Cristiano Ronaldo pronounced himself "a broken man". Lionel Messi left in tears. Wayne Rooney departed in furious impotence and Kaka in earnest insistence he had done everything in his power. Between them the four supposed superstars contributed as many red cards (one, unluckily brandished to Kaka) as goals (rather irrelevantly scored by Ronaldo in the 7-0 drubbing of North Korea) in South Africa. This will not be remembered as their World Cup in the way that 1970 belonged to Pele or 1986 to Diego Maradona. Nor will any have the kind of crowning glory afforded to Zinedine Zidane 12 years ago or the Brazilian Ronaldo in 2002. Come the end of the tournament, the unofficial pecking order will have to be reshuffled to incorporate a newcomer to their private party: a World Cup winner.
A reductionist view of football is to interpret every match as a clash of the big names and to presume each team's fortune depends solely on their marquee player. The truth is more complicated. Felipe Melo's indiscipline contributed to Brazil's exit, just as inept defending sent Argentina and England home, and Ronaldo is entitled to bemoan David Villa's brilliant finishing for Spain. Tight marking, high expectations and a gruelling domestic campaign are constants, but their tales vary. Messi sparkled until he encountered a disciplined German side.
"We analysed their games and expected that Messi would drop into midfield," said Joachim Loew, the Germany manager. "We managed to take him out of the game, keeping him under pressure without fouling him." It was a worthy collective effort. Until then, however, Messi provided Argentina's inspiration, though it was left to Gonzalo Higuain to apply the finishing touch. It is only in the last couple of days that he has come to be bracketed with the underachievers.
Ronaldo's curt explanation of Portugal's departure was: "Ask Carlos Queiroz." It has been interpreted as a dig at the manager's defensive tactics that left him isolated in attack. Others have cited the burden of the captaincy and a record, the 2008 Champions League final apart, of underperforming in major matches. Kaka's case is different. It was a difficult conclusion to a difficult season. "I did all I could," he said. "I fought, I battled, I really tried." What he did not do is score. Indeed, while supplying chances - his pass for Luis Fabiano's goal against Chile was delectable - he was overshadowed by both the striker and Robinho, a freer spirit who seemed to express himself more.
Rooney, meanwhile, had a superlative season until he suffered an ankle injury in Munich in March. While Sir Alex Ferguson yesterday insisted his leading player was fully fit, Fabio Capello, the England manager, thought otherwise. The sharpness had not returned to his game. The other problem was that his reputation preceded him. Teammate David James insisted: "The trouble for Wayne in this tournament was that all the opposition expected him to be the danger man and they did what they could to nullify his offensive capabilities. You have to give credit to the opposition. Teams know how good he is."
And teams are the issue. Each of the men who supposedly comprised the outstanding quartet of players on the planet were in flawed teams. Each had a side built around him, yet only Kaka really should have benefited: Ronaldo was shunted across a forward line that lacked a top-class striker; Rooney, having prospered alone in attack for Manchester United, reverted to playing behind Emile Heskey or Jermain Defoe; Messi was surrounded by a galaxy of talent but there was no playmaker comparable with his Barcelona teammates Xavi and Andres Iniesta.
But they arrived in South Africa with lofty reputations. In a week or so, they may find that someone else, whether Wesley Sneijder or Diego Forlan, Mesut Ozil or Villa, has displaced them in the standings. The feared four were stars who were not super enough. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org