The knockout rounds begin today at noon, but before we dive into the Round of 16, let’s take a look at some awards as they might stand through the group stages.
Golden Ball: Given to the tournament’s top player, there are plenty of strong options so far. You can make an argument for Colombia’s James Rodgriguez, Brazil’s Neymar, Holland’s Arjen Robben or Germany’s Thomas Müller. But as things stand, the award would go to Argentina’s Lionel Messi.
Like legend Diego Maradona in 1986, Messi carried his country through the group stages, lifting La Albiceleste through some mediocre performances. Argentina has not been overly-impressive as of yet, but Messi has been magical. He has four goals in three games, including the game-winners against Bosnia and Herzegovina and Iran.
Biggest surprise player: Mexico goalkeeper Memo Ochoa. Entering the first game of the tournament, it was not a certainty which goalkeeper would star for Mexico. Ochoa got the nod, and he has been one of the strongest performers of the entire tournament. Ochoa drew raves after his eight-save performance against Brazil, which included some stunning stops to preserve a 0-0 draw. Ochoa, a free agent, is now being linked to major clubs around the world.
Biggest surprise team: Costa Rica. The Ticos not only advanced out of the group stage, they won a group that included three World Cup winning countries: Italy, Uruguay and England. The Ticos have not only won games, they’ve done it with style and panache, attacking opponents with no fear and using organized, intelligent tactics to overcome rosters with loads of talent. After drawing Greece in the Round of 16, it will be interesting to see how Costa Rica reacts to being favored in a game.
Biggest disappointment player: Spain goalkeeper Iker Casillas. While some USA fans have gone after Michael Bradley for his below-average performances in Brazil, nothing stands out as much as the howlers turned in from Casillas. Once considered the best goalkeeper in the world, Casillas was coming off of a rough club season. That carried over into the World Cup. He made major mistakes in a 5-1 blowout loss to the Netherlands, and then made another mistake to gift a goal against Chile. That led to him being dropped for Spain’s finale against Australia.
Biggest disappointment team: This is another case of pick your favorite, with England going out disappointingly again, Ivory Coast somehow failing to get out of a group that included Greece and Japan, and Portugal looking far from a top-rated team in the world. But the award has to go to Spain, which not only failed to advance, but looked listless in losses to the Netherlands and Chile on its way out. One of the most dominant international teams ever put together, Spain’s squad will forever be respected for what they brought to soccer in general. But many would have wanted to see them bow out of that era more gracefully than they did in Brazil.
Follow Paul on Twitter @PaulTenorio.