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Monday, July 12, 2010
Goodbye, World Cup ... thanks for the ride


Shane Smeltz
Shane Smeltz's unlikely goal for New Zealand helped knock out defending champion Italy.

That was one final not to remember. And now it's done. This African World Cup, which faked us out by briefly becoming the "South American World Cup," revealed its true NATO character come the semifinals. Above all, this was the World Cup of Parity, in which Switzerland beat Spain, Serbia topped Germany, and Italy was tied by New Zealand, which even brought on an investment counselor, amateur Andy Barron, as a late substitute.

There is plenty I will not miss. The Jabulani was the Ford Pinto of footballs. Even NASA proved beyond all scientific doubt that FIFA and adidas' dastardly offspring had handcuffed play. And the vuvuzelas. I hope there is some truth to the rumor that the sound technician who invented the vuvuzela filter that muted the omnipresent waspish rasp on our television feed is up for a Nobel Prize for science. Enjoy the sound, America. The vuvuzela is poised to become the latest thunderstick-esque fad to infiltrate your stadia.

The World Cup is in the books, and here are 10 things we will miss with all of our hearts at Off The Ball.

1. The final frontier: The African World Cup

The first moment of the World Cup was also among the most outstanding. The opening ceremony announced the long overdue arrival of World Cup football to the continent of Africa. Before the host South Africans kicked off against a fluent Mexico team, the Bafana Bafana tumbled out of the tunnel, and even the most cynical eyes, yet to be Jabulani scarred, were filled with tears.

Step up, Mr. Siphiwe Tshabalala, to spank home a blast that sent a continent into ecstasy. Cue Archbishop Desmond Tutu to shuffle around his executive box in abandon, even momentarily waking up Joe Biden from his soccer-induced slumber. The long-term legacy of the tournament is yet to be seen, but if the next FIFA president wants to bring the World Cup to a new continent, he will have to tackle Antarctica. (Good news, England. That will be a proper winter World Cup.)

2. The World Cup of Twitter

The World Cup used to have a rigid news cycle, refreshing itself roughly once a day with the publication of the morning paper. Twitter made following the torrent of information a round-the-clock job, changing the very way we watch football. Come game time, Michael Davies, my partner in blog and pod, would be in the same room as a television set yet would barely glance at it, preferring to monitor the Twitter feed scrolling at nosebleed pace on his cell phone.

And why not? Everyone was on it. Even Sepp Blatter (@seppblatter):

Please message me with your comments and questions about football and FIFA's work, I'll try to answer as many as I can. 11:01 AM Jun 10th

Right!

Our hands-down favorite digital philosopher was Herculez Gomez, who became the U.S. team's diarist. Here are Herculez Gomez's Twitter Greatest Hitz:

Wonder what Shakira is doing right now... what are the chances she is thinking of me? hmmmmmm.

Lebron to Miami!?!(Gulp) My Lakeshow just pee themselves a bit... just a bit.

Shakira... Yes please. How do I meet her? Am I even worthy? Sch-wing!

What an amazing day.. I have never been so close to Wild animals before.. I even was allowed to play with the lion cubs.. ridonculous!!

3. World Cup of teams trumping individuals

Nike hit a bum note. Its "Write the Future" campaign overemphasized the role of individual players in this sport. Few stars excelled at this tournament. This was a World Cup in which team play won the day, a truth proved by the performance of the mighty All Whites of New Zealand, a throwback to the amateur roots of the World Cup. The Kiwis arrived dreaming of scoring a single goal, and left as the only unbeaten team in the tournament. With his seventh-minute strike against the Italians, Shane "Smeltzy" Smeltz demonstrated why he is worthy of the nickname "Super Striker." While I was unable to persuade my wife to honor the enormity of his achievement by naming our son born on June 20 after Shane, the striker received his true reward when English Premier League team Fulham was poised to make a big-money move for his services. Sadly, the rumor proved unfounded. Smeltz is now on his way to Chinese team Shandong Luneng.

4. The kids are all right: The World Cup of youth development

Was there a more admirable team than Germany at this World Cup? In the run-up to the tournament, the Germans lost one starter after another to injury, including captain Michael Ballack. A slew of young, inexperienced individuals were drafted in to plug the gaps on the starting XI, including Thomas Muller and Mesut Ozil. The team proceeded to play brave, sweeping, ambitious football. Its success was a tribute to the Germans' visionary youth development program and the nation's willingness to invest in the future. Telling stat: Germany has 34,970 coaches who hold UEFA's specialist licenses. Spain has 23,995. England has just 2,679. This German team will be among the favorites come 2014.

5. Was this the World Cup's single greatest moment of skill?

German midfielder Mesut Ozil cooly plays keepie uppie with his chewing gum, never cracking a smile as he proves his world-class pedigree.

6. USA! USA! USA!

How long will we have to feast on that goal and the spectacular piece of commentary by Ian Darke, the Poet Laureate of this World Cup, which accompanied it: "You could not write a script like this!"

The U.S. team had the nation in the palm of its hands from the Slovenia game until its demise. A nasty habit of spotting opponents early goals was ultimately its undoing. The Americans returned home after the defeat to Ghana and will now have four years to agonize over the missed opportunity of a wide-open bracket they played themselves out of far too soon.

Bob Bradley's team played with an energy and determination that made it one of the most likable teams in American sports. More should be expected of the Yanks in 2014 and beyond. Two elements appear critical to the sport's development: Heavy lifting must be applied to untangle the grass roots of the game and assemble a comprehensive youth system (see Germany). And a successful bid for the 2018 or 2022 World Cup will give the growing American fan base a marquee event on home turf to build toward. (Sign up now.) My highest hope for the legacy of Landon Donovan's goal is that across this country a handful of elite athletes currently 8 or 9 years of age witnessed the strike and will be inspired to work on their games so they can lead the line to victory come 2022.

7. Best indicator this was not going to be your World Cup

The referees announced they had undertaken a crash course to master 20 swear words in your language.

8. The World Cup of non-football copycat storylines

OK. Most were annoying. First, Paraguayan swimsuit model Dallys Ferreira offered to "make love to each member of the Paraguay World Cup team" if they lift the trophy, adding, "The players know my pledge still stands. Women from my country are ardent, and to be honest, I'm more ardent than most. I take no notice of societal norms." Before we knew it, Larissa Riquelme offered to have the World Cup tattooed on her ample bosom before running naked through the streets of Paraguay if they were victorious. Then Dutch porn star Bobbi Eden offered her services to anyone who followed her on Twitter should the Netherlands win. Of course, they did not. But she now has over 110,000 followers.

Thankfully, the ladies were eventually shoved out of the media spotlight by wise animals. Paul the octopus had his 256-1 prediction odyssey, and then Mani the Singaporean parakeet and Lin Ping the Thai panda crashed the news cycle and followed suit.

The only one of these trumped-up media phenomenon (OK, besides Paul; he was pretty cool) that actually won me over was the fuss surrounding German coach Jogi Low's lucky cashmere V-neck. The tasty number was ultimately auctioned off for charity, but when the "Jogi Bonito" clothing line arrives on these shores this fall, I will be first in line.

9. Maradona: The genius of a madman

Like him or loathe him, Diego Maradona was one of the most fascinating storylines of this World Cup: two watches, one polyester job-interview suit, a crucifix and a quarterfinal walloping. The action at his news conferences often trumped that which unfolded on the field, such as an off-the-cuff validation of his own heterosexuality ("I like women! I'm dating Veronica. She is 31. She is blonde. She is very pretty!). His "What's the matter with you, Schweinsteiger, are you nervousshhh?" deadpan in a fake German accent stands as one of the great misfires in tournament history, burnishing his reputation as Argentina's No. 1 even while undermining his status as a competent manager.

10. How do you say "mazel tov" in Spanish?

Even more fun than watching Spain at this World Cup was watching Spanish commentators watch Spain. Their ebullient reaction was in marked contrast to that of surly coach Vincent del Bosque, who barely demonstrated a smidgen of emotion throughout. His team's achievement was epic, especially as it lost its first game yet recovered to overcome a tradition of mental fragility by playing with precision and steel.

A beautiful pregame piece in the Spanish daily Marca captures the enormity of its achievement: "Lo que soņamos desde niņos" -- "what they dreamed of as children." Photos of the present squad are contrasted with shots taken back when they were youngsters. Sadly, there are none of Carles Puyol. And somehow, Sergio Ramos looks older as a kid than he does today.

I am a firm believer in Albert Camus' claim that "All I know about morality and the obligations of men, I owe to football." Siphiwe Tshabalala, Luis Suarez, Robert Green, Mark Van Bommel, Diego Forlan, Nicolas Anelka, Landon Donovan, Asamoah Gyan, Thomas Muller, Felipe Melo, Fernando Torres, People's Rooney, Rooney's Rooney and Shane Smeltz have all collectively taught us a lifetime of lessons about human triumph, failure and motivation.

I have loved every second of this World Cup, and the conversations Michael Davies and I have had with many of you over e-mail and Twitter. And the good news is, we have to wait only 1,419 days until Brazil 2014.