By Marcus Louison
Two weeks. 48 matches. 136 goals. It’s almost impossible to find the adjectives to accurately describe a World Cup first round that led fans to levels of delirium, bordering on intoxication. The tone was set even before a ball was kicked in Sao Paulo, as the Brazilian national team’s rendition of their anthem, in alliance with the local support, was so vociferous and passionate, it made the spine tingle. Chilling! Onto the football then..
FIFA’s decision to replace head-to-head with goal difference as the group stage tie-breaker was the perfect fillip for a tournament whose organizational committee was still under intense scrutiny for a planning process that went beyond farcical, or at least scratched the surface.
A somewhat controversial win for Brazil got the sports writer’s sensationalizing and the conspiracy theorists chirping. Noteworthy day one, but it paled in comparison to day 2, as a swaggerific Oranje outfit spanked the reigning World and European champions, Spain, to the tune of 5-1 in Salvador. Arjen Robben and Robin Van Persie were nothing short of ruthless on the day, and this began the trend of top-class first round performances that leaves me with the unenviable task of picking an XI that is as fair as it team is balanced.
I’ve chosen a “real” team with a formation of 4-3-3 instead of a “fantasy” team with 4 to 5 forwards. Inevitably, there were casualties. Here goes..
Goalkeeper – Guillermo Ochoa (Mexico). Do I really need to explain why? His first round performance was so impressive, it’s difficult to believe he began the tournament as second favorite for the shirt. His display vs Brazil was the best I can remember in a World Cup, and the one-handed, sprawling save from Neymar’s header defied belief. Add this to the confidence, decisiveness, and sound communication with his back line and we have ourselves the true standout GK of the first round.
Right Back – Serge Aurier (Ivory Coast). It’s always difficult to pick players from underperforming teams, but how could you leave Aurier out? Where would the Ivory Coast have been in that first match Japan without Serge’s crosses? The man was outstanding. His centers have quality and variety aplenty, served up with whip, pace and curl. Bony and Gervinho benefited with back to back headers, and the win was in the bag. Aurier is far from a one-trick pony though. The young Toulouse player also has fantastic pace and lung-power, and demonstrated that consistentently in all three matches.
Center back – Rafael Marquez (Mexico) Captain. Legend. The evergreen Rafael Marquez has been a tremendous servant for his country, captaining them for the fourth time at the World Cup. Likely pays for nothing in Mexico. Probably just leaves his wallet at the airport. Not quite as mobile as he used to be, but has guile to burn, as he astutely marshals the 5 man back-line to perfection. Still a goal and set-up threat on set-pieces, as Croatia found out to their cost.
Center back – Gary Medel (Chile). How can a 5’7″ center back win so many headers? Gary Medel turned out string after string of top-class performances as he thwarted attack after attack in one of the World Cup’s toughest groups. Unrelenting in the tackle, fiercely competitive, and a strong communicator. Deserved place in the World XI ahead of Thiago Silva.. by a smidgen.. The Brazilian CB was also extremely impressive.
Left back – Daley Blind (Netherlands). Robben and Robin were the only names on everyone’s lips after the Spanish demolition, but where would they be without Daley Blind, son of Dutch assistant coach, and former Ajax and Holland international, Danny Blind. His balls for the for the first and second goals were outstanding, and were instrumental in turning a tide, that was at the time, all Spanish. The accuracy of the first one to RVP was obviously impressive, but the second to Robben was even better. Just as accurate, but instant, while also dissecting the center backs. Dutch class. Not the quickest player to cover ground, but plays with maturity beyond his years. Gets up and down the side well, and never seems to get caught out of position.
Center midfield- Blaise Matuidi (France). The engine that makes Les Bleus tick. Blaise has buckets of energy and stamina, and is the perfect example of the archetypical modern day box-to-box midfield man. Gets in the box to good effect, as he showed with his goal vs Switzerland at the near post. Fantastic little player.
Center midfield – Andres Guardado (Mexico). It was a toss up between Andres and his ever present midfielder partner, Hector Herrera, but I think Guardado was slightly more impactful. It’s hard to believe he spent his entire career as a wide man, at left mid/wing and left back. He has taken to the center of the park like a duck to water, and his boundless energy, tough tackling, and long range shooting were right at the heart of a Mexican team that captured the hearts of many neutrals in Brazil.
Center attacking midfield – James Rodriguez ( Colombia). Wow. The performances of the Colombian talisman were so irrepressible that I don’t think I can do them justice with words. Worked in perfect unison with Cuadrado, Martinez, Gutierrez and the rapidly-emerging Quintero. The confidence just seems to flow out of his pores, as everything he tried came off. Runs, goals, assists. What more can you ask for? His highlight jinking run and finish vs Japan was stuff of legends.. Uruguay beware.
Forward (Right) – Arjen Robben (Netherlands). Is there a better sight than the flying Dutchman in full flight? Ask Sergio Ramos. Dubbed “Flanken Gott” (Flank God) in his native Holland for his sorcery on the wing, it’s a little bit of a surprise that he has taken so well to a central role in a new look Holland 5-3-2 formation. The fastest man in the World Cup combines stunning close control with clinical finishing. OK, he’s a bit selfish, but he gets away with because he’s so damn good. Amazing first round. The aforementioned Ramos and Pique must still be having sleepless nights.
Forward (left) – Neymar (Brazil). Pressure? What pressure? Brazil’s golden boy always seems to rise to the occasion for the Selecao, and the first round was no different. Did his best to inspire his underwhelming team in the first couple matches with run after run, and dribble after dribble. Did I mention he scored 4 goals? Superstar.
Forward (Center) – Lionel Messi (Argentina). It’s his third World Cup, and the mercurial Lionel Messi has finally come to the party. Started slowly vs Bosnia, but he grew into the game as the cobwebs and nerves slowly dissipated. Ended the game with a majestic winner and did the same vs a stubborn Iranian side. Looked back to his absolute best vs Nigeria with a close range finish, stunning free-kick, and joyous running. Tied with Neymar and Muller for the Golden Boot. Best player in the world.
Coach – Miguel Herrera (Mexico). El Tri endured a tumultuous qualifying campaign, and only qualified by the skin of their teeth via the playoffs. The Concacaf standard-bearers were in complete disarray. Enter Miguel Herrera. Job? Steady the ship and get the team ready for Brazil 2014. The Mexican manager set about his task by making sweeping changes to personnel, deciding to rely on many Liga MX players that he is so familiar with. He also changed the playing style and tactics to a flexible 5-3-2, and has instilled a wonderful fighting spirit within the team/camp. The World Cup’s lowest paid coach. Surely it’s time for a renegotiation.
Honorable mention must go some of the best performers that didn’t make my final cut. Thiago Silva (Brazil), Charles Aranguiz (Chile), Juan Cuadrado (Colombia), Hector Herrera (Mexico), and Thomas Muller (Germany), Robin Van Persie ( Holland), Xherdan Shaqiri (Switzerland), Karim Benzema (France).
First Rd World XI – Ochoa; Aurier, Medel, Marquez, Blind; Matuidi, Guardado, Rodriguez; Robben, Neymar, Messi.