The end is here

It’s over, finally. After four weeks and 64 matches, fatigue was beginning to become a major factor. Tired limbs, gaunt faces, sagging eyes, and I think the players were quite tired, too. I had to wake up early so often, I was beginning to think I had a day job.

The first to be held in Asia and the first to be jointly hosted, the 2002 World Cup produced surprise after surprise from Day 1. Senegal’s shock win over France set the tone for a tournament that saw the worst ever defense by a reigning champion, and joint host South Korea became the first Asian team to reach the semifinal.

But, just as everyone was preparing to write the obituary of soccer’s existing world order, we ended up with a final comprised of the two most successful World Cup teams ever. Germany and Brazil boasted seven final appearances apiece, and Brazil, with its accomplished 2-0 win, achieved a record fifth title.

But more important than the mere statistics is the fact that they did it in style. In a World Cup where fitness and organization was enough for many teams to progress to the later stages, Brazil’s football was in keeping with their tradition as defenders of the “beautiful game.” Central defenders scoring with overhead shots and 5-2 scores were an echo back to World Cups of old, and explains why Brazil is every neutral’s second team.

And at the forefront of Brazil’s success was the forward play of the three Rs: Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho, who contributed 15 of Brazil’s 18 goals. And for Ronaldo, the World Cup marks the dramatic return of the man known as “El Phenomen.”

Less than a year ago, a tentative Ronaldo made his return from a one-year absence due to a knee injury, coming on as a substitute in a Serie A match for Inter Milan. His comeback lasted barely 10 minutes before his knee crumpled under him, even opposition players ignoring the still-active ball, as they summoned immediate medical assistance. Many thought he would never play again. Few thought that he could ever be the same player.

It is surely no coincidence that, without Ronaldo, Brazil almost missed qualification. His eight goals to win the “Golden Boot” as top-scorer is the most by a player since the 1978 tournament, and his nomination as the tournament’s MVP seems a formality.

The United States’ team’s achievement in reaching the quarterfinal and, although losing, outplaying Germany deserves huge accolades. The quality of their goals and the performances of Tony Sanneh, Landon Donovan, and Brian McBride raised eyebrows around the world and was enough to see Donovan adorning the front page of this week’s Sports Illustrated, relegating the Lakers, the Red Wings and Tiger Woods to a sidebar.

Major League Soccer, which holds the contracts of many of the U.S. players, must now decide whether the loss of their top players to the lucrative leagues of Europe is worth the inevitable improvement in their players such a move would produce – a tough call for a struggling league.

Away from the field, the abiding memory of this World Cup will be the fans of South Korea. The incredible red backdrop and their passionate singing provided a spectacular backdrop to the drama and controversy that accompanied their matches, in marked contrast to the largely non-soccer audiences that dominated the stadiums during France 1998. Such was the courtesy provided by South Korea and co-hosts Japan, that they even provided fans for other teams.