The Player of the World Cup So Far Is ...

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We won’t know who the Golden Ball winner for best player at World Cup 2014 is for a couple of weeks yet. But we do know that, so far, there are plenty of contenders. Here are five picks from Paste Soccer contributors, submitted after the end of the group stage:

Guillermo Ochoa, Mexico
Football is kind of an unfair game when it comes to picking out a Player of the Tournament (So Far). The tendency is to go with the high scorers, because they’re the ones that need to convert if a team is going to go through (and they’re the ones with the hot post-career modeling gigs). But love must be given to the keepers, and if there’s been a standout performance between the posts so far, it’s gotta be big boy Ochoa. I mean, did you see that match against Brazil? He used every inch of his lanky 6’1” frame to deny every opportunity unleashed by media favorite Neymar, holding the Brazilian team statistically tipped to win the cup down to a goalless draw. With sharp positional intelligence, lightning-quick reflexes, and bison-sized balls of courage, Ochoa has proven himself to one of the best, if not the best, keeper throughout the group stages so far. The guy doesn’t even have a league team contract right now. That’s crazy! That’s almost as crazy as his hair. We’ll see how he’ll hold up against the seemingly unstoppable train that is the Oranje in the round of 16, but even if the brave Mexico team goes down, you can bet your farm that Ochoa’s going to put up a fight. —Nicholas Quah

James Rodriguez, Colombia
No Radamel Falcao? No problem. Because, in hindsight, James Rodriguez, or “Hames” as I’ve been told to call him, was always the more important player. Already hailed as the true heir to Carlos Valderrama’s sanctified Colombia #10 shirt, “El Nuevo Pibe” not only has all the tools, he’s actually using them. Rodriguez’ impeccable through balls, impossible-to-defend shimmies, gliding, striding dribbles, and ability to either fire shots from distance or chip an onrushing keeper were all in full effect as the 22-year-old (22!) pulled every string available to put Colombia top of Group C with the full nine points. But here’s the really impressive thing: Rodriguez combines the technical skill-set of a top-level #10 with a complete absence of the prima donna laziness that can see other #10’s disappear from games. Rodriguez works hard off the ball with almost laughably enthusiastic movement so that he’s always in a position to receive the ball, ensuring that his supreme attacking talents are more than just present, they are consistently available to his teammates. —Daryl Grove

Lionel Messi, Argentina
Lionel Messi  is so good at football, he makes the writing of it easy. Coming into the group stages, La Pulga came trailing a mob of jabbering pundits wondering whether he can finally do the business on the big stage, whether his predilection for the pregame retch revealed weakness, and if his homeland would ever embrace a hero who felt foreign. Messi responded with four goals in three games, all worldy’s, beginning with a trademark one-two-slalom-slot past Bosnia-Herzegovina—a statement of intent. His group-stage heroics have made Messi eponymous for Argentina: not content to perform living wonders on an individual level, he is the central intelligence for all of La Albiceleste’s attacking play. He orchestrates from deep, links play in attack, and has been the decisive factor in every one of his team’s group games. He has risen to the media expectations, proven himself to the often dubious Argentine fans, and has placed himself among this World Cup’s three leading scorers. It’s remarkable that questions should even be asked of a player whose exploits put him in the category of living legend, but given the opportunity, Lionel Messi always answers. —Jordan Brown

Leo Messi … again
No individual has been as impressive and vital to his team’s success as Argentina’s Lionel Messi. With four goals in three matches, Messi has pierced defenses, bamboozled goalkeepers and placed the nation on his back when so little else in the team appears to be going right. Argentina have won all three of their matches by a single goal and one could very easily see them going home without the individual brilliance of their best player. In recent years, it has become fashionable to qualify Messi’s achievements—to approach any of his statements made on the pitch with further questioning at the first sign of even mild hardship. Isn’t his success a product of his surroundings? Why isn’t he as good for Argentina as he is for Barcelona? Hasn’t his production declined in recent years? Messi has put an end to all of this chatter with his performances through three matches in Brazil. He has not only lived up to his own otherworldly hype—he has exceeded it. While manager Alejandro Sabella’s tactics often appear mystifying, the back-line has looked leaky, and Gonzalo Higuaín and Sergio Agüero have turned in uninspiring performances, Argentina remain in the hunt for a third World Cup thanks to the play of their best player but certainly not favorite son. It’s hard to imagine one man could make a side that struggled so mightily for most of the group stage appear as such attractive candidates to win it all—but that’s just how good Messi is. —Zack Goldman

Karim Benzema, France
Like any tournament involving the French, this one presented questions about just how good Les Bleus could be when the pressure hit. Thanks to the efforts of Benzema, the memories of 2010 are melting away in the face of big possibilities. Without Franck Ribery, France not only needed a lead goalscorer in Brazil, they needed a leader. Benzema has been that, and while he hasn’t put away every chance, his three goals through three matches lead his side and place him in good stead across the whole of the tournament. Benzema’s pedigree and big match experience is on display among a group of younger players eager to set up the Real Madrid striker. Benzema has played provider as well, contributing two assists during France’s march to the top of Group E. Ecuador kept the forward quiet in the final group game with advancement already secured, but there’s no reason to think Benzema won’t play a large part in whatever success Didier Deschamps’ team has from this point forward. —Jason Davis

Thomas Müller, Germany
In the 2010 World Cup, Müller won both the Best Young Player award and the Golden Boot for top scorer. The latter honor came on the strength of five goals through the semifinals, when Germany were bounced by eventual champions Spain. In Brazil, Müller has already struck four times—and he hasn’t even played in the knockout rounds yet. While he was kept relatively quiet against Ghana, he was an indisputable difference-maker in Germany’s group stage campaign, having both effectively put Portugal out of contention by conjuring a hat trick from the pockets of Portuguese space he was able to find, then netting the game-winner against the United States by ghosting away from the penalty area unmarked then reappearing to hit one of the cleanest strikes of the tournament. One of the major concerns surrounding Die Mannschaft heading into the tournament was a roster that only featured one out-and-out striker (36-year-old Lazio hitman Miroslav Klose), raising an urgent question: Where are the goals going to come from? But with only one goal fewer than his Boot-winning tally in South Africa, Müller looks more than ready to step up. Germany is now well-poised to make a credible challenge for the title, and their success in Brazil will be due in no small part to Müller’s exceptional form. —James Patrick Gordon

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