The Golden Boot may be easy enough to predict as the World Cup goes on – but there’s a certain je-ne-sais-quoi involved in the Golden Ball betting (Player of the Tournament) award which is voted on by a FIFA Technical Committee and an elite crop of journalists at the end of each tournament.
They usually have a scoring touch in common, but their overall impact is that bit more important. Here’s a rundown of the potential awardees ahead of the final…
1. James Rodriguez (Colombia)
Colombia were dealt an exit blow by hosts Brazil and James Rodriguez’s new-found admirers have been left mourning the extinguishment of the competition’s brightest star. While his record cannot be improved any further, it’s so good that a two-game handicap might not even matter.
With six goals and two assists, Rodriguez has contributed directly to more goals than any other player at the tournament to date. His creative habits have earned him attention from all corners of the football world. Even this huge, humanoid grasshopper is a fan.
It would take some massive semi-final and final performances to oust Rodriguez from his perch as the leader of the pack in the Golden Ball stakes. Chances are, he’ll still be the most talked about man of the tournament, and at only 22, we will undoubtedly see him again in Russia and Qatar (or, you know, wherever). Falcao who?
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Golden Ball infographic (click to enlarge)
[infographic design: Eleanor Kellenberger/Paddy Power Design Studio]
2. Neymar (Brazil)
Love or loathe Brazil’s over-fluffed celebrity striker, it was hard not to grimace in phantom sympathy pain after breaking one of the vertebrae in his lower back. Deprived of even getting stripped for his country in a World Cup final, Neymar’s record is also set in stone, no matter what the next week has in store for the hosts.
But like James, Neymar’s contribution to date is nothing to be sniffed at. With four goals, before the final he was tied with Lionel Messi in the Golden Boot race (although they all lag behind Rodriguez’s six). That combined with his one assist makes him a shoe-in for the Golden Ball short-list.
One stat Neymar will not be proud of is the amount of times he has been dispossessed (62) – one behind serial ball-loser Angel Di Maria. But he was also the most tackled player of the tournament up to the semi-final stage, which goes to show the unease he struck into opposing defences.
3. Lionel Messi (Argentina)
This could well be the year that Lionel Messi shakes the only blemish on his otherwise perfect footballing career to date – that elusive World Cup medal. Past tournaments have been marred by questions over whether or not he can perform to his best outside the talent cocoon that is the Barcelona squad.
If his performances to date haven’t put that theory to rest, getting Argentina to the final and onto victory would put an airtight seal on his place as the best ever in both club and international football.
He has created the most chances for teammates (18), completed the most dribbles (29) and made the most deliveries into the penalty box (22) of any player at the tournament before the semi against Holland. Like Neymar, he has four goals and one assist – making up for a seven game World Cup scoring drought. He was even elected man of the match in all but one of Argentina’s games in Brazil.
4. Thomas Müller (Germany)
Müller’s breakout year was during the 2010 World Cup, but he has followed up that stunning debut with an even better sophomore effort. With five goals, two assists and that calamitous free-kick run-up, he has been nothing short of a joy to watch. If he keeps it up, he’ll add the Golden Ball to his Golden Boot and Best Young Player awards from South Africa.
The strength in depth of the German squad is practically unparalleled, however so often it’s Müller who pulls the rabbit out of the hat. What is so undeniably special about Müller is his versatility. He is as at home playing from midfield as he is playing as a striker. He pops up anywhere and everywhere, and defences simply don’t seem to know what to do with him.
5. Arjen Robben (Netherlands)
The oldest player on this hypothetical short-list by three years, Arjen Robben having a few years on the opposition didn’t stop him from clocking up a record speed in the Netherlands’ opening group game of the tournament. Robben ran 37km per hour for the fifth Dutch goal against Spain, the fastest sprint ever recorded by FIFA at that point.
Apart from speed, his contribution has been anything but negligible. With three goals and one assist (before the semi), he’s not the most prolific of his bedfellows in this selection but he is the tidiest passer (with a pass accuracy of 84 per cent) and the most accurate shooter (with a shot accuracy of 89 per cent).
He won the Netherlands’ decisive penalty against Mexico with a self-professed dive, so the Oranje are only slightly less amoral than they were in South Africa. Robben has won five penalties in 14 Champions League and World Cup games this past season, so the shoe fits. But just think of how the win-at-all-costs mentality worked for the Dutch in 2010 – this time, there’s no Spain to stop them.