Germany’s envied culture of planning, skill and intelligence gained its reward on the sacred turf of the Maracana. Lionel Messi watched the dream of international greatness recede in a stadium that Argentina tried to claim as a satellite of Buenos Aires.
Between those two bookends, one of the best World Cups ended with boos for the presidents of Fifa and Brazil, the locals awash with schadenfreude, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Germany’s best player, limping and drained, the flinty Javier Mascherano weeping and Messi stepping up to receive the Golden Ball for the tournament’s best player: a bizarre choice, which even he will be embarrassed about, given the way this game unfolded.
Messi’s World Cup finished with a free-kick that was Argentina’s last chance to make it through to penalties ballooning into the stands. It was strangely reminiscent of Roberto Baggio’s missed penalty in the shimmering heat of Pasadena 20 years ago. This one was much harder to score, but it seemed to symbolise Messi’s thwarted quest to be remembered as the equal of Diego Maradona in an Argentina shirt.
Now 27, Messi will be nudging veteran status in Russia in 2018. Maradona looks safe therefore on his plinth as Argentina’s all-time idol. There were bursts of brilliance from Messi here in Brazil but for the climax he was unable to make the difference, which is the job spec for genius. Instead that privilege fell to Mario Götze, used as an impact sub at this tournament, who cushioned a cross on his chest and volleyed past Sergio Romero 113 minutes into this trial of the spirit.
Argentina had turned this final into a pilgrimage, an invasion and a stag weekend rolled into one. They wanted to plonk Messi up on the hill where Christ the Redeemer stands and put the boot into two countries at once: Germany and Brazil.
Inspired by the deluge of Argentine fans, some of whom sat on buses for 48 hours to reach the promised land, Messi and his stubborn gang approached Brazilian levels of emotionalism. Under Mascherano’s unofficial leadership (Messi is the captain), Argentina had been more inclined to chant bawdy songs in the dressing room than weep and simper. But there is no doubt which of these two finalists was on a semi-religious quest.
You would travel a long way to find anyone who can remember anything profound Messi has ever said. There he was, though, on the eve of the game, emoting on Facebook: “My dreams and my hopes are being fulfilled due to the hard work and sacrifice of a team that has given everything from match one.” In other words: “Please stop staring at me, and demanding miracles, for I am but one man among many.”
It was a nice try but the desire to see him balance off his brilliant club career at Barcelona with a World Cup winner’s medal was not some media confection. It was the absolutely legitimate backdrop to this game, especially with so many Argentina fans flooding into Rio that people in the Fanfest on Copacabana beach were driven into the shallows to gain a vantage point.
“If God allows it, Leo will destabilise the Germans with his legs,” declared Daniel Passarella, the great Argentine defender. Messi called it “the most important match of our lives for our country,” adding: “We knew it was possible. Our people, the Argentines, they have carried us here. But the dream is not over yet. Tomorrow we want to win, and we are ready.”
Ranged against them were a German side who had obliterated Portugal and Brazil. Argentina, on the other hand, had ground their way past Bosnia, Nigeria, Iran, Switzerland, Belgium and cautious Holland. Germany sought validation for their wonderful development programme and faith in youth.
It was all very systematic and cultured and ordered, until Sami Khedira injured his calf before the kick-off and had to be replaced by Borussia Moenchengladbach’s Christoph Kramer, 23, who made his debut in May and lasted half an hour before swaying off with what looked like concussion.
“We will give everything we’ve got,” promised Alejandro Sabella, the Argentina coach, “through humility, sacrifice, hard work, simplicity. By giving instead of taking, by forgiving instead of complaining.” A former Sheffield United and Leeds player, Sabella did not learn such priestly talk in Yorkshire.
Messi’s own father was among those diagnosing heavy legs in the little maestro. Without specific evidence of injury, he would have a hard time justifying sluggishness in a World Cup final in the Maracana, across the border from where he lived until signs of pre-teen genius carried him to Barcelona’s finishing school. Nor does he make excuses, or ask for special treatment. His preference for riding tackles rather than diving is the best possible evidence of his valour.
Germany had scored 17 times on the road to the Maracana. Argentina had scored eight. In a record-setting eighth final, the Germans became the first European winners in Latin America with their rhythmic passing disrupted not only by Argentine machismo but sufficient ambition from Sabella’s men to make this an absorbing contest.
The special chemistry provided by the two sets of fans deserves a mention. There were 70,000 Argentines in Rio and 200,000 Germans reportedly at the Brandenburg Gate. The Maracana had its own human swarm: thousands of police and soldiers who set up a huge and bristling exclusion zone to deter protestors.
To write about romance from inside a military camp staging a football match seems wrong. There was plenty of hand-to-hand combat on the pitch too. Or knee-to-jaw contact in the case of Manuel Neuer’s leap into Gonzalo Higuaín, which might have knocked him cold. Neuer was surely obliged to consider the well-being of his opponent, who was chasing the ball and could not see the challenge coming, rather than lead so high with his knee.
If these Germany players stay hungry they could repeat Spain’s dominance from 2008-2012. Immortality is no glib phrase in relation to world cups. It sits well with this German side. And it slipped away from Messi in a stadium that would have lent an Argentina win a special South American grandeur. No wonder the Golden Ball seemed to mean nothing to him.