By Adam Vaccaro
What happened Friday: The day before their third-place tilt, Germany and Uruguay both said that they're taking very seriously what is often considered a low-pressure opening act for the final. Uruguay coach Oscar Tabarez went so far as to say that his squad will fight to the death on Saturday. His German counterpart Joachim Loew also said that his side will be approaching the match looking to win, suggesting that Die Mannschaft's morale needs lifting after Wednesday's 1-0 semifinal loss to Spain. As a third-place finish is of greater value than fourth but because neither side has a whole lot to lose, the contest is often offensively-minded, high scoring, and entertaining. Germany finished in third place after a 3-1 bout with Portugal on home soil in 2006, but as has been noted plenty, this year's squad has seen substantial turnover from that tournament's edition.
Also Friday: FIFA announced the tournament's Golden Ball finalists. The winner, as voted on by the media, will be named the tournament's best player. The ten finalists are as follows: Spain's David Villa, Xavi, and Andres Iniesta; Dutchmen Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben; Bastian Schweinsteiger and Mesut Ozil of Germany; Uruguayan striker Diego Forlan; Ghana's Asamoah Gyan; and Argentinian superstar Lionel Messi, who managed to put on a show in tournament play without scoring a goal. For my money, as I said on Thursday, Sneijder's been the tournament's best, or at least it's most valuable, in pacing Holland's march to the final since knockout play began. The winner will be announced after Sunday's tilt.
Further signifying the global influence of the game, at least 23 heads of state are expected to be in attendance when the Netherlands and Spain meet in Sunday's final. Fourteen of the leaders reside over African nations. United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon also plans to be in the crowd.
FIFA president Sepp Blatter said that Nelson Mandela will be given the honor of presenting the Sunday's winner with the World Cup should he attend the final. There's still no word on whether Mandela will head to Soccer City Stadium in Johannesburg, and we likely won't know until the morning of the match, but it does seem as though all the world is pulling for him to make what would go down as a very memorable appearance.
Paraguay coach Gerardo Martino, who led his rag-tag Albirroja bunch to the quarterfinals, has said that he will stay on through 2011's Copa America, South America's soccer championship. Late last week, Martino said that he was leaving his post and would be entertaining several offers from club teams around the world, but it seems as though he's not quite ready to call himself finished. Martino arguably gave the tournament's greatest coaching performance. Very few expected Paraguay, playing without Salvador Cabanas, to do much in 2010 but they were never outmatched not even in their 1-0 quarterfinal loss to Spain and only surrendered two goals in tournament play.
German octopus and World Cup prophet Paul, 6-0 in his tournament predictions so far, has made his weekend picks. Paul chose to eat out of feeders labeled with the flags of Germany and Spain, signaling that he foresees Die Mannschaft taking the third-place spot and the Spaniards winning the first final they've ever played in. Paul's prediction for Sunday is the first match for which he's ever served as oracle that didn't feature Germany, so it remains to be seen if he maintains his magically suctioned touch.
What to watch on Saturday: The third-place contest between Uruguay and Germany would seem to favor Deutschland, but there are reasons to believe in Uruguayan victory. La Celeste will be returning key players that did not feature against Holland, as striker Luis Suarez whose controversial handball against Ghana should render him the match's villain, fair or not will return from suspension and, more importantly, defenders Diego Lugano and Jorge Fucile are expected back in the lineup. Prior to defeat at the hands of the Dutch, Uruguay succeeded on the strength of its defense. The Celeste will benefit mightily from reinforcing its rearguard, especially given how mortal Spain not the tournament's best defensive unit was able to make the vaunted German counterattack appear.
Germany, meanwhile, may be a bit weak. They will be getting Golden Boot competitor Thomas Muller back from suspension but it's unknown as to whether they'll feature key scorer Miroslav Klose. The striker still sits just one goal behind Ronaldo for the most ever scored in World Cup play but is currently hampered with a back injury. Further, key German players Lukas Podolski and Phillip Lahm are battling the flu, as is Loew. They're expected to play, but they may not be at full fitness.
But perhaps most important for Uruguay is that a third-place finish would give the once-titans of world soccer its best finish since 1950. Since Germany's rebuilding effort remains underway despite its success in South Africa, the country is seemingly already content with what the young squad has already accomplished, at least judging by the nation's newspaper headlines. Uruguayan soccer would benefit far more than Germany from victory, and the Celeste players know that. I smell an upset. But then again, I'm no German octopus.
Question of the Day: What does the list of Golden Ball finalists say about superstar play in the tournament? Of those nominated, only Lionel Messi was a true global superstar to the point of being a household name prior to its start, and of the ten, he stands the least likely to win. Does the rightful exclusion of Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, Didier Drogba, Fernando Torres and Kaka amongst others mean that the 2010 World Cup has particularly emphasized team play over individual excellence? Bonus question: If the United States had advanced to the quarter or semifinals, would Landon Donovan have made the list?
Full schedule (all times EDT): Uruguay v Germany Port Elizabeth Stadium, Port Elizabeth 2:30 p.m.
Quote of Note: There are always people who want to eat our octopus, but he is not shy and we are here to protect him as well. - Oliver Walenciak, caretaker of World Cup prediction expert Paul the Octopus, responding to death threats against the soothsaying sea dweller.