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Friday, June 25, 2010
And the award goes to . . .

By David Hirshey
Special to ESPN.com

The World Cup Trophy and Golden Boot are still weeks away, but now that the first round is complete, a bunch of worthy candidates have emerged for some lesser awards -- the kind you won't see Sepp Blatter handing out anytime soon.

And, yes France and Italy, there's even a little something for you.

BEST PLAYER: Lionel Messi, Argentina

It almost seems unfair to give the Little Flea another hood ornament, but Argentina's No. 10 definitely packed his A-game for South Africa. Though he hasn't scored yet (despite launching 20 shots on goal), his corkscrewing runs and seeing-eye passes have terrified defenses into trying to bludgeon him into submission and opened up acres of space for his teammates to notch seven goals in their opening three games. That is tied for most in the tournament to date and helps Diego Maradona look like he actually knows what he's doing.

MOST SURPRISING PLAYER: Keisuke Honda, Japan

It seemed Japan coach Takeshi Okada was delirious when he set his sights on the semifinals, but the Blue Samurai might just get there thanks to the silky skills of Honda. His turbo-charged performances in midfield propelled Japan ahead of all but Holland in Group E.

SMARTEST PLAYER: Nicolas Anelka, France

Considering the nightmare experienced by the French side over the last two weeks, you have to hand it to the sulky Chelsea striker for his expletive-laced outburst at Raymond Domenech. Anelka's diatribe got him sent home ahead of the guillotine-ready mobs that awaited the rest of Les Miserables upon their return.

MOST INFLUENTIAL PERFORMER: The Jabulani

More unpredictable than Lady Gaga. Some players hate it, others love it, and most blame it for errant passes or woefully inaccurate shots. In a tournament where so many big names have struggled to perform -- Wayne Rooney, Franck Ribery, Didier Drogba -- we'll never forget the name of the little ball that just couldn't help itself.

MOST DISAPPOINTING PLAYER: Anyone in an England shirt

As with every World Cup, English hopes were higher than Amy Winehouse thanks in large part to the transcendent form of Wayne Rooney. But it didn't take long for them to thud to Earth. Captain Rio Ferdinand got hurt a week before the U.S. game, Fabio Capello made a few tactical errors, and the Three Lions limped through to the Round of 16. Disappointed with their opening-round performance, disgraced former captain John Terry pretended he still had his armband and tried to rally his team ahead of the Slovenia game only to incur the well-tailored wrath of Don Fabio. And with Germany looming Sunday -- a rematch of the 1966 final, the only World Cup the English have ever won -- it'll need a speech worthy of Henry V.

BEST GAME: Slovenia 2, USA 2

All late-game heartbreak/robbery aside, the U.S.-Slovenia match was the perfect example of what the World Cup can be -- stirring comebacks, enraging controversy and high drama. And even longtime soccer bashers finally seemed to understand the majesty of a game ending in a tie.

WORST GAME: England 0, Algeria 0

The most frustrating and soporific of scoreless games we've seen. Plenty of cheap giveaways and a whopping total of seven shots on goal equals 90 minutes of our life that we'll never get back.

BEST GOAL: David Villa, Spain v. Chile

With so many struggling to hit a Jabulani accurately from distance, along comes the wily Spanish striker to make a 40 yard curler look easy. Aided by a questionable goalkeeping decision by Chile's Justo Villar, who came some 25 yards off his line only to shin the ball straight to him, the new Barca frontman decided that having scored twice against Honduras he could do no wrong. And so, he glanced up and struck the ball. The result? A simple, lofted, left-footed drive that sailed serenely through the Tshwane night air, bouncing once or twice on its way to the back of the net. It was the ultimate Spanish party trick. Olè.

BEST MANAGER: Diego Maradona, Argentina

I know, I know ... but you have to give it to The Loco One. Yes, Dunga guided Brazil to comfortable passage to the Round of 16, but the prize has to go to his arch-nemesis, the mad genius known as El Diego.

For one, consider the expectations: While no one questions Maradona's greatness on the field, his mercurial behavior on the sideline has oscillated between farce and melodrama. Pre-tournament squads were picked not by the Hand of God, but seemingly the wisdom of a dartboard. But from the opening minutes against Nigeria, you sensed that there was method to the flat-out insanity. He has Argentina playing relaxed and carefree soccer that most other teams can only dream about.

WORST MANAGER: Raymond Domenech, France

It's almost impossible to feel bad for Domenech, the astrology-loving soon-to-be-ex-coach of France. And yet, the conduct of his players and training staff have almost conspired to make him the sympathetic figure in Le Fiasco. The malaise suffered by Les Bleus could be seen more clearly than the Eiffel Tower, but Ray-Ray deserves the blame for failing to heed those warning signs and failing to adjust things accordingly to get through an eminently winnable group.

WORST DECISION BY A DICTATOR: Domenech, again

Dropping captain Patrice Evra from the squad just before the team's final match against South Africa.

Honorable Mention: Kim Jong Il allowing the North Korea-Portugal game to air live.

BEST REFEREE: Ravshan Irmatov

Controlled three potentially volatile fixtures -- the tournament opener between Mexico and South Africa, England vs. Algeria, and Greece vs. Argentina -- with aplomb, making all the right calls and generally being anonymous during the course of play. Seen, and not heard. That's how the referee should be. If only the same could be said of the other 29 men in black ... we're talking to you, Koman Coulibaly.

MOST SURPRISING TEAM: Uruguay

Did anyone have the Charruas in their office pool? Led by Manchester United washout Diego Forlan and bolstered by a robust midfield and one of the best young goalkeepers in the game, Lazio's Fernando Muslera, Uruguay has conceded no goals and topped what was supposed to be a tricky group. There's grit in the midfield, organization at the back and two world-class strikers in Forlan and Luis Suarez (who's yet to get going) to tie it all together.

MOST DISAPPOINTING TEAM: Pick Anyone From Europe

What if they gave a World Cup and no European teams showed up? Granted, four of the last six World Cups have been won by teams from the continent, but this year's crop of Euro heroes has been lacking in the all-conquering brio we saw in 2006. France and Italy went home so fast, you'd think they had better things to do. England just barely made it into the second round, and pre-tournament favorite Spain was shocked by the Swiss in its opening game. To top the sundae, the highly favored flop of Serbia. Better luck in 2014, Europe.

MOST OVERACHIEVING TEAM FROM DOWN UNDER: New Zealand

The Kiwis came to South Africa with as much chance of taking flight as an emu and ended up battling everything in sight to come within a goal of a shock advance. While the Aussies were considered the better side, they had to recover from a 4-0 pummelling by Germany that ended their hopes before they began and showed serious Socceroo chops in tying Ghana before ending Serbian dreams of Balkan dominance through soccer glory.

BEST GOAL BY A TEAM HEADING HOME EARLY: Fabio Quagliarella, Italy v. Slovakia

His audacious chip from 25 yards in the 92nd minute belonged in a game where the Azzurri were winning comfortably -- something they were in no danger of managing in 2010. It was not the kind of strike you'd expect from a team facing elimination, though it makes you wonder how much different things would have been if Italy had played with such flair and imagination from the get-go.

BEST GOAL CELEBRATION: Siphiwe Tshabalala

National pride aside, the Bafana Bafana didn't have much to cheer about on the field this tournament. But after Tshabalala's rocket shot against Mexico, the hometown boys gathered in the corner for a synchronized, Macarena-style jig that roused fans around the world. He promised more dances, though sadly, we never got to see them.

GOLDEN BOOT IN MOUTH AWARD: Diego Maradona

After Pele questioned the abilities of Argentina's coach, Maradona told reporters that the Brazilian legend should "go back to the museum."

LINDSAY LOHAN AWARD FOR WORST ACTING: Daniele De Rossi, Italy v. New Zealand

Props must be given to Kader Keita of Ivory Coast and Arturo Vidal of Chile for using their powers of simulation to get opponents sent off (Kaka and Switzerland's Valon Behrami, respectively), but the Italian midfielder's fall from grace earned his side an undeserved penalty against a dominant (yes, dominant) New Zealand team that astonishingly finished ahead of the Azzurri in Group F.

WHIFF HEARD ROUND THE WORLD (OR AT LEAST AS FAR AS ENGLAND): Lukas Podolski, Germany

Poldi had a difficult season for Cologne, but we didn't know how bad it was until his pathetic penalty kick against Serbia -- the first miss by a German player in a non-shootout since 1974. It could have earned Die Mannschaft a draw in a game they played for an hour without Miroslav Klose, sent off during the first half, but it wasn't to be. Easily the worst penalty kick since Roberto Baggio's in 1994, which was last seen orbiting somewhere over Pasadena.

MOST FASHIONABLE MANAGER: Joachim Low, Germany

Low looked like a grad school poetry professor, sporting a white T-shirt and black cardigan on the sideline.

MOST LIKELY TO RENOUNCE HIS CITIZENSHIP: Zinedine Zidane

The French legend, forever immortalized for his World Cup final headbutt, was said to be advising the Algerian team in its tournament build-up. Considering that the Foxes arguably acquitted themselves better than their neighbors to the far north, it's perhaps best for him to remain with the boys from the Casbah.

JOAQUIN PHOENIX AWARD FOR BEST NECK BEARD: Robinho, Brazil

We'd give this to Wayne Rooney if his fake beard in the commercials weren't better than his real-life neck fuzz. Maradona's comes close for its venerable scruff, but Robinho's chin-strap wins by a few whiskers because it's inspired a fan movement urging him to remove it immediately. When an entire nation rebels against your facial hair, then you know you're a superstar.

WORST CLICHÉ OF THE OPENING ROUND: Calling a team "compact"

If you forgot to do your pregame homework, you can rely on calling the team "compact." It's a concise way of saying hyper-organized, disciplined on defense and having a high workrate. In others words, it's a synonym for anti-soccer.

David Hirshey is the co-author (with Roger Bennett) of "The ESPN World Cup Companion: Everything You Need to Know About the Planet's Biggest Sporting Event."