PARIS, July 5 – Amid all the pre-World Cup speculation, few people predicted that Lionel Messi, Wayne Rooney, Kaka and Cristiano Ronaldo would all be watching the semi-finals from the comfort of their homes or holiday retreats.
With three Ballons d’Or between them (only Rooney has not won one) and a combined total of 121 goals scored for their respective clubs last season, they were the players tipped to illuminate the first ever African World Cup.
Messi, the diminutive, fleet-footed dribbler supreme, was perhaps the biggest disappointment.
A serial trophy winner in recent seasons with Barcelona, the Argentine fell victim to Diego Maradona’s desire to cram as many attacking players into his team as possible, leaving Messi isolated as the only creative player in central areas.
In the 4-0 quarter-final thrashing by Germany, Messi had a defensive midfielder (Javier Mascherano) behind him, two wingers (Maxi Rodriguez and Angel di Maria) either side and two fowards (Carlos Tevez and Gonzalo Higuain) ahead of him.
With no other skilled passers in the team, Messi was forced to drop deeper and deeper in search of the ball.
He frequently assumed possession well inside his own half and when he turned, he was confronted by a wall of German players.
"We expected the Argentine line-up and knew Messi would fall back into midfield," explained Germany coach Joachim Loew.
Messi graced the tournament with his daring dribbling and incisive passing, but despite 30 shots at goal he failed to score.
Rooney was likewise expected to launch a strong challenge for the Golden Boot, having scored a career-best tally of 34 goals for Manchester United last season.
Like Messi, though, he was hamstrung by a restrictive formation.
Forced to labour alongside a strike partner in a rigid 4-4-2, he had no scope to drop deep and exploit the space in front of the opposition defence.
His performances in the 0-0 group-stage draw with Algeria and the 4-1 defeat by Germany were uncharacteristically wretched, as he struggled to execute even the simplest of tasks and was frequently betrayed by his touch.
United coach Sir Alex Ferguson dismissed suggestions he was still being bothered by an ankle injury that flared up towards the end of last season.
"There is nothing wrong with the lad or his fitness," Ferguson said.
"He’s relaxing on holiday in Barbados and I expect him to come back refreshed for the new season."
One player undoubtedly bedevilled by injury was Kaka, whose World Cup featured three assists, an unjust red card in the 3-1 group phase win over the Ivory Coast but — like Messi and Rooney — no goals.
The Real Madrid star arrived at the tournament after a season regularly punctuated by knocks and niggles, and Brazil fitness coach Jose Luiz Runco conceded that he was not in top condition.
"Maybe in other situations Kaka would not have even played the World Cup, but he really wanted to be there," said Runco as Brazil returned home.
Kaka’s club-mate Ronaldo, by contrast, enjoyed a stellar debut campaign at the Santiago Bernabeu, netting 33 goals despite the pressure of having to justify his world record 94-million-euro price-tag.
But he drifted through the World Cup, scoring just once — in Portugal’s 7-0 demolition of North Korea — and going absent without leave in their last-16 exit at the hands of Spain.
Indecision from coach Carlos Queiroz meant Ronaldo started almost every game in a different position: he played from the left against North Korea, through the middle against Brazil and on the right against Spain.
He also suffered from a lack of support, with Portugal’s game-plan appearing to rely on his capacity to create something from nothing.
"How can I explain it?" he said to a TV crew as he left the pitch following the 1-0 loss to Spain. "Ask Queiroz."