A Fitting Finale: Germany Triumphs Over Argentina
When I watched this German side four years ago in South Africa, they almost had me decrying Spain’s existence. I feared that this young, exciting team would be forever stuck in the shadow of a transcendent one that, along with Barcelona, changed the way the game is played. In Euro 2012, Germany was again the unfortunate bridesmaid, Sham to Spain’s Secretariat. Timing is the most undervalued aspect of success or failure, and increasingly, Germany’s felt poor, particularly after Brazil’s dismantling of Spain in the 2013 Confederations Cup. I began to worry that Germany’s fate might be similar to that of Portugal’s Golden Generation, serially eclipsed by the Golden Generation of others. They deserved better.During the 2010 World Cup, I was most captivated by Bastian Schweinsteiger and Mesut Ozil. Ozil looked like he would be the world’s best player in four years’ time, and Schweinsteiger had me convinced that he already was. Ozil was a little green, and he couldn’t yet play a full 90 (he still struggles with this), but his creativity in the final third was already unmatched. Schweinsteiger was the team’s engine, seamlessly integrating attack with defense while hardly taking a false step. Once again, I was captivated by the pair during this World Cup Final. Both tactically and symbolically Schweinsteiger was Germany’s pulse. Fighting off injury coming into the tournament, he played himself into shape, and once healthy, into the starting eleven. His return to form coincided with Lahm’s return to right back, and Germany’s return to excellence after their subpar knockout stage. In the final against Argentina, he worked himself past empty. Over the full 120 minutes, Schweinsteiger covered more ground and was more effective than anyone else on the pitch, exhibiting flawless decision making on both sides of the ball and an utter abandon for his already damaged frame. The referee even extended the match an extra minute just so Schweinsteiger could endure one last crushing blow. It was cruel but inspirational, a final sacrifice demanded by the soccer gods.
Ozil displayed a different sort of genius. He has never become the world’s top player, but it would be hard to argue he’s not the most inventive. His passes only make sense after the fact, when a teammate is mysteriously in on goal (as Schurrle and Kroos can attest). Ozil spent more time than usual roaming the middle of the pitch for his German side, compensating for the almost comedic chain reaction set off by Khedira’s pre-game injury. His stamina issue resolved, Ozil played over 120 minutes in the final, covering as much ground as any Argentinian, looking comfortable and dangerous well into extra time.
On the other side of the ball, Argentina desperately missed the presence of Angel Di Maria. Without him as the link between midfield and attack, Argentina’s front three were often isolated. As expected, Argentina’s chances came off quick counters and Germany mistakes, but Neuer and Boateng were always there to mop up – sometimes in spectacular fashion. Despite Germany’s domination of the ball, Mascherano and the compact Argentine defense stifled the German attack well into extra time, allowing few true chances.
As the match entered its final minutes I found myself rooting for Germany. I was afraid that Messi would have a moment of brilliance, obscuring yet another lackluster performance – and conforming to a false narrative in the process. The World Cup occurs every four years, and victory is often wrongly viewed as the ultimate validation of individual excellence. Messi has been the world’s best player for years, maybe the best we’ve ever seen. For much of this tournament, Messi was not even the best player on his own team. The world ignored this, and clung to the narrative of this World Cup as Messi’s coronation.
In the final, Messi was the least active individual on the pitch by a wide margin, managing to look lazy and disinterested for long stretches of the match. Instead of compensating for Di Maria’s absence, he compounded it. German coach Joachim Low neglected to man mark Messi, and Messi cooperated by hovering in congested areas, rarely breaking towards space. I’m surprised I haven’t heard more Messi injury murmurs, which would certainly explain why he so rarely clicked into top gear.*
*Awarding the Golden Ball to Messi made no sense, except, because its FIFA, it made perfect sense. The decision even had Maradona questioning the process. Mascherano was easily the most deserving Argentine, single-handedly turning Argentina’s biggest perceived weakness, defense, into their greatest strength over the course of the tournament’s seven games, and doing all he could to compensate for Di Maria’s absence over the final three. Against the Netherlands he – not Messi – was their savior, and his fine form continued in the final. Of the players on the pitch going into the final, Toni Kroos would’ve been another obvious choice. Either would have made more sense than Messi. Even Schweinsteiger, for his performance in the final alone, would have made more sense than Messi.
Other players were perhaps even more deserving, particularly Arjen Robben, who carried an average Dutch side to third place. Robben, with his magic left foot, played the way the world wanted Messi to play (save for his penchant for the theatrical dive). James Rodriguez, whose team lost too early to be in serious consideration for the award, was the tournament’s breakout star, emerging from the tournament as everybody’s favorite HAMEZ.
In the end, the 2014 World Cup finished as it ought to – with the coronation of a team and not an individual. This was to be Germany’s moment, the culmination of years of excellence. Between Spain crashing out of the tournament in the group stage, and Brazil’s collapse, it was Germany’s tournament to lose. It would have been a shame if they let this opportunity pass. Fortunately, Mario Gotze found the moment of brilliance that eluded Argentina, putting Germany on the board with his 113th minute strike. And when the referee blew the final whistle, justice was finally served – the best team had once again won the World Cup.