In a World Cup where goalkeepers stood out, Keylor Navas really stepped up. He was not just the finest number one, but also the best performer in Costa Rica’s historic run to the quarter-final. While that feat was about so much more than defensive resilience, Navas’s series of supreme saves was a large part of it, particularly in the second-round penalty shoot-out against Greece. The 27-year-old also defined how so many Costa Ricans played well above their club level, and he will surely get a move away from Levante out of his supreme World Cup.
A picture of a bloodied Pablo Zabaleta emerged after Argentina’s resolute penalty shoot-out win over Netherlands, and it summed up the sheer bloody-mindedness of the full-back’s displays. There were so many moments in this World Cup when, with the South American side’s defence looking it was about to crack, Zabaleta dug in with a dogged and defiant challenge. It especially came across in the second-round win over Switzerland. That back-line may have always been on the edge, but the right-back also provided their edge.
At 24 and still playing for Ajax, Blind was the best example of the way a young and largely home-based new Netherlands defied expectations to go so far. At the same time, he remains a fine example of the classic Dutch school of development, as a hugely intelligent player capable of doing far more than his left-back job. Some around the Dutch camp have already described him as a coach on the pitch and a potential future manager. Through this tournament, an excellent performer across the pitch, especially in the opening win over Spain.
Although this World Cup has seen robust traditional defending largely trumped by ball-playing at the back, Vlaar has been gloriously old-fashioned from the start. In that, he has also provided Louis van Gaal’s pragmatic team with an extremely solid base on which to change formations and build. Two of the sliding tackles on Leo Messi in the semi-final were candidates for challenges of the tournament. It was a pity that performance ended with a missed penalty, but it should not overshadow all the achievement before it.
Germany’s World Cup transformed with the reshuffle before the quarter-final, and that had as much to do with Hummels returning to centre-back as Phillip Lahm going out to the right. Their defence actually looked assured and dependable for the first time in the entire tournament, and so very different to the frantically open Algeria match which Hummels missed. His durability did not just solve problems at one end, of course, but pose the opposition some challenges at the other. The goal against France was a key moment from a key player.
Argentina manager Alejandro Sabella described him as “a symbol, an emblem” for his team, but Bastien Schweinsteiger arguably put it better. He said Mascherano was “the leader of a pack of wolves”. Leo Messi may obviously have been Argentina’s best player, but it was the defensive midfielder who best set their mood of defiance and aggression in getting to the final. Without him, of course, they would not have been there. It was Mascherano’s tackle which prevented Arjen Robben scoring in the last minute of the semi-final, and also offered one of the moments of the World Cup.
The tournament’s golden boy, who also set such a considerable pace in the race for the golden boot. James was about so much more than his strikes, however, even if the quality of many of them did show the exceptional scale of his talent. The sensational volley against Colombia was a demonstration of his power, the deft chip against Japan the subtlety of his technique. In between all of that, there was utterly brilliant team play, as the 22-year-old individually drove his country to their best ever World Cup.
By the time Kroos had perfectly powered a volley past Julio Cesar to make it 3-0 in the sensational 7-1 semi-final, it was as if Germany had reached that rare plane of performance where just about everything you try comes off. Kroos inspired that more than anybody, and he was key to linking an occasionally erratic Germany together, while imbuing them with proper midfield impetus. Beyond that power, there was also the precision of his deliveries and the perception of his passing. The central hub of Jogi Low’s team, which says an awful lot.
A forward who clearly relishes the World Cup given the amount of goals he’s scored in it over the past two tournaments, but also a classically German World Cup player. One of the reasons that had been put forward for their failure to win a trophy in the last few years was the lack of that old Toni Schumacher nastiness and edge, but Muller more than provided it. You only have to look at the incident that got Pepe sent off in the opening game, saw Portugal collapse, and gave Germany the foundation of their run to the final. As goes without saying, that match also saw Muller score.
It can never again be said he has not performed at a World Cup. Even if this tournament did not see him at his peak, that does raise the question over whether the 27-year-old’s game has changed. He was never like the sonic blur so devastating under Pep Guardiola at Barcelona, but instead offered so many decisive moments of individual genius. Of all the tricks he pulled off in this tournament, perhaps the greatest is that what he is doing is easy. The difficulty of dealing with him conditioned every single match.
A crowning individual tournament, even if it came without a crowning moment. Robben could have put Netherlands into the final with that late chance against Argentina, but that only proved how he was by far the most potent weapon in an otherwise limited Dutch team. He couldn’t do it all on his own up front, but almost did against Spain. The way in which he ravaged and rampaged the deposed champions’ backline remains this World Cup’s finest individual display.