Rooney, Ronaldo, now Messi _ soccer’s biggest stars misfire at World Cup

By Bradley S. Klapper, AP
Monday, July 5, 2010

Rooney, Ronaldo, now Messi - stars misfire in Cup

CAPE TOWN, South Africa — Rooney, then Ronaldo and now Messi.

They were supposed to light up the World Cup after scoring a total of 114 goals for their clubs this season, but left South Africa with only one goal in 13 matches.

Wayne Rooney huffed and puffed but failed to score before England was sent packing by Germany. Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo scored — once, in garbage time — but didn’t run much at all before being eliminated by Spain. Argentina’s Lionel Messi couldn’t produce the magic when it counted, against the Germans in the quarterfinals.

All 25 or younger and considered three of the world’s best players, they were the World Cup’s biggest disappointments.

For Rooney, it seemed a case of fatigue or injury — he had knee, ankle and groin problems over the last two months of his club season. Whatever the cause, rarely did the 24-year-old Manchester United striker storm past defenders with a typically powerful run after a season in England in which he scored 34 goals to make up for Ronaldo’s record transfer to Real Madrid.

Ronaldo’s lone goal — against North Korea in a 7-0 rout — was little solace for a player hyped in a well-publicized commercial as Portugal’s savior.

Even with the captain’s armband, the 25-year-old forward did little to inspire his team. He rarely tracked back in defense, lost the ball when dribbling and looked a shadow of the player who was selected as the world’s best in 2008.

That title went to Messi last year after he led Barcelona to an historic series of national, European and world club titles, and he continued his stellar performances with an astonishing 47 goals for his team in the 2009-10 season. The 23-year-old forward has often been accused of failing to reproduce his best form for Argentina, and will have done little to erase that charge in South Africa.

Diego Maradona has called Messi his heir apparent. But in his second World Cup, Messi failed to find the target and never conjured the magic of Maradona when his nation needed him, fading out of the match as Argentina was thrashed 4-0 by Germany.

“To see Messi cry in the dressing room, whoever says that he doesn’t feel pride for his shirt is stupid,” Maradona said.

Rooney, Ronaldo and Messi weren’t alone.

From Brazil, there was Kaka. The 28-year-old playmaker was voted the world’s best player three years ago, but was coming off a disappointing season after a lucrative move to Real Madrid, forced to play a deeper, more defensive role behind Ronaldo.

Back in his favored position just behind the strikers with Brazil, Kaka was sent off in the group match against Ivory Coast.

He came back for the round of 16 match as Brazil beat Chile 3-0, and nearly scored for a two-goal lead in the quarterfinal against the Netherlands. But when the Dutch came storming back in the second half to win 2-1, Kaka went quiet.

Cameroon’s Samuel Eto’o and Ivory Coast’s Didier Drogba have won five of the last seven African player of the year awards. With the weight of a continent on their shoulders, neither player could lift his team.

Eto’o, after moving from Barcelona to Inter Milan, was coming off a second straight season in which his club won everything possible — a triple crown of titles in the domestic league and cup, and the Champions League. He scored twice in three games in South Africa, but Cameroon was the first team eliminated.

Drogba broke a bone in his right arm just before the tournament and had to wear a soft cast to play. He missed a late chance to break a 0-0 draw against Portugal but scored a late consolation goal against Brazil. However, the damage was done — and even a solid 3-0 win over North Korea couldn’t rescue a talented Ivorian team’s tournament.

There have been others hampered by injury. Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon played only half of a match in Italy’s poorest World Cup showing since 1974, while Franck Ribery failed to follow in Zinedine Zidane’s footsteps for France after an injury-blighted season at Bayern Munich.

Spain’s Fernando Torres still has a chance. The 26-year-old striker has struggled since undergoing knee surgery in April, but his team has reached the semifinals. That’s been largely due to the scoring prowess of David Villa, who leads the World Cup with five goals.

“It’s been a difficult tournament for me because my fitness is bad, but I’m improving every game,” Torres said.

Diego Forlan has also cemented his status among the world’s best marksmen. He scored a vital free kick to keep Uruguay alive in the quarterfinals against Ghana before tucking away his penalty as his nation prevailed in a shootout.

Another striker who has starred is Miroslav Klose, who seemed washed up after a season on the substitutes’ bench for Bayern Munich. The rest has done him well, as he’s already scored one more goal in the World Cup — four — than he did all season in the Bundesliga.

A new group of talented youngsters have also made their mark on the world stage. The Netherlands has been aided by 22-year-old wingback Gregory van der Wiel, while 23-year-old striker Luis Suarez has scored three times in Uruguay’s run to the semifinals.

Germany has probably the two best youngsters to emerge in Mesut Oezil, 21, and Thomas Mueller, 20.

What’s most startling about Oezil is how composed he looks on the ball, slipping passes left and right with startling ease. Add to that his darting runs into the box and he looks like a young Kaka, a description few Germans familiar with their team’s typically stoic play could have imagined a few years back.

Mueller may be the star of the tournament so far. After only one full season as a Bayern first-team player, the attacking midfielder has had a series of match-winning performances, scoring twice as Germany hammered England 4-1 and another in the quarterfinal win over Argentina.

Mueller will be suspended for the semifinal against Spain after picking up his second yellow card on Saturday.

“It will be a great loss,” Germany coach Joachim Loew said.

Mueller might not possess Rooney’s vigor, Ronaldo’s flashiness or Messi’s natural elegance on the pitch. But there’s hardly been a more dangerous player in the tournament.

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