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Cover Story

Master of the game



Wesley Sneijder

Late Sunday night, we will know the world champions. We will also know who will bag the Golden Boot award by virtue of the number of goals scored.

But who has been the most influential player in this World Cup? Who has had the greatest impact on his team's chances, and conversely, who has hurt the opposition most? In other words, who is the world's best footballer at the moment?

India's best footballer, Baichung Bhutia, has been in South Africa from the knockout stage. As the World Cup gears up for the final on Sunday night, we asked him to pick the best player in the month-long tournament.

It's not always the beautiful footballers who make the game beautiful. Those delicate chips, clever flicks, lightning runs or mesmerising tricks can only win you fans; when it comes to winning matches and tournaments, good old hard work and dedication can rarely go wrong.

This World Cup too, like always, was hyped up as a contest of the show ponies; but what has been most refreshing - Jabulani or no Jabulani - is the way the event has been dominated by the stable workhorses with their sharp footballing brains and simple brand of football.

The Rooneys, Ronaldos and Messis have, dare I say, even gone back home with their reputations dented, if not tarnished. We're down to the final and both teams - Spain and the Netherlands - have left behind a trail of bruised egos and, boy, have I enjoyed watching this destruction! As the mighty fell, it underlined how important two players - Spain's Xavi and Dutchman Wesley Sneijder - have been to their sides, despite coming from different backgrounds.

For some time, even Bastian Schweinsteiger loitered in this rarefied field until he and Germany met their match in Spain. Xavi is the no-nonsense, partyhating homeboy who has easily made his way up Barcelona's youth ranks; as if on cue, he took over from Pep Guardiola and since then has been running the midfield like only he can. When his peers party all night, this gifted one-team man probably settles into bed in his home, dreaming of ways to make his opponents dance on the pitch the next day.

Wesley Sneijder seems like the exact opposite. He is like the boy who was always told he's not good enough; so he has always had to do that little bit extra to make people eat their words. His dazzling displays in Ajax's first team, however, won him a few admirers. Inevitably, the big money moves followed.

But it always seems like he's got something to prove and will not stop until he does. He's the reject Real Madrid will rue dismissing most, Inter will do everything to hold on to and Manchester United will do anything to grab.

The differences aside, what unites these two players is how uncomplicated they keep their football. It'll be a real treat to watch them face off in the final. These are two practitioners of total football in the era of the roaming midfielder. They are not interested in performing tricks for the cameras, they are always out of the spotlight and yet, they are irresistible in their straightforward and devastating ways.

I observed during the World Cup that a lot of the national teams followed club-like formations, which I haven't seen in a big event before. The purists are indeed giving way to tinkering upstarts and it's showing in the football. The era of 4-4-2 is dying.

Germany coach Joachim Loew's German cocktail is an example of how a coach will adapt to evolving techniques. The coach is no more a follower of the system: he's the maker of a system and he picks a suitable army to implement that. If you don't fit in, you're out. It's as simple as that.

A lot of Xavi and Sneijder's success is down to how they have adapted to the new playing styles of their coaches. With one striker up front, flanked by two midfielders who shuttle between attack and defence, they can slip into any team. Take that system away and I wonder if either of them would have been as influential.

Just look at how Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka, Franck Ribery and, to a certain extent, Lionel Messi play at their respective clubs and how they suffered at the international level.

It's never easy to pick between two such quality players like Xavi and Sneijder, but if I had to pick my player of the tournament, I'd go with the Spaniard. Although Sneijder has had a great club season, it's Xavi who has been the unsung hero for many seasons with Barca.

He resists the temptation to stray from his position and assume more free roles and it's the same discipline that won him the player of the tournament award in Euro 2008. Also, he has not scored as many goals as Sneijder; he has not been the flag-bearer of his side, but when you make as few mistakes on the pitch as he does, it's hard not to go with him.

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