(Reuters) – In a tournament where the expected headline-grabbers turned out to be mere footnotes it was good old-fashioned teamwork that proved the key factor for the countries advancing to the latter stages.
David Villa, Diego Forlan, Miroslav Klose, Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Thomas Mueller all had their share of the limelight but the defining aspect of the tournament has been the lack of stand-out individuals.
Spain epitomize the approach better than anyone, with every player drilled to a supreme level of technical ability, concentration and spatial awareness that enables them to create patterns of passes probably unsurpassed by any previous nation.
Villa has been the man to finish most of the moves off as the chess game produced a series of narrow but convincing victories but Andres Iniesta, Xavi, Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets were almost interchangeable in their midfield maze.
When striker Fernando Torres was dropped for the semi-final, Pepe stepped in and the machine carried on without a hitch.
“It shows you that a team is not just one player,” said goalkeeper Iker Casillas. “A player can win the tournament for you, like Argentina with (Diego) Maradona (in 1986) but, in the end, everything depends on teamwork.”
Netherlands have reached the final with the same approach. Robben catches the eye but the Dutch have won with and without him. Robin van Persie is the big-name forward but it has been the unselfish running of Dirk Kuyt that has created more danger.
Sneijder has been the fulcrum of the Dutch team, chalking up a remarkable five goals and four Man of the Match awards, but Mark van Bommel and Nigel de Jong sweated blood to win the ball and create space for the playmaker to operate in.
The Dutch defence have also operated superbly, though somewhat under the radar, while goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg’s flying save from Kaka to prevent Brazil going 2-0 up in their quarter-final probably kept them in the tournament.
Germany, of course, set the pattern for teamwork decades ago and sure enough a new generation of players eased into their roles seamlessly in South Africa.
The injury-enforced absence of their biggest name, captain Michael Ballack, worked in Germany’s favour as younger players stood up to take more responsibility.
Midfielders Mesut Ozil, Mueller and Schweinsteiger all gilded their reputations while strikers Klose and Lukas Podolski, who both had terrible club seasons, thrived in the atmosphere of giving their all for the country.
Counter-attacking takes a lot of energy and a faith that your team mate will play the right ball to reward your 70 metre run. Germany perfected the art in South Africa.
More often than not they took the right option and, when the lungs and lactic acid suggested it might be time to “wait and see,” the players invariably worked even harder to give support.
Coach Joachim Loew said that rather than automatically picking the best players, he had a vision of how his team would perform and chose those he knew would carry it out.
Uruguay, Paraguay and Ghana also built their progress on a collective will but other fancied teams, whose hopes were too wrapped up with their big names, floundered.
Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal, Wayne Rooney’s England, Kaka and Robinho’s Brazil and Lionel Messi’s Argentina all failed at one stage or another partly due to the inability of their marquee names to produce what was expected.
Maradona recognized the time when a superstar player could win a World Cup virtually single-handed was gone.
“We were more selfish as players,” he said.” I wanted to do everything but it’s a very different game these days.”
(Editing by Ken Ferris)