Team Germany vs Lionel Messi

    Whatever happens at the Maracana in Rio de Janeiro on Sunday (early Monday morning for the bleary-eyed in India), history will have been made. Either the World Cup will have its first European champion on South American soil, or world football will have a new king to place beside Pele, Diego Maradona and Zinedine Zidane. Team Germany versus Lionel Messi: the narrative writes itself, a rematch 24 years in the making. While it isn’t without truth, it suffers from a reduction in nuance.

    German football has evolved since 1990, when an Andreas Brehme penalty won the Cup. Efficiency and collective play remain the substance, but there has been a refinement of style. Under Jurgen Klinsmann and then Joachim Low, a new German generation has showcased skilful, tactically fluid football while continuing the tradition of going deep in tournaments. But without a trophy, patience has begun to wear thin in Germany. Argentina, on the other hand, appears not to have escaped the personality cult.

    It was Maradona in 1990 when he nearly managed a repeat of 1986; it’s Messi now. Much as with Maradona, the opposition’s extra-defensive attention limits Messi, but it extracts a cost: the other team can’t commit to attack without risking a match-turning moment of Messi magic. It can only work, however, if the rest of Argentina privileges an individual for its greater good.

    The finalists could not have taken more contrasting routes. Argentina has managed eight goals in six matches, often leaving it very late; Germany nearly scored that number against Brazil, and has 17 in total. Argentina and the Netherlands set out not to lose their semifinal, two cautious, disciplined sides cancelling each other out.

    Neither could seize the initiative over 120 minutes. Germany and Brazil, in the other semifinal, went out to win, even if the host did it with absurd recklessness, “running into an open knife” as a German writer described it. In a sense it was surprising to see Brazil play thus.

    It had led the tournament in fouls, yellow cards, and tackles per game: this was a pragmatic unit, which despite the gaps at the back was capable of churning out results. But without Neymar, its creative force, and Thiago Silva, its leader and defensive organiser, the five-time champion crumbled.

    Despite inflicting such a heavy defeat, Low’s men can count on Brazil’s support in the final; not only has Germany’s football captivated the spiritual home of the game, Brazilians will rather see anyone win it but Argentina. Alejandro Sabella has sought to lessen the pressure on his side by portraying Argentina as the underdog. But big finals know no favourites. All one can hope for is a contest that a thoroughly enjoyable World Cup can be remembered by.

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