaving tackle of Arjen Robben in the semifinals), Mascherano was deserving of any Golden Ball consideration and could certainly claim that he was the best Argentine of the tournament despite Messi being the top reason they went far.
CM: Bastian Schweinsteiger (Germany) – Considering that his World Cup was almost in the balance with a knee injury right before the competition started, the flashy winger turned mature midfield general culminated his great growth as a player with a world title. Schweinsteiger’s all around play was only surpassed this past club season by Yaya Toure and Arturo Vidal, as some thought that age had already caught up with the German. The 29-year-old responded to that and his knee knock with his usual running going forward, while sacrificing his offensive play by being that protector of the German centerbacks that the team needed when Lahm returned to right back. And while Lahm may have the captain’s armband, ‘Schweini’ is truly the heart and soul of this champion German side.
AM: James Rodriguez (Colombia) – World Cup Golden Boot winner at age 22, scorer in his first five World Cup games and MVP of a Colombian side in their greatest World Cup ever. It truly was a breakthrough tournament for a young man who already came with a huge price tag from the summer before. With Falcao out, Rodriguez handled the expectations of being Los Cafeteros’ new talisman with the aplomb of a rising legend, creating and finishing goals for his nation to become a new global footballing icon.
AM: Lionel Messi (Argentina) – You could see the pain on his face that came with receiving the Golden Ball for the tournament, as no symbolic runner up’s gift or best XI list would replace the horror of not winning a World Cup for him. But even with his inability to produce a legendary game in the last two matches of the tournament, it was a World Cup where Messi’s play almost meant everything to his nation. In a tournament where Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain were complete shells of their top striker selves, while Angel Di Maria was done the minute he got hurt against Belgium, it was effectively Messi or bust. The plan finally did bust in the final, but even Messi’s most ardent haters would be deranged if he wasn’t at least among the best 10-12 players this tournament.
AM: Neymar (Brazil) – The man with the biggest pressure of any player for the buildup and actual existence of this World Cup performed extraordinarily well with little to no help up front. Like Messi, it was truly Neymar or bust for Felipe Scolari’s side, as the 22-year-old wonder showed the pace, the touch, and the calm with all the weight of a nation on his shoulders. Even if his displays against Chile and Colombia didn’t hit the heights of his group stage exploits, Neymar was still a threat throughout those first two knockout rounds and did not disappear. A whole world awaited breath on his gruesome back injury and highlighted how immense an earthy figure he has become in just a short time. Unlike Arjen Robben, who had his trinity trio of Robin Van Persie and Wesley Sneijder beside him, Neymar had a completely un-Brazilian forward in Fred and inconsistent displays from Hulk and Oscar to work with. He, without a doubt, warrants a Best XI spot.
AM/F: Thomas Muller (Germany) – The man who truly deserved the Golden Ball of the tournament but will feel satisfied with the prize he received at the end of the tournament. For another World Cup, Muller exhibited why his movement is for purists to cherish and novices to learn from. He was relentless when going outside, cutting inside, allowing runners from deep to have space, and working with whomever was in the box with him. His touches were sublime and his intelligence was a constant. With 10 World Cup goals at only age 24, he could very well challenge his countryman Miroslav Klose for the #1 all time goal scorer’s list in World Cup history when all is said and done with his career.
Arjen Robben’s fantastic tournament and constant threat was blunted out by Argentina in the semifinal, but could have easily been on this list had his side been in the championship game.
Giancarlo Gonzalez will likely find it hard to be with the Columbus Crew beyond 2014.
Marcos Rojo added to a growing reputation with a solid tournament that could see him be the next class fullback for Argentina in years to come.
Gio Vasquez and Hector Herrera were simply outstanding for Mexico in a World Cup that saw El Tri at least win back the respect of their fans.
Despite his struggles in the final, Toni Kroos showed why he is arguably the most technically sound midfielder in soccer at the moment with many fine displays.
Karim Benzema did all he could to lead a Franck Ribery-less France side as far as they could go.
Despite his silly yellow card in the quarterfinals that proved fatal and a clear red card that wasn’t against Arjen Robben in the third place game, Thiago Silva’s importance to Brazil could not be overstated enough.
Mathieu Debuchy was mistake free in his play from Les Blues from the outside.
Juan Cuadrado showed his electrifying abilities and was Colombia’s second best player.
Keylor Navas continued his wonderful ascent to being one of the best keepers in the world.
And despite seeing the disappointment of Mario Gotze finish past him, Sergio Romero had himself a remarkable World Cup for a man who was mostly on the bench for Monaco this season.
Bench: Navas (Costa Rica), Romero (Argentina); Rojo (Argentina), Silva (Brazil), Gonzalez (Costa Rica), Debuchy (France); Vasquez (Mexico), Herrera (Mexico), Kroos (Germany); Robben (Netherlands), Cuadrado (Colombia), Benzema (France).
Honorable mention: Tim Howard (USA)