Nuno Ricardo de Oliveira Ribeiro – nicknamed Maniche after legendary 6ft 5in Danish Benfica battleaxe Michael Manniche thanks to his thunderbolt finish – stoked the Portuguese engine room as they chugged to the semi-finals.
Despite a distinct lack of action on loan at Chelsea in 2005/06, the tireless long-haired midfielder was a standout performer as they beat Holland 1-0 in the last 16, and then eliminated England on penalties after a goalless quarter-final. France edged past them 1-0 to make the final, but Maniche’s midfield majesty had been noticed. He joined Atletico Madrid after the tournament.
9. Ze Roberto
The Seleção had a forgettable World Cup by their standards, easing through the group and past Ghana in the last 16, but flopping badly against France in the quarters. Ze Roberto was their undoubted top performer, beating men brilliantly with his dribbles in front of Roberto Carlos, and often outshining the more celebrated Ronaldinho and Ronaldo.
It was a fine swansong to an 11-year Brazil career spanning 84 matches; a real shame that one of the side’s most skilful performers never earned a winners’ medal after being dropped from the squad in 2002.
8. Ricardo Carvalho
A mainstay of the Portuguese defence that regularly menaced the latter stages of big tournaments, Carvalho was probably the finest stopper at Euro 2004 and took his sensational form to Germany, where an extremely mean backline only conceded two goals from open play all tournament.
Goalkeeper Ricardo certainly played a blinder to help with that stat, but Carvalho’s Baresi-like reading of the game was at the heart of Portugal's impenetrability.
7. Lilian Thuram
The hardest individual in the world named Lilian, Thuram had actually retired before World Cup 2006, but was convinced to reverse his decision and come back for ‘one last job’ by manager Raymond Domenech. He played so well that he even stayed on for Euro 2008, eventually becoming France’s most-capped player.
Throughout Les Bleus' dizzying highs, dreadful lows and petty bickering from '94 to '08, Thuram remained an untouchable paragon of decency and dignity. He was also a bugger to get past, and the crux of a sturdy Gallic defence that looked solid all the way to the final.
6. Miroslav Klose
Klose was much loved, and consistently prolific, throughout a club career with Kaiserslautern, Werder Bremen, Bayern Munich and Lazio, but strangely has never quite been held in the same regard internationally as some of his era’s other top forwards. Ask a pal to nominate the best German player of recent years and you’ll hear a lot of calls for Kahn, Lahm, Schweinsteiger, Ballack or Muller before someone mentions poor old Miroslav.
Perhaps it’s because he was unflashy, but his ludicrous scoring record for Germany (he is their all-time top scorer) and astonishing World Cup all-time record speak for themselves. His no-nonsense, Golden Boot-winning form was crucial at Germany’s home tournament – particularly his equaliser in the quarters against Argentina. A giant of the game.
5. Philipp Lahm
A player so good and so versatile that, could he be cloned, Germany would have fielded at least three or four of him. Thankfully this nightmarish Frankenstein scenario never came to fruition – but during 2006 it sometimes seemed like there was more than one Lahm on the pitch, anyway. The tirelessly energetic magician of the flank ran near-impossible distances, seemingly never gave the ball away, scored goals and relentlessly jostled opposition wingers as Germany bustled to the semi-finals.
Captain Lahm epitomised a side good enough to win the trophy. In 2014, he finally got what he deserved.
4. Gianluigi Buffon
Remember Gianluca Pagliuca? You can be forgiven if you don’t, especially if you’re under 30 – he’s the chap who used to mind the Italy nets before Buffon came along to hog the gig for 16 years. Euro 2000 aside (Francesco Toldo stepped in after Buffon injured his hand), the hangdog, Roman-nosed, headbang-toting custodian legend has been a consistently outstanding presence for the Azzurri, in terms of shot-stopping, command of the box and organisational acumen.
He let just two goals breach his net during Italy’s victorious run – one against USA and a Zizou penalty in the final – and probably saved the final for Italy by tipping a Zidane header over the bar in extra time with the score 1-1.
3. Fabio Cannavaro
The Italian skipper deservedly picked up the Ballon d’Or after the tournament, pipping Zidane and Ronaldinho to become just the third defender in history to be rated the planet’s best player. Few could argue: just 5ft 9in, Cannavaro’s immaculate positioning and marshalling of his backline made defending look easy. He barely seemed to break sweat or have a hair out of place (or any at all, to be fair) as he neutralised the best forwards France, Germany and the rest could offer.
His performance in the final was so perfect that he was dubbed the ‘Wall of Berlin’ by Azzurri fans; only an own goal and a penalty got past his defence all tournament.
2. Zinedine Zidane
Zidane’s World Cup 2006 was less a series of football matches, and more a three-week piece of performance art that still takes some digesting. Hypnotically beautiful on the ball, as always, he was also brutally effective, dragging a side that looked distinctly average compared to the '98 vintage all the way to Berlin. They were poor in Group G – drawing with South Korea and Switzerland and only just edging past Togo to finish second – but captain Zidane inspired an excellent comeback to beat Spain 3-1, put in a stellar man-of-the-match performance as Les Bleus banished Brazil 1-0, and slotted home a neat penalty to vanquish Portugal 1-0 in the semis.
As for the final, he produced a delightful two-step-and-gentle-chip penalty off the crossbar’s underside to outfox Buffon and give France the lead, and almost scored what would almost certainly have been the winner in extra time: a fine header, this time saved by Buffon.
Those acts are now long forgotten in a billion words of analysis about him sticking the nut on Marco Materazzi, after the Italian uttered some rotten nonsense about his mother. All that really matters in the end is that he shouldn’t have done it, and it probably lost France the match. That Zidane’s reputation survived relatively unharmed speaks volumes for his brilliance and off-field humanity. But Italy won, and for that, we relegate Zizou to second place in our list.
1. Andrea Pirlo
If Pirlo, as his nicknames suggest, is The Architect, The Professor and Mozart, World Cup 2006 was his Sistine Chapel, Theory of Relativity and EinKleine Nachtmusik. The atom-splitting playmaker was involved in everything good Italy did on their way to a fourth World Cup title, winning three man-of-the-match awards – including the semi-final, in which he engineered the late opening goal against Germany, and the final, in which he set up Materazzi’s equaliser and scored in the shootout.
He finished the tournament as its top assist provider, and while Zidane may have bagged the Golden Ball,and may have been the better player, it was Pirlo who kept his head during the moments that really counted.
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