It took a goal of individual brilliance to separate Germany and Argentina on Sunday night, as the Europeans claimed their fourth World Cup title with the narrowest of victories.
Mario Gotze’s 113th minute volley was a record-breaking effort: first-ever goal in a World Cup final by a substitute; first time a European side has won the trophy on South American soil; first time a bunch of fans was so keen to support a team that had humiliated its own side in the previous round.
For Brazilians, a victory by their greatest rivals would have been too much to bear – like someone bankrupting themselves to host the perfect party, only for the evening to end with their lover strolling off with an archenemy.
Yet Argentina arguably had the better chances on the night to make Brazil’s misery complete, starting in the 20th minute when striker Gonzalo Higuain shanked a glorious chance wide with only the goalkeeper to beat.
Leo Messi and Rodrigo Palacio also spurned glorious opportunities when one-on-one with Manuel Neuer, that one-man Zugspitze who also won the Golden Glove award for the tournament’s best goalkeeper (just the one glove, mind – those FIFA cheapskates). You do not want the 6ft 4in German racing out to confront you in a 50-50 challenge, as Higuain discovered when being poleaxed by the keeper.
The Germans, of course, have a word for just this sort of obdurate goalkeeper: Teufelskerl (devil’s man). They also have a word for what Higuain was doubtless thinking afterward: Backpfeifengesicht, which means a face badly in need of a fist. Honestly. Amazingly, Italian referee Nicola Rizzoli awarded a free kick in the German’s favor, one of the few things he got wrong on the night, during a tournament where the officiating has been excellent.
As the adage goes, the best team always wins and the rest is only gossip. While the Argentines will be kicking themselves (and Higuain will doubtless miss), there’s no doubt that Germany was the most consistent performer over the month – from its 4-0 demolition of Portugal right through to that never-to-be-repeated 7-1 thrashing of the hosts. (Who says bookmakers don’t have a sense of humor? The odds on Brazil winning the next World Cup are 7-1.)
The Leo Messi mystery continued right up until the end of the tournament. The Argentine striker is clearly not 100 percent fit (he was sick on the pitch again on Sunday night, part of an ongoing problem that has baffled his medical team), yet he was still deemed the player of the tournament for his efforts.
Funny that, because some say he wasn’t even the best player on his own side – that honor belonging to his Barcelona teammate Javier Mascherano, the half-man/half-pit bull defensive midfielder who made more tackles than any other player at the tournament. Indeed, the clash between Mascherano and Germany’s Bastian Schweinsteiger was one of the final’s most fascinating subplots: two fiercely competitive midfielders taking it in turns to kick lumps out of each other. It was to be the German who came through bloodied but triumphant, although the Argentine somehow even managed to cry in a macho way at the end.
The two coaches were perfect embodiments of their sides: Germany’s Joachim Low, coolness personified, shirt sleeves rolled up and ready to work; Alex Sabella covering as much ground on the touchline as an England midfielder. The Argentine coach looked in pain for much of the tournament, his expressions suggesting someone who would rather be anywhere but there. And is it just the stress of management that makes him look like a youngish man made to look older with bad B-movie prosthetics?
Still, at least we’ll always have this to remember him by:
We’ll miss his hangdog expressions, and so much more about this World Cup. A month that saw 171 goals (2.67 per game), 10 red cards, 187 yellow cards, 13 penalty kicks, 5 own goals, 2 hat-tricks and one wonderful tournament.
It was an event that rebooted soccer’s reputation after a dour 2010 World Cup, and possibly catalyzed a whole new ball game in the United States. Now, Brazil is left to pick up the bill, FIFA faces the mammoth task of counting its profits and the rest of us have to find something to fill the void.
The diary, for example, will be practicing its James Rodriguez volleys with a scrunched-up piece of paper and an office trash can for a goal (chest control, swivel in chair, volley, back of the can!), and counting down the days until soccer returns. The qualifiers for the Champions League must start any day now, right?
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