By Joe Meloni
The stat lines of a few of the world’s best through the first few weeks of the 2010 World Cup may have left a few of the game’s newest fans a little confused. They’re wondering why Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo failed to lead his nation deeper in the tournament with a dazzling set-piece or two. They sat waiting as Spain and Portugal battled in the Round of 16, but they wound up remembering the name Gerard Pique instead as the massive Barcelona defender helped stifle Ronaldo and the entire Portuguese attack. Those opting to watch Argentina clamored with anticipation while Leo Messi left a defender or two in his path only to hit a ball wide or send one sailing into the crowd. It was Messi’s countryman Gonzalo Higuain drawing most of the praise for the Argentines in their run to the Quarterfinals.
Now, both Argentina and Portugal performed well in the tournament despite their exists. After all, only one team can win the tournament. And Ronaldo and Messi had their moments — even if most aren’t astute enough soccer viewers to notice their effect at this point in their football education. Among the most noticeable contributions entering this week’s Semifinal matchups are those from players just beginning to make their mark on the international stage.
Spain’s Pique has risen quickly through the ranks of the world’s center backs since becoming first choice for Barcelona in recent years. While his savvy often goes unnoticed by most, his performance in South Africa has only furthered the comparisons to German sweeper Franz Beckenbauer. As the Spain fullbacks and midfielders focus a little too much on goal-getting occasionally, it’s clear now that Pique is almost always there to bail them out. Beyond his flawless positioning and uncanny vision, his ability to pass easily out of traffic and initiate offensive outbreaks only increases his value. Players like Pique wear captain’s arm bands for years at a time. Once Carlos Puyol’s career at Barcelona and with Spain are over, it’s clear Pique will carry the responsibility well and the transfer with be smooth.
On Wednesday, Pique’s charge will be managing the onslaught of a few German front runners with lofty futures of their own.
Werder Bremen midfielder Mesut Ozil isn’t Germany’s leading scorer, nor has he garnered a majority of the attention as Lukas Podolski, Thomas Mueller and Miroslav Klose continue to pepper goalkeepers. Still, maintaining possession has enabled the Germans to score 13 goals in their five games played thus far.
Ozil’s ability to maintain possession while advancing the ball toward the box has been a key in the German attack and it will need to continue as the tackles from Pique and Puyol come frequently. Of Germany’s 13 goals, Ozil has collected three assists along with his own marker, which has attracted interest from several clubs throughout Europe. In the last week, Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea have all been linked with Ozil, and he has publicly acknowledged a desire to play with one of England’s biggest clubs.
One thing helping Ozil shine in South Africa has been the similarly meteoric rise of Mueller, the 20-year-old striker from Bayern Munich, who’s scored four goals in the tournament. While a pair of yellow cards deemed him ineligible for Wednesday’s battle with Spain, the Germans owe a portion of their success to Mueller’s performance thus far. Youth was the story for Germany entering the tournament as manager Joachim Low pieced together the second youngest side in the tournament, just behind Ghana.
Ozil and Mueller aren’t the only newcomers to international soccer making serious impressions for Germany. Midfielder Sami Khedira and goalkeeper Manuel Neuer overcame their inexperience and skepticism of their fellow countrymen to guide the Germans to within two wins of another World Cup victory.
In their latest game, the 4-0 win over Argentina, the Germans frustrated the young guns of the Albiceleste leading to cries for the job of manager and No. 1 fanboy Diego Maradona from Argentine fans. Aside from Messi, Higuain’s hat trick against South Korea cemented his reputation as one of the world’s best scorers; as if 29 goals in 39 games for Real Madrid didn’t provide adequate evidence of his brilliance.
The list continues with American Michael Bradley, who maybe a transfer away from becoming one of the best holding midfielders in the world to Ghana striker Asamoah Gyan, who will be remembered forever for his spectacular miss in the final seconds of extra time against Uruguay on Saturday more than his extra-time winner against the U.S. in the Round of 16.
Even as this tournament has likely marked the end of the international careers for stars like Thierry Henry, Fabio Cannavaro and Luis Fabiano among others, it has marked the beginning of a few others that make it clear how bright the future of our game is.
Joe Meloni is a contributing editor and writer for The Soccer Guys. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org