The stars of 2006

At the World Cup, there were some outstanding goals scored, and a few breathtaking saves under the bar. And then there were the stars who conjured up magic on the great stage. S. R. Suryanarayan rates the top players of Germany 2006.

Vivid memories are all that remain of World Cup 2006. There were some outstanding goals scored, and a few saves made under the bar that were simply breathtaking. And there were those magicians who conjured up goal-bound shots from nowhere that instantly placed them on a pedestal. The Brazilians, despite their reputation, disappointed, but new stars emerged on the scene.

Here is a list of the top ten performers at Germany 2006 — players who dazzled and were a sight to behold.

GIANLUIGI BUFFON (Italy) Rating: 9.5/10

Italy's World Cup victory would not have been possible without him. The 28-year-old lanky goalkeeper had an aura of invincibility around him. That he conceded just two goals (one a self-goal) in seven matches is no small feat in a World Cup. And what was more important was that Italy never lost a match.

Only France's Zinedine Zidane beat him in regular playing time, in the final with a penalty shot that struck the underside of the bar and crossed the goalline. However, it was his fantastic save later, off a Zidane header, that set the path for Italy's victory. His team-mates were so inspired by that great lunge and tip-over that they posted a cent percent record in the penalty shoot-out, which until then was considered Italy's weak point. In the end, it did not matter for Italy that Buffon did not make any save in that nerve-wracking shoot-out.

For someone who did not allow any goal for 460 minutes, the fourth longest stretch in World Cup history, Buffon deserves all the accolades for his wonderful performance.

ZINEDINE ZIDANE (France) Rating: 9

Talk of classical headers, could anyone have missed that moment, that brute of an effort by the Frenchman in the final? But for a stupendous save by Buffon, the World Cup perhaps would have seen a different ending. Ironically, for all the wonderful things he did with his legs on the turf, through sheer imagination and a touch of cunning, Zidane blotted his copy book by head-butting Italy's Marco Materazzi. Still, nobody can discount the immeasurable moments of pleasure he gave football fans and viewers around the world with his dazzling play. The `Golden Ball' award was a deserving honour for this great player.

Be it the short passing, the quick chip or the curling free kicks, Zidane's skill is exemplary. Recall the audacity with which he took the penalty in the final — he chipped the ball instead of blasting it, and yet beat Buffon. True, there was an element of luck there, but nobody will grudge the master tactician that.

Zidane is an inspirational leader who brings the best out of his team-mates. France's striker Thierry, who scored off a Zidane floater to send the mighty Brazilians out of the tournament, will vouch for that.

MIROSLAV KLOSE (Germany) Rating: 8.5

That Miroslav Klose was one of the heroes of World Cup 2006 cannot be denied. Having finished next to Brazilian Ronaldo in overall ratings in 2002, the onus was on him this time. And the Polish-born German had the host nation fans cheering him all the way even on the first day of the tournament — June 9, the day he turned 28. The Costa Ricans were the first to get a taste of this lanky striker's profound striking abilities. The German spearhead scored two goals in his team's 4-2 victory in the match.

The remarkable thing about Klose is his sense of timing and positioning, apart from being very steady. Rarely does a tackle see him fall; rather he would more often than not win the ball. And when in possession in the goal area, he is a great threat to any defence. The pre-quarter-final match against Argentina is a case in point, as he menacingly entered the box and headed the equaliser that led to the extra time followed by the shoot-out, where the Latin Americans succumbed.

Klose, who emerged the top scorer of the tournament with five goals and won the `Golden Shoe', will continue to be the main propellant of the German attack for some time.

FABIO CANNAVARO (Italy) Rating: 8.5

He was the rock in Italy's defence. Along with Alessandra Nesta, the duo is considered the best in Europe. No wonder this Juventus player reserved his best for the final stages of the World Cup. The central defender's show against Germany in the semi-final was the main reason for the host's downfall. With his deft interceptions and clean tackles, Cannavaro, who was always quick on the ball, kept Klose and the talented Podolski in check. Further, his swiftness ensured that Michael Ballack was not given the freedom to distribute his passes efficiently.

Until the final, Italy let in only one goal and part of the reason for this was Cannavaro's brilliant work. Having taken part in the 1998 and 2002 World Cups, the 32-year old footballer could not have chosen a better match than the final to complete 100 international caps.

ALEXANDRE RICARDO (Portugal) Rating: 8

Energetic and enthusiastic, Ricardo is an asset to the Portugal side. Coach Scolari, impressed with his goalkeeping in Euro 2004, pitched him for the World Cup. And if Portugal reached the last-four stage, much of the credit should go to this man. Like Buffon he had conceded only two goals in the competition, but what was special about Ricardo was his remarkable success in the shoot-outs.

In the quarter-finals against England that went to the penalties, Ricardo brought off three good saves — against Lampard, Gerrard and Carragher — to end England's run. He had done the same for Portugal in Euro 2004 too. The effort against England made it a new FIFA World Cup record for penalties saved in the shoot-outs.

More importantly, Ricardo established himself as a specialist in the tension of sudden-death football. In the semi-final, Zidane beat him with a penalty even though he read the shot well and dived. But then, it was not a dishonour considering that he was beaten by a legend, after all.

FRANCK RIBERY (France) Rating: 8

Speed is his forte, and that more than makes up for his lack of height, as he leaves the defence searching for that extra effort to baulk him. Interestingly, the 23-year-old footballer did not start for France before the World Cup, but ended up playing a major part in Germany 2006.

Ribery almost scored in extra time against Italy in the final, missing the mark by a whisker after a passing bout with Malouda. But even before the final, Ribery had exhibited enough ball skills.

Remember the goal he scored against Spain in France's 3-1 win in the round of 16? It was an exquisite play of his legs. For long critics have felt that he had a tendency to keep the ball too long, but Germany 2006 revealed the true qualities of this talented player.

CRISTIANO RONALDO (Portugal) Rating: 7.5

Perhaps he was one of the players who was booed more than he was cheered at the World Cup after that incident involving England's Wayne Rooney in the quarter-finals.

Ronaldo came in for severe criticism as on a few occasions he appeared very `fragile' inside the rival box (the art of diving was perhaps at its best in this World Cup), but there is no doubting his prowess with both feet.

A true successor to Figo, Ronaldo is breathtaking as he races up with the ball.

If only he had shown the same dynamism while in the striking range his rating would have been different.

JUAN RIQUELME (Argentina) Rating: 7.5

It was shocking to see the fulcrum of the Argentine team replaced in the quarter-final against Germany.

Especially after he had sent in a wonderfully curving corner for Ayala to score and put Argentina in front. And until Germany equalised through Klose, he was coach Pekerman's favourite, one who played to his pace but ensured direction in Argentina's attack with his masterly reading of the game.

In a team of stars Riquelme had a difficult job to perform. Yet, he made his presence felt, either with brilliantly taken free kicks, which on most occasions created panic in the rival defence, or corners.

Unfortunately, Pekerman substituted him in the quarter-final against Germany at a time when he still had a crucial role to play for his country. The turn of events after his 72nd minute substitution confirmed that things could have been different for Argentina had he played full time.

LILIAN THURAM (France) Rating: 7

An experienced player, he made a reluctant return to the national team for Germany 2006. But he came up with a gem of a show to put France in line for another title. Though France lost in the final, Thuram will long be remembered for his near flawless show.

True, he conceded a penalty in the highly charged pre-quarter-final against Spain, but he more than made amends in the semi-final against Portugal with a stand-out show in France's win.

"We saw an incredible defensive performance," France midfielder Patrick Vieira said later. "When you see Thuram playing like that you feel you're indestructible," he added.

That sums up the man's credentials. He rarely let an aerial ball pass by and effectively bottled up Pauleta to frustrate Portugal. It was his good work in the defence that helped France win the 1998 World Cup.

LUKAS PODOLSKI (Germany) Rating: 7

This lad packs a lot of power in his shots. Podolski is an explosive forward with tremendous speed and goal-scoring skills. He came to the fore with his double strike against Sweden in the pre-quarter-final. There were also quite a few sizzling long-range shots that just skimmed over, drawing cheers from the home crowd.

For his dynamism, style and popularity, the FIFA Best Young Player award seemed in order. He scored three goals in six matches, but more importantly the host found an investment for the future in this vibrant young man.