World Cup 2014: Latin American team of the tournament
Talk of a power shift in world football may have been overblown, but Latin American teams nonetheless enjoyed a World Cup to remember. Les Roopanarine picks the cream of the Latin American crop
By Les Roopanarine
GOALKEEPER Keylor Navas (Costa Rica)
Those who thought Costa Rica would struggle to negotiate a path out of a group containing a trio of former World Cup winners – and let's face it, that's probably most of us – reckoned without Keylor Navas. The Levante stopper, who won FIFA's man of the match award in three of the five games he played, conceded just one goal against the combined might of Uruguay, Italy and England as Costa Rica topped their group. In the last 16, where Costa Rica edged past Greece to reach the last eight for the first time in their history, he went on to produce arguably the finest goalkeeping display of the tournament, culminating with a spectacular flying penalty save from Theofanis Gekas. Plucked from obscurity to relative obscurity in 2010, when Spanish second division side Albacete signed him from Costa Rican champions Deportivo Saprissa, Navas was widely regarded as second only to Thibaut Courtois in the La Liga goalkeeping stakes last season. The subject of covetous glances from European clubs long before he arrived at the World Cup, his heroics in Brazil – where, Germany's Manuel Neuer aside, he has been the best keeper on show – will only have added a few zeros to his value.
RIGHT-BACK Pablo Zabaleta (Argentina)
If ever there were a man for all seasons, it is surely Pablo Zabaleta. Scientists searching for a solution to climate change ought to take a sample of the defender's DNA, because the Argentina full-back – who looks no less comfortable on a balmy evening in Brazil than he does on the proverbial wet Wednesday night on Wearside – seems immune. Germany's Philipp Lahm may have attracted the plaudits since moving seamlessly from midfield to right-back, but Zabaleta has been barely less impressive in the position, quietly going about his business with his trademark assurance, commitment and tenacity. The Manchester City man, whose tears after the semi-final win against Holland doubtless owed more to unbridled joy than the smack in the chops he received from Dirk Kuyt, has been a key influence in an Argentina defence yet to concede a goal in the knockout rounds.
CENTRE-BACK Giancarlo González (Costa Rica)
An endearing blend of humility, ambition and ability, González was the defensive linchpin of a side that conceded a miserly two goals in five games. Not content with a dizzying array of interceptions and interventions that highlighted his excellent anticipation and reading of the game, González also drove home the third spot kick against Greece to usher Costa Rica to their historic quarter-final showdown against Holland. But did he gloat? Did he heck. He acknowledged that his country had made history and, yes, he accepted Costa Rica may never again scale such vertiginous heights. But he refused to don the mantle of underdog, promising his team would try to win the competition outright. True to his word, González turned in another outstanding performance to shut out the Dutch, and converted from the penalty spot again in the ensuing shootout. Few would deny him a place in the team of the tournament, Latin American or otherwise.
CENTRE-BACK Thiago Silva (Brazil)
It was sad to see the Brazil captain's World Cup splutter to an ignominious conclusion when he conceded an early penalty against Holland in the third-place playoff match. Yet it would be foolhardy to underestimate his achievement in guiding a deeply underwhelming Seleção side to the semi-finals. Any player able to ensure that a defence featuring David Luiz concedes only four goals in five matches is clearly worth his weight in gold. Against Colombia in the last eight, the talismanic Silva also made his presence felt at the other end of the pitch, setting Brazil on the road to victory with an early goal before picking up the booking that triggered his suspension for the Germany game. Let's not pretend his presence would have altered the outcome of that 7-1 defeat. Equally, let's not ignore the reality that Silva's organisational nous would probably have added greater respectability to a scoreline that highlighted his importance to the host nation.
LEFT-BACK Marcos Rojo (Argentina)
The perfect complement to Zabaleta on the opposite flank of the Argentina defence, the Sporting Lisbon man's performances were full of energy and tenacity. Rojo, 24, has also demonstrated an eye for goal – or rather a knee for goal, if his ungainly but effective finish against Nigeria is anything to go by. His influential displays have reportedly piqued the interest of Barcelona, Liverpool and Chelsea.
MIDFIELD Javier Mascherano (Argentina)
At the risk of mixing metaphors, when it's backs-against-the-wall time you need a man who will put his backside on the line. Javier Mascherano is that man. Lionel Messi may be Argentina's skipper and inspiration, but would the little maestro have risked the sliding challenge on Arjen Robben executed by Mascherano, who not only prevented Holland claiming what would probably have been a semi-final winning goal, but also tore his anus in the process? Probably not. Nobody epitomises Argentina's attritional spirit more than the former Liverpool midfielder, who relishes the big occasion and has been as crucial to his side's World Cup campaign as their mercurial No 10.
MIDFIELD Arturo Vidal (Chile)
The hair may be more Vidal Sassoon, but when a man of Arturo Vidal's redoubtable physical attributes decides to do something alternative with his coiffure, it's probably best to keep quiet. Especially if he's hard enough to have his initials engraved on his neck. Tough? Let's just say the Juventus midfielder turned in three eye-catching performances to propel Chile into the last 16 – despite having knee surgery in early May. No wonder Manchester United are rumoured to be in advanced talks over a £40m deal.
ATTACKING MIDFIELD Juan Cuadrado (Colombia)
Pace, verve, creativity … it’s not difficult to see why the stylish Colombia winger has been linked with a big-money move away from current employers Fiorentina. Cuadrado took all of five minutes to make an impression on the tournament, tying Greece left-back Jose Holébas in knots before feeding Pablo Armer for Colombia’s opener, and he was still at it in injury time, when a surging run through the middle laid the groundwork for James Rodríguez to seal a 3-0 win. The former Udinese midfielder, who can operate on either flank, subsequently set up goals for Rodríguez against Ivory Coast and Uruguay, equalling the four assists of Italy's Francesco Totti and Argentina's Juan Riquelme at the 2006 World Cup. For good measure, he thumped home a confident penalty against Japan as well as clattering the woodwork from an improbably tight angle against Ivory Coast. Fiorentina seem resigned to losing him, but Manchester United would surely prove a better fit for Cuadrado than rumoured suitors Barcelona, who may struggle to find room for him following the acquisition of Luis Suárez.
ATTACKING MIDFIELDER James Rodríguez (Colombia)
Six goals, two assists, a Golden Ball nomination and a possible move to Real Madrid; not a bad month's work. World football has a new star, and his name is James Rodríguez. Oscar Tabarez, the Uruguay manager, even claimed Rodríguez – who scored twice as Colombia dumped his side out in the last 16 – is on a par with Messi, Maradona and Suárez. That may be pushing it a bit: at 23, the Monaco midfielder clearly lacks the gilded CV of the two Argentina legends. But the expectation in Colombia has long been that Rodríguez will displace Carlos Valderrama as the greatest player in the country's history. After his performances in Brazil, where he has shown craft, vision and lethal marksmanship – most notably with his first strike against Uruguay, a swivelling volley that was arguably the goal of the tournament – he has certainly done that.
ATTACKING MIDFIELDER Lionel Messi (Argentina)
If Argentina triumph against Germany in the final, Lionel Messi will be cast as a modern-day Maradona. That may be overstating the case, given that the skipper has struggled to exert the match-winning influence that has become his trademark for Barcelona. Even so, Messi has scored four goals, a considerable improvement for a player who had previously played 623 minutes of World Cup football without scoring. There is a school of thought that says Messi, with opposing managers setting their sides up to stifle him, has been biding his time in games, waiting until space opens up to make a decisive intervention. That may or may not be true, but one thing is certain: leading your team to a World Cup final without ever finding your best form is no mean achievement.
STRIKER Neymar (Brazil)
Just when we were all on the brink of crying if we heard the phrase "poster boy of the World Cup" once more, a boot in the back from Colombia's Juan Zúñiga ensured that it would all end in tears for Brazil's No 10. But where there was hype there was hope, and the fact is that Neymar – under unimaginable pressure – delivered when it counted for his country. Four goals and an assist do not even begin to reflect the influence of a player whose mere presence seemed to inspire belief both on the pitch and in the stands. Neymar made an average team greater than the sum of its parts, and for that reason his claims to a place in the Latin American team of the tournament are impossible to ignore.