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Why dwell on the mistakes of the distant future -- yes, you, Qatar 2022 -- when we can revel in both the glory and the hideous missteps of the recent past? South Africa 2010 started with the screeching yowl of vuvuzelas and ended with a richly deserving Spain tippy-tapping its way to the title. In between the cacophony and the crowning, there were many good, bad and ugly moments, embedded in our hearts like a pair of Nigel de Jong cleats.
Here are 10 of my favorites in descending order.
10. Paul The Octopus
Has any cephalopod ever made a bigger splash than the eight-armed sage with the flawless World Cup predictions? And what an impact this little inkling had -- he incited Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to accuse him of spreading "western propaganda and superstition" and even incurred death threats from overly compensating bipodal Germans who were outraged that Herr Paul (who resided in Oberhausen) would pick Spain to beat Die Mannschaft in the semis. Sadly, OctoPaul had no premonition that he would soon sleep with the fishes -- his psychic gifts were lost to the world in October, right before he could predict that the English World Cup bid would garner only one vote more than the mythical land of Xanadu. Everyone will honor this legendary prognosticator in his own way, but I, for one, will never eat his cousin, calamari, with quite the same gusto again.
9. The "New" Germany
For decades, I was under the impression that the First Law of Beckenbauerean Thermodynamics demanded that German soccer be efficient and loveless. And dominating. And blond.
|Thomas Mueller (right) and Germany outshone Lionel Messi's Argentina on the world's stage in South Africa.|
But the 2010 squad shattered these stereotypes. Germany played flowing, attacking soccer with a team that could be an attraction at Disney's "It's a Small World." Lukas Podolski and Piotr Trochowski were Polish-born, Cacau is Brazilian, and Jerome Boateng, Sami Khedira, Mario Gomez and Mesut Ozil are all from foreign lineage. With iconically dour national team captain Michael Ballack -- the ultimate embodiment of the Beckenbauer Law with his muscular, bullying style -- unable to suit up with a broken ankle, manager Joachim Loew's young team played some of the most joyful, carefree soccer of any team in South Africa. Who can forget the way they blithely shredded a hapless England side 4-1 in the second round or their 4-0 evisceration of Argentina, a match during which Lionel Messi was reduced to foraging for scraps deep in his own half?
Loew's bold tactics made Thomas Mueller a Golden Boot winner at age 20 and turned Miroslav Klose, useless at the club level for Bayern Munich, into a goal-poaching machine. But the player Loew liberated more than any other was the team's spiritual leader, Bastian Schweinsteiger. The defensive midfielder morphed into the second coming of the great German savior, Lothar Matthaus, bursting forward from deep to score the third goal against Argentina in which he split three defenders before calmly slotting home. While the vast majority of the entrenched European sides (England and Italy, I'm calling your names) played with a tightness and fear of failure, the Germans danced all the way to the semifinals before Spain proved too much for them.
Klose but no cigar.
8. Vuvuzelas And The People Who Incessantly Droned On About Them
I would never suggest that any World Cup year blew, but that was before I developed tinnitus from watching this tournament. Those dreaded plastic horns that sounded like a swarm of bees on acid were the third-most irritating thing in South Africa last summer, surpassed only by atrocious refereeing and Nicolas Anelka's epic pouting fit.
Still, the way people carried on about them, you'd have thought they were a bigger threat to world peace than North Korean nukes or Sepp Blatter himself. It was the comical FIFA uber-president, of course, who was the most staunch defender of the vuvus, claiming they represented "what African and South Africa football is all about: noise, excitement, dancing, shouting and enjoyment." Really? I always thought that African soccer was about Roger Milla's corner flag dance, the majesty of Samuel Eto'o and the Bafana Bafana.
Thankfully for 2014, Brazilian soccer is all about supermodels.
7. England's Lions Go Out Like Lambs
The sun rises and sets. Kirstie Alley waxes and wanes. And every four years England's soccer shores are awash in unbridled optimism. But in 2010, for the first time since 1998, the sport's motherland had good reason to be hopeful. The Three Lions had stampeded through the qualifiers, and with the irrepressible Wayne Rooney joining the talented and mature foursome of Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, John Terry and Rio Ferdinand, it was starting to feel like 1966 all over again. Running the show was one of the world's most experienced and savvy managers in Fabio Capello and the World Cup draw had been unbelievably soft, with England matched up with the U.S., Algeria, and Slovenia.
And then it all fell apart faster than Terry in a sex rehab clinic.
Gerrard got the English campaign off to a roaring start with a lovely goal in the fourth minute, but it was epically meek from there. In spite of having one of the world's most in-form keepers in Joe Hart, Capello stuck with Robert Green and was taught a lesson known by every English schoolboy -- don't rely on a post-Bobby Moore era West Ham player for anything. After Green's hand-delivered gift to Clint Dempsey created a 1-1 score line in that group opener, nothing much else happened, and the tie kept alive the U.S. streak of never having lost to England in a World Cup match. Then came the most turgid game of the entire tournament, as England managed not a single goal against a weak Algerian side before finally scraping into the second round with a nervy 1-0 win over the juggernaut that is Slovenia.
Ultimately, it was fitting that England be drawn against its 1966 championship victim, Germany, and be subsequently beaten to a 4-1 pulp by Loew's brilliant young squad. In the process, the Germans managed to showcase many of the worst English traits. The perennially dreadful Gerrard-Lampard tandem -- a duo as incompatible as Barney Frank and Glenn Beck -- led a Three Lions attack that looked slow, sloppy and as clueless as a Spurs supporter handed a cloth napkin at the dinner table. It didn't even matter that Lamps had a clear goal disallowed, although that didn't prevent Fat Frank from being the only sentient person watching the game who could say with a straight face, "No one can tell me that Germany was a lot better than us."
I can, Frank. Yes. They. Were.
6. The Frantic Final 10 Minutes Of Italy vs. Slovakia
For whatever reason, the Azzurri never really arrived at the World Cup until their time was almost spent. Marcello Lippi, one of Italy's most respected managers, brought a squad of senior citizens to a party that demanded fresh, energetic legs, and their antiquity was exposed in draws against the dour defense of Paraguay and the down-under pluck of New Zealand. It didn't help that Gigi Buffon, the man charged with preserving national pride and catenaccio, was injured and hobbled off in the opener, taking with him the spirit of the team along with any hopes the defending champion had of advancing.
And yet, in their third match, with their backs tacked to the wall by the nail gun of a younger, hungrier Slovak team, the aging XI of Italy reached back across the years to produce 10 minutes of pulsating frenzy. It was an effort that channeled the ghosts of the storied 1982 side which so famously decimated Brazil en route to lifting the Cup. Down and apparently hopelessly out 2-0 to the Slovakians, the Italians scored in the 81st minute to begin a hurly-burly 10 minutes of soccer that ranked as the best one-ninth of a game in South Africa. And even though Kamil Kopunek seemingly sealed the match with Slovakia's third goal in the 89th minute, Italy's second of the game (and last of the tournament) was a Fabio Quagliarella strike so breathtaking that it will live in Azzurri memory long after the pain of their abject early exit.
Quagliarella, a late second-half substitute, received the ball 25 yards out on the right and eschewed the easy option of simply blasting a shot on goal. Instead, with his team on the brink of elimination, he had the astonishing presence of mind to glance up and spot the Slovak keeper wandering off his line. A sublime flick of the ankle later and the dreaded World Cup ball, the Jabulani, so impossible to control, was floating into the net. Bellissimo!
5. The Stones Of Asamoah Gyan
African soccer teams were a disappointment in this tournament. Not only did South Africa become the first-ever host nation to fail to advance to the second round, but the six African invitees won a combined total of four out of 20 games and continued the continent's streak of never reaching a World Cup semifinal. And while the Didier Drogba-led Ivory Coast veterans were the favorites to make a deep run, it was the Black Stars of Ghana who carried Africa's hopes forward, an entirely unexpected result given that their best player, Michael Essien, was out injured.
|Ghana's striker Asamoah Gyan reacts during the dramatic quarterfinal match with Uruguay at the 2010 World Cup.|
The Ghanians played with power and pace, an engine revved up by Kevin-Prince Boateng in the middle, and became increasingly inspiring to watch even as Asamoah Gyan's 93rd-minute glory goal sent Uncle Sam's Army packing in the round of 16. In the quarterfinals, against a superior Uruguayan team, the American dream-killer came within the width of the crossbar of taking Ghana to the promised land.
Ghana took the lead on the stroke of halftime, only to have Diego Forlan launch another thunderbolt from the blue to tie it up. The teams slogged back and forth, and as penalty kicks loomed, the Black Stars took advantage of a scramble to knock the ball goalward for what seemed to be the last-gasp game winner. Uruguay's Luis Suarez put his own stamp on a World Cup "Hand of God" (apparently this is a South American specialty) and slapped the ball off the line. Penalty to Ghana.
The world watched in agony as Gyan stepped up to alter the course of African football history, only to see his penalty kick clang off the crossbar and into the annals of painful World Cup moments. What does a man do after blowing the most important shot in his nation's -- and continent's -- history? Does he slink off in tears as his team battles on without him in the ensuing shootout? Not when one possesses Gyan's granite stones. To his immortal credit, the striker demanded to take the first penalty kick in the shootout and nervelessly slotted it home. Though it wasn't enough to prevent Ghana's ultimate defeat, we'll always remember that game for those two indelible last-minute images showing the yin and yang of World Cup honor: Gyan's stoic post-PK stance juxtaposed against Suarez's shameful sideline jig following the original miss.
4. The Class Of Diego Forlan
Of all of the unlikely scenarios in South Africa 2010 -- an English victory; an African semifinalist; a screechingly free stadium -- perhaps the most delightfully unexpected were the stunning re-emergence of Uruguay as a World Cup power after 40 years in the wilderness and the equally surprising transformation of its inspirational leader, Diego Forlan, into one of the world's most fearsome strikers, at age 31.
Though he scored five goals and would be selected the player of the tournament, the moment that is most seared into the brain is not of a Forlan golazzo but of a shot that he struck on the absolute last kick of the thrilling third-place game that didn't go in. Forlan had given the Charruas the lead in the 51st minute on a goal that epitomized the skill and verve the one-time Manchester United washout and Michael Bolton look-alike brought to the tournament. Lurking at the edge of the box, he received the ball in heavy traffic and, in one seamless motion, venomously lashed it down into the ground and up into the right-hand corner of the net. But the Germans would come back to score twice to go ahead 3-2 before a free kick was awarded to Uruguay with no time left on the clock. Up stepped Diego, who had already scored a couple of wondrous dead-ball screamers -- one of the few stars able to bend the fabled Jabulani to his will -- and the stadium held its breath. The ball arrowed toward the top left-hand corner of the net and at the last second dipped down and caromed off the crossbar. Forlan threw his head back in resignation like a man who knew that he had exhausted his good fortune and wasn't about to complain.
3. The Comedy Stylings Of Diego Maradona
Say what you want about El Diego -- and the English have bloviated endlessly since 1986 -- he remains one of the most compelling characters in the sport. Treated as a punch line by almost every pundit and member of the soccer cognoscenti, his much-maligned team just obliterated the competition early on, squashing South Korea, Greece and Nigeria by a combined 7-1 and dismantling a decent Mexico side 3-1 in the round of 16. That set up the long-awaited rematch with Germany, which knocked Argentina out so painfully in 2006. But individual talent, no matter how transcendent, can go only so far, and Maradona's tactical naiveté makes 'Arry "Just run about" Redknapp look like the inventor of Total Football.
All was brutally exposed against the fast-moving, free-flowing Germans, who must have thought Oktoberfest had come early. With Maradona's bizarre decisions to leave both Juan Riquelme and Javier Zanetti off the squad, two men who were arguably Argentina's best midfielder and defender, and his equally odd selection of using center backs at every fullback position, Maradona had no answers for Germany's pace and width. His solution was to ask Lionel Messi, the best striker in the world, to drop back and play like a holding midfielder. After Germany scored its second goal in the 68th minute, all Diego could do was stroke his salt-and-pepper beard and sweat in increasingly copious and visually disturbing amounts.
That said, Diego wasn't the worst coach in South Africa -- that honor was shared by France's clownish Raymond Domenech and Italy's surprisingly clueless Marcello Lippi -- but he was a disservice to a team that could easily have won it all.
2. Spanish Celebration; Dutch Despair
The record will show that Spain won a tense 2010 final on a brilliant piece of technical skill by Andres Iniesta, the Robin to Xavi's Batman. But that wasn't the story of the game, as no less a Dutch master than Johann Cruyff felt compelled to label the Oranje's "maul first, get the ball later" approach a disgrace. While the 1-0 loss will simply enter the growing pantheon of Holland's World Cup final defeats -- three and counting -- what will not be forgotten is how the Dutch violated their own soccer ethos, tarnishing a proud history of bright and effusive play.
Cruyff's comments were the ultimate condemnation of a Dutch side that had come swaggering into the final on the back of a 25-match unbeaten streak that owed much to the combined artistry of Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben. Rather than play to their strengths, the team's brain trust decided to adopt boot-to-the-sternum tactics to take a Barcelona-fueled Spanish side out of its slick, short passing game. Led by remorseless thugs, Mark Van Pummel -- sorry, Van Bommel -- and Nigel "Kung Fu" de Jong, the Dutch essentially dared the Spanish to orchestrate their neat little triangles while being splattered all over the field. To Holland's everlasting shame, it almost worked.
Had it not been for two sensational saves by Iker Casillas, who thwarted a somewhat hobbled Robben on one-on-one breakaways, the world might have been forced to rationalize the wisdom of Holland's brutish, physical manhandling rather than glorying in the beauty of Spain's incandescent talent.
But with a fierce side volley into the far corner of the net after being set up by Cesc Fabregas in the 116th minute, Iniesta saw to it that the Spaniards were campeones del mundo for the next four years. And that de Jong's chest-rattling flying kick will live forever in both Howard Webb's mind and the lore of soccer infamy.
1. Landon Donovan's Goal Against Algeria
Where were you and what were you doing on June 23, 2010? Like millions of other American soccer fans, I was playing hooky with a group of friends at my local pub, watching in growing horror as another referee in need of Lasik surgery tried to steal yet another victory from the U.S. Just five days earlier, a Malian blind-as-a-bat whistle blower, Koman "Grand Theft" Coulibaly, had waved off Maurice Edu's game-winning effort against Slovenia due to an infraction that only he and Demi Moore's character from "Ghost" could see. And in the 20th minute of the Algeria match, a Belgian referee (excellent beer makers, those Belgians) had incredibly ruled that a 20th-minute Clint Dempsey goal was offside. So now, with the clock ticking down against the Algerians in a highly entertaining 0-0 tie (a result that would have sent the Americans off on an early safari), I leaned over to my friend Gui, who was enjoying a late breakfast of scrambled eggs (with ketchup!) and mumbled, "Screwed again."
|Landon Donovan's late goal against Algeria saves the Americans from first-round elimination and sends the team into the knockout rounds.|
Just then, Tim Howard caught the ball and launched the greatest fast break since "The Great Escape" with a monster throw to Landon Donovan that covered half the distance of the field. Donovan swiftly passed the ball to Jozy Altidore, who slipped it to Dempsey, who was wide open in the middle of the box. The Algerian keeper quickly closed down the space, blocking Deuce's shot. But Donovan, who had kept his run going, steamed into the box to cooly side-foot the rebound into an open net. From out of the Cup to first place in the group in 11 miraculous seconds.
As the ball hit the twine, I catapulted out of my chair with such torque that Gui's breakfast went flying, and not for the first time I ended up with egg all over my face. Only this time I was so giddy that I refused to wipe it off until I had looked over at the linesman to see whether his flag was raised. Had it been, I think I would have stabbed myself in the head with a fork.
That Donovan was the hero seemed only fitting. In the face of hideous refereeing and mocking girly-man references, he never stopped running or creating until he had scored the biggest goal in American soccer history and made believers out of fans from Pretoria to Peoria.David Hirshey has been covering soccer for more than 30 years and has written about the sport for The New York Times, Time, ESPN The Magazine and Deadspin. He is the co-author of "The ESPN World Cup Companion" and played himself (almost convincingly) in the acclaimed soccer documentary "Once in a Lifetime."