* Crazy/ugly: Michael Ballack (CORRECTION: Michael Ballack's agent) is alleged to have called the German national team "a bunch of gays."
* Crazy/beautiful: Diego Maradona has been given a 4 year extension as Argentina coach.
* Just nuts: England has risen a spot in the FIFA World Rankings.
All this post-pitch madness reminded me that I need to say my own goodbye to the 2010 Cup, and I need to do it in a way that avoids gay-bashing, passionate but tragically inept genius, and incomprehensible ranking schemes. What will you take away from this World Cup? Besides, of course, Paul the Octopus. I'm going to present my final thoughts in the classic Iron List countdown:
8. Uruguay Is a Real Place. At DC's Dulles airport, getting ready to fly out to Montana, we ran into a surprisingly enormous flock of Uruguayan teenage girls, complete with flag ponchos, face paint, and deafening Spanish shrieks. I think something like 25% of Uruguay's 14-15 year old girls were in that airport (remember, there are less people in all Uruguay than in Kentucky). "VOTE FOR URUGUAY!" "VOTE FOR UR-U-GUAY!" I didn't, but I was still glad to see this tiny country, rich with soccer characters -- both historic and contemporary -- get some national due (outside of a brief, if legendary, appearance on the Simpsons).
6. Spain Won the Cup, But the Cup Won America. Between the lively, compelling play of Team USA, the generally growing popularity of soccer nationwide, and ESPN's nonstop hype machine, this Cup broke all kinds of records for TV viewership. I remember at the beginning of the Cup, skeptic Jon Chait at TNR mocked soccer triumphalists by pointing out that the Auburn-Northwestern Outback Bowl scored a higher English-language rating than the USA-Slovenia game. But that's a silly standard: of course group play at the World Cup is not going to blow New Year's Day bowl games out of the water. The Cup Final, though, which didn't feature the USA, England, or a celebrity team like Brazil or Italy, still earned 15.5 million English speaking viewers, and 8.8 million more Spanish ones. That combined 24.3 mill is far more than all but two BCS bowl games this year (Alabama-Texas and OSU-Oregon), more than any Lakers-Celtics NBA Finals game except Game 7, and more than any of the six games in the 2009 Phillies-Yankees World Series (Don't even mention hockey -- it's not even close). This despite all these pro sports championships being played at prime time, while the Cup went down at 2:30 in the afternoon. Let's face it: we may not really be a nation of soccer fans, but we do tune in for the World Cup.
Spain, meanwhile, played the best football of the tournament. More fluid and offensive-minded than Holland, more dominant in possession than Germany, firmer at the back than Argentina, and mentally sturdier than Brazil, the Spanish survived their opening hiccup against Switzerland and called this tournament their own. I thought they might struggle without the steady, ball-winning presence of Marcos Senna, but I was wrong: the unsung Sergio Busquets was a more than adequate replacement. In fact, despite all the laudatory adjectives bestowed on the brilliant potato-bug Iniesta, center-pitch pilot Xavi, and wriggly scorer David Villa, it's the Spanish back four -- plus Casillas, Busquets and Xabi Alonso -- that deserve the most credit for the team's four consecutive 1-0 triumphs. Adding these totals to Spain's Euro 2008 run, that makes 7 knockout matches, 8 goals scored, and zero goals allowed. ZERO. In so many high-pressure matches in a row, that's a more impressive defensive accomplishment, even, than Italy's 2006 run.
3. International Soccer is Still Too Goal-Averse. I was just praising the Spanish defense for their sturdiness in South Africa, but what does it say when the gorgeous, liquid, tiki-taki passers of Spain win a World Cup and the real reason is the play of their back seven? Look at those totals again from Euro '08 and this year: 7 knockout matches, 8 goals scored, 0 goals allowed. The zero is great; the eight ain't. The paucity of Spanish goals is, in my mind, the biggest factor stopping us from comparing them to great multiple-title teams of the past (In their seven games on the way to titles in '98 and '00, for instance, Zidane's France scored 12 and allowed 4).
But I don't want to single out the Spanish. In fact, everyone -- everyone but Chile, maybe, and, tragically, Argentina -- played much too cautiously. This tournament's 2.27 goals per game is the second lowest to 1990's 2.21. It's easy to see why they did: no one wants to get exposed the way Maradona's forward-pushing team was unwrapped against Germany. Defense clearly has an advantage over offense, and perhaps there's nothing we can (or should) do about it. But whether I simply must teach myself to appreciate the grinding joy of 1-0 after 1-0 after 1-0, or we should adopt Brazilian great Socrates's model and push for 8-man teams, this is one memory of the 2010 Cup that I'll always come back to: the endless, uncomfortable, and thoroughly unquenched thirst for goals.
GK: Mark Stecklenburg, Netherlands. Solid in every game. His leaping save against Kaka's corner-bound drive was the most jaw-dropping of the entire competition, and later proved absolutely critical to the tournament's biggest upset.
LB: Joan Capdevila, Spain. The experts are giving the nod to Fabio Coentrao of Portugal, who is probably worthy, but I'm sticking with my All-Quarterfinal starter, and maybe the least-talked about cog on the title team.
CB: Gerald Pique, Spain. Go ahead and lick your lips, Jerry. You've earned it.
CB: Antolin Alcaraz, Paraguay. Also sticking around from the All-QF squad.
RB: Maicon, Brazil. Absolutely brilliant on offense and defense throughout the tournament, and one of the few Brazilians, I think, who didn't fall apart after Holland went up 2-1.
HM: Sergio Busquets, Spain. The representative player of the tournament? It really does seem to have been a holding midfielder's affair.
HM: Bastian Schweinstager, Germany. Arguably the man of the match in both of Germany's massive knockout wins, this pig climber was also the glue in the German midfield.
AM: Wesley Sneijder, Netherlands. Quiet in the final against Spain, but all attacking midfielders in this Cup seemed to go quiet against Spain. The only consistent offensive spark for Holland, all tournament long.
AM: Thomas Mueller, Germany. The Golden Ball winner! Five goals, 3 assists! They missed him badly in the semi.
F: Diego Forlan, Uruguay. Thanks to his continued scoring, ferocious blonde ponytail, and a Kirk comment early in the Cup I'll never be able to hear this man's name without shuddering and thinking of the phrase, "the terrifying beauty of Diego Forlan."
F: David Villa, Spain. Even though the Spanish defenders should get the lion's share of credit for their wins, and he slowed down a bit in the final two games, I still think Villa deserved the Golden Ball. Five of the title winning team's eight goals, I guess, wasn't enough for Villa to take home Ball, Boot, or any Golden equipment whatsoever. Except a share of that Cup thingy, of course.