By Adam Vaccaro
As the first of two matchless days before the third-place contest, Thursday was calm, allowing for the weekend's hype to organically begin its ascent. Germany and Uruguay will play for third on Saturday while Spain and the Netherlands feature in Sunday's final.
Before getting to Thursdays news and views, here's a run-down of my 2010 World Cup superlatives. Some are subject to change depending on what happens this weekend.
Most disappointing team: Italy really should have done more. Yeah, France's tournament was mired in controversy and the team fell flat on its face in group play, but Les Bleus weren't expected to make too much noise in 2010. Everybody knew that Azzurri was old and that they might not get much further than the Round of 16, but everybody also knew that the defending champs were playing in what was by far the tournament's weakest group. To finish last in Group F, behind Slovakia and New Zealand, was a stunning result for a team that was returning so many players from its 2006 championship squad.
Most disappointing player: It has to be Wayne Rooney. England's world-class striker was strong enough off the ball, but he went scoreless in all four matches as the Three Lions made yet another early exit from the tournament. It may not be fair that expectations were set so high for Rooney, but his 26-goal season with Manchester United and his noticeable efforts to mature led everybody to believe that this could very well be his tournament. Fernando Torres, also goalless, is a close runner-up, but his team's success wasn't predicated on his scoring. Without Rooney collecting goals England just wasn't going to win, and so this dishonor falls to him.
Most surprising team: Playing in its first World Cup since 1982 and ranked 78th in the world, New Zealand was widely perceived as the tournament's weakest squad. But the All Whites were undefeated in group play, drawing all three of their matches and picking up their first three World Cup points in the process. It's a shame that the group standings barred them from the second round, but they shocked the world and gave their supporters a very fun ride in their return to the tournament.
Most surprising player: Japan's Keisuke Honda had a huge impact on the tournament in only four matches, leading Japan out of its group for the first time off Asian soil. Honda scored twice for the Blue Samurai, including a beautiful free kick against Denmark that secured the squad's spot in knockout play, and was the centerpiece of a finesse offense that proved very fun to watch. Honda, who plays his club soccer in Russia, turned a lot of heads in his first four World Cup matches.
Biggest upset: The Netherlands' 3-2 defeat of Brazil was the turning point of the tournament. It wasn't so much that the Oranje claimed victory as how they did it. Brazil, five-time champions and the world's number one team, brought a 1-0 lead into halftime boasting a nearly perfect historical record after winning the first frame. But the Dutch came back behind the tenacious play of Wesley Sneijder and sent Holland into delirium. And when they did so, that fun-loving, goofy squad that elite teams supposedly never really have to worry about suddenly became a very legitimate contender to win this thing. They'll play for their first World Cup championship on Sunday.
Most absurd flop: Ivory Coast's Kader Keita was on the unfortunate side of a 3-0 contest against Brazil when he slowly jaunted into an unsuspecting Kaka. Kaka's elbow and shoulder made light contact with Keita's side, but it was Keita who brought the impact. And yet, the Ivory Coast forward fell to the ground clutching his face and stayed there until Kaka was shown his second yellow card of the match, yielding an ejection and a one-match suspension. Somehow, Keita got away with the most ridiculous flop of the tournament and hurt his group's top team in the process, but I have a hard time commending him for doing so.
Most astounding moment: In the quarterfinals, Uruguayan striker Luis Suarez was standing at his team's goal line in stoppage time of extra time against Ghana when Dominic Adiyiah sent a shot on goal that looked sure to be the winner. But Suarez was able to stretch his arms out and committed a blatant handball, stopping the shot and earning himself a red card. Asamoah Gyan missed the subsequent penalty shot and Ghana went on to win in a shootout. It was an incredible play that Suarez made because he had absolutely nothing to lose. The ball was going to go in otherwise, and Uruguay would have lost. His handball, which seemed to be completely instinctive Suarez was in tears after being sent off, indicating that he hadn't even considered the heroism of the play saved the match for the Celeste and completed what was by far the tournament's most remarkable play.
Best goal: It might be that it's most fresh in my mind, but Carles Puyol's header to net the winner in Spain's 1-0 semifinal victory against Germany on Wednesday was a fantastic score. Puyol came crashing into the box with a ton of force and sprawled himself out to put a good, strong head on Xavi's corner kick delivery. Partially it was the stakes, being the lone goal late in the tournament's most hyped match, and partially it was the delivery, but the goal was the best of the World Cup thus far. Plus, who doesn't like to see a center back score? It's like hearing a drummer sing it's just really, really cool.
Best keeper: Spain's Iker Casillas was the goat in the team's surprising 1-0 loss to Switzerland in La Furia Roja's opening match. Even the keeper's girlfriend, Spanish reporter Sara Carbonero, asked him on live TV how he managed to allow the winning goal. But Casillas, the team's captain, has surrendered only one goal since and has made a series of fantastic saves in the process. Even on TV, his intangibles almost have tangibility, as he clearly anchors the team from the goal line.
Best player: This is a tough one Germany's Bastian Schweinsteiger has been a blast to watch, Spain's David Villa is the tournament's best scorer, and Uruguay's Diego Forlan's physical play sets the pace for Uruguay but I'm going with Sneijder. I would hate to play against the vertically challenged Dutch midfielder, who has made everything happen for Holland in the Round of 16. He covers a ton of ground, he isn't afraid to send off-chance balls on net he's been rewarded for that with goals and he's solid defensively. In a way, Sneijder is an individual version of the Oranje at large: he plays a gritty-but-pretty style and finds ways to win.
Around the World Cup: According to the BBC, FIFA's entire refereeing system is likely to see changes by the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. The organization's general secretary Jerome Valcke said that goal line technology and goal line officials are both on the table, but Valcke also said that the entire system needs to be overhauled. He didn't go into much more detail as to exactly what he meant by that, but he did express some concern about the age and athleticism of the officials, suggesting that they needed more help. This is a good sign for the contingent (that is, just about everybody who follows the game at even a casual level) that feels as though FIFA is lagging way behind the rest of the world by refusing to take measures that would result in better officiating. Coincidentally, Valcke spoke on the same day that Italian referee Roberto Rosetti announced his retirement. Rosetti is the official who missed England's Round of 16 goal against Germany. Englishman Howard Webb will referee Sunday's final.
Prior to Sunday's final, Soccer City Stadium will play host to the World Cup's closing ceremony. Shakira is set to rehash her performance at the opening concert way back on June 10 when she sings "Waka Waka," the tournament's official song. FIFA has said that it aims to put on a more youthful and technologically advanced ceremony than it has in the past, perhaps catering to what has to the outside observer seemed to be, overall, a pretty young crowd.
Paul the Octopus, who has correctly predicted all six of Germany's World Cup matches, will indeed pick a winner for the final. He'll forecast his take on the future on Friday morning when he predicts both the third-place match and the final. Paul's taken some heat in Germany for having chosen Spain in Wednesday's semifinal over his Germany, but that strikes me as a classic case of shooting the messenger. The eight-armed prophet doesn't choose the future. He (supposedly) just tells it.
It's been up in the air all month as to whether Nelson Mandela will attend the World Cup final, and it seems as though the decision won't be made until the day of the match. Needless to say, his presence would make for a very special moment in South Africa.
If you're looking for a spot to catch the final in Boston, you could do worse than World Cup Boston 2010's free viewing party. The House of Blues will headquarter the celebration, but it will span much of the Kenmore area with additional crowds gathering at Game On! Fenway, Bleacher Bar, and the Landsdowne Pub. Representatives of the New England Revolution including the Revs Girls will be on hand, as well as a myriad of other supporters. Brighton's Green Briar Pub and The Phoenix Landing in Cambridge are also soccer hot spots around the city, though it's hard to imagine that the match won't be showing just about everywhere on Sunday afternoon.
FIFA has unveiled the official 2014 World Cup emblem. I am a huge fan of the current tournament's emblem I need to get a poster before they're gone and don't think this new one quite matches up. I do like it for its simplicity, however, and it certainly has a Brazilian feel.
Question of the Day: Who will win the 2010 Golden Boot? The race for the award, given to the tournament's top goal scorer, has made for a very hot contest. Three players Diego Forlan of Uruguay and Germany's Thomas Muller and Miro Klose will enter the third-place match with four goals to their credit, though Klose's availability for the match is under question in light of a new back injury. Meanwhile, the two current top scorers will meet in the final when Spanish striker David Villa and Dutch midfielder Wesley Sneijder kick off knotted at five scores apiece. Of the two, Villa is very much so the purer scorer. Sneijder, though, has been unrelenting in keeping pace.
Quote of Note: "After a long journey we are in the final. We are so close to writing history. This is the third time we have reached the final. Now we have to win it." - Dutch winger Dirk Kuyt, emphasizing the historical significance of the Oranje's trip to the 2010 World Cup final.