[BEST OF THE WORLD CUP] Soccer America continues its look at the best of the World Cup with its 25 winners, the best of the tournament on and off the field.
Tomorrow: Soccer America's 25 Losers.
25. New Zealand.
Who would have imagined the All Whites would be the only unbeaten team at the World Cup? They were dubbed "Herbert's Heroes" after part-time coach Ricki Herbert led them to ties against Slovakia, Italy and Paraguay. Plans for a parade to honor the players were called off -- many of them don't live in New Zealand -- but their success has already had an impact. Many youngsters are taking up the round-ball game in a country where oval sports are king.
24. World Cup Prime Time.
ESPN's World Cup game coverage was good but what made it so much better than anything previously offered on American television was the extras. ESPN could have settled for offering game coverage for which it paid FIFA $100 million (for 2010 and 2014), but it spent millions on its studio shows, the best of which was "World Cup Prime Time" packaging highlights and features for those who couldn't watch the action during the day. (It's hard to imagine what the World Cup would have been like on NBC, rather than ESPN and Univision, if Chuck Blazer, the American representative on the FIFA executive committee, had not intervened.)
After blowing a 1-0 lead late in the game and having to settle for a 1-1 tie with lowly New Zealand in its first game and then losing, 2-0, to Paraguay in its next game, Slovakia was given no chance of advancing. But the World Cup's lone debutant pulled one of the biggest upsets of the tournament with a 3-2 win over Italy that knocked the defending champions out of the tournament.
22. Bill Clinton.
The former president became the USA's No. 1 fan, whooping it up with Bob Bradley and the boys in the locker room after their win over Algeria. Clinton was in South Africa to lend his support to the USA Bid Committee. Let's hope he's whooping it up in December when FIFA names the hosts of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.
21. Chris Fowler.
Known to college football fans as the host of ESPN's enormously popular "College GameDay" roadshow, Fowler made the seamless transition to soccer, anchoring much of its World Cup coverage and giving an American face to its coverage. His work was on the whole excellent. His final comments were eloquent, noting that you can't leave South Africa "without being moved and inspired and changed if you open your heart to it because after all, as human beings, if you go back far enough to our roots, we are all Africans." (He offended those who believe in creationism but perhaps not as many folks as with his memorable remark that Peyton Manning's failure to win the 1997 Heisman Trophy created a "trailer park frenzy" in Tennessee, resulting in "College GameDay" being banned the next season for the Tennessee-Florida game.)
20. Alexi Lalas.
If Fowler was the American face of ESPN's coverage, Lalas was the American voice. He was wrong with his Netherlands-over-Spain pick for the final but he did pick all four semifinalists correctly. Lalas may have flopped as an MLS GM, but he was superb with his pre-game, halftime and post-game analysis.
19. Bob Bradley.
The USA may not have gone as deep in the World Cup as he and his bosses would have liked, but Bob Bradley became an instant celebrity, appearing with Landon Donovan on such shows as "Good Morning America," "Live with Regis and Kelly" and "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart." His biggest thrill? Getting to throw the first ball out at not one but two Major League parks, Yankee Stadium and Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
18. Landon Donovan.
This was Landon Donovan's make-or-break World Cup. And 91 minutes into the USA's game against Algeria, Donovan appeared to be doomed for failure like four years earlier in Germany. But he scored the most dramatic goal in U.S. Soccer history to send the USA into the second round and ensure his place as the greatest player in U.S. history.
17. "I scored a goal in the FIFA World Cup final."
Of all the features ESPN presented, none was better than the ESPN Films documentary "I scored a goal in the FIFA World Cup final," featuring interviews and highlights from those who scored a goal in a World Cup final.
With its promotional blitz, ESPN's coverage overshadowed that of Univision, but it produced two of the three largest audiences ever on U.S. Spanish-language TV. Argentina's win over Mexico on June 27 drew nearly 9.5 million viewers, breaking the record previously set for the finale of the novella "Destilando Amor" in 2007. Sunday's World Cup final drew more than 8.8 million viewers on Univision.
15. South America.
All five South American teams reached the round of 16 -- they didn't lose a game in the group stage until the last day when Chile fell to Spain, 2-1 -- and four advanced to the final eight ...
... but the South American teams were no match for their European counterparts after that. Europe won all five Europe-South America meetings in the knockout stage, and Spain became the first European team to hoist the World Cup trophy outside Europe.
13. The third-place game.
The World Cup is one of the few competitions that still offers a consolation game, and this year's game between Germany and Uruguay was a cracker. Germany won, 3-2, but the match probably wrapped up the tournament MVP award for Uruguayan Diego Forlan.
The Black Stars were again the lone African team to get out of the group stage and they became only the third African team -- after Cameroon in 1990 and Senegal in 2002 -- to win a game in the knockout stage when they beat the USA, 2-1, in overtime.
Much was made of ESPN's television coverage, but it was its World Cup coverage on new mediums that was trailblazing. The Spain-Germany semifinal was the most watched live event ever on espn3.com with an average audience of 355,000.
10. Bars and restaurants.
The World Cup was a boost to bars and restaurants packed for the morning and midday games. No other event brings in more fans longer than the World Cup, and establishments everywhere had some kind of World Cup bracket posted. (Out-of-home viewing and usage of non-TV platforms added 45 percent to the daily TV audiences on ESPN, and much of it was from folks watching at viewing establishments.)
9. Thomas Mueller.
The 20-year-old Bayern Munich player had never played for Germany before March, when it hosted Argentina. Diego Maradona refused to share a press conference with the young player, joking that he first thought Mueller was the ball boy. Mueller got the last laugh, helping Germany crush Argentina, 4-0 in the quarterfinals. Symbol of the German youth movement, Mueller scored five goals and three assists to win the adidas Golden Boot as the top scorer and Hyundai Best Young Player award.
8. Diego Forlan.
The Uruguayan gives hope to players over 30 that they can star in the World Cup. At 31 he's the oldest field player ever to win the World Cup MVP trophy, the adidas Golden Ball.
7. Wesley Sneijder.
On a team with hard men, Sneijder was different. The midfielder stood out, leading the Netherlands to the final with five goals in its six wins. He was responsible for knocking out co-favorite Brazil with both goals in the 2-1 comeback win in the quarterfinals. The second came when the 5-foot-7 Sneijder scored on a header through a maze of Brazilian giants.
6. Octopus Paul.
No one had a better World Cup than the "Oracle of Oberhausen." He went eight for eight in World Cup predictions, becoming an international celebrity up there with the biggest of World Cup stars. More is known about his future -- he'll return to his day job entertaining children at the Sea Life aquarium -- than his past. Octopus Paul was thought to have been born in England, but his trainer, Verena Bartsch, now says he was actually caught off the Italian island of Elba, making him Polpo Paolo.
5. Vicente del Bosque.
Two years after Luis Aragones led Spain to the Euro '08 title, del Bosque masterminded Spain's run to its first World Cup title. Del Bosque's low-key style won the respect of Spain players just as it had the star-studded players at Real Madrid, where management pushed him out a day after the Merengues won the 2003 La Liga title because it believed he wasn't strong enough. How wrong it was.
4. Iker Casillas.
The Spanish captain was overcome by the emotion of Spain's victory over the Netherlands. He cried after Andres Iniesta scored to put Spain in overtime and broke down in tears on the field after Spain had won. He kissed his girlfriend, reporter Sara Carbonero, on live television -- the same Carbonero whose presence on the sidelines was considered a distraction and blamed for Spain's loss to Switzerland in its opening game.
FIFA now keeps stats for everything, and the Spanish playmaker finished first in passes completed (544), crosses completed (26) and corner kicks completed (14).
2. Andres Iniesta.
The 5-foot-7 Iniesta's journey to soccer stardom began at the age of 12 when he left his home in the province of Albacete and enrolled at La Masia, Barcelona's soccer academy. Fourteen years later, Iniesta led Spain to its first World Cup title with the only goal in the final, a worthy climax to the game's best performance.
1. South Africa.
Who said South Africa couldn't pull off hosting the World Cup? The stadiums were al most filled and the crime almost nonexistent. South Africa was a magnificent host to one of the most memorable World Cups ever.
(Soccer America Readers: What were your World Cup winners? Let us know in the comments below.)