On one hand, people want Lionel Messi to cement his place in footballing history as one of the true greats with a World Cup win, on the other, those that value the qualities of teamwork will want Germany to lift their fourth title on Sunday.
While Brazil showed us what happens when a team degenerates into a pathetic rabble, Germany reminded us that in the ultimate team game, the whole is invariably greater than the sum of its parts.
Quite often, the teams that seduce us do not get to the World Cup final. We were in danger of having a final between two teams that were not necessarily the best in the competition – as in 2006, for example. The Chileans, the Colombians, the Dutch (at times) and the Costa Ricans have all had their moments of brilliance but the “old guard” comprising the Spanish, English, Italians and Portuguese all went home with their tails planted firmly between their legs.
Throughout the history of the World Cup, teams that have captured the imagination have fallen short– teams like Hungary (1954), Portugal (1966), West Germany (1970), Holland (1974), Brazil and France (1982).
When a host nation disappoints, it deflates the competition, but fortunately for FIFA, it only happened in the semi-final. But Brazil failed to excite, despite a few wins, and will go down as one of the least convincing hosts of all time. They looked workmanlike, devoid of flair, apart from the tragic figure of Neymar, and they were frankly, lucky to get as far as they did. If any good has come of Brazil’s epoch-making capitulation, it is that people are now waking up to the reality that Brazil have long discarded the garlands of Pele and co. and the country’s football is in a mess.
So from the melee, Germany and Argentina – the latter carried by Messi almost as much as Neymar dragged the Brazilians through – have emerged as the most consistent and robust of the 32.
What has the World Cup taught us? That Spain have to rebuild (which they will), England have systemic problems (which some people have been in denial about), Italy are also in decline, that South America has more to offer than the big two (they just need to learn how to travel better), and it affirmed the widespread belief that FIFA is corrupt to the core. The competition has, however, restored some faith in the World Cup after disappointment in five of the last six.
But before all those 30-something journalist start talking about “best ever” and other superlatives, 2014 did not maintain its momentum and at the end of the day in the cliché-ridden game, we will remember the collapse of two mighty names (Spain and Brazil) and Suarez’s bite more than anything else. It’s been a good World Cup, but not a great one.
1986 and 1990 revisited then…
Their route to the final has been steady but unimpressive. The semi-final against the Netherlands was a dire affair and settled in the most unsatisfactory way, but it almost summed up the uninspiring way in which they have weaved their way through the competition. You always feel as though Argentina have more to give, but as we saw against the Dutch, if you keep Messi quiet, you keep Argentina subdued.
Road to Rio
June 15: Bosnia & Herzegovina W 2-1 (og, Messi) in Maracana, Rio (74,738)
June 21: Iran W 1-0 (Messi) in Belo Horizonte (57,698)
June 25: Nigeria W 3-2 (Messi 2, Rojo) in (43,285)
Round of 16
July 1: Switzerland W 1-0 (Di Maria) aet in Sao Paulo (63,255)
July 5: Belgium W 1-0 (Higuain) in Brasilia (68,551)
July 9: Netherlands D 0-0 aet – won on pens in Sao Paulo (63,267)
There’s no denying that Argentina are considerably better than Brazil as South America’s representatives. Messi may be the pivotal figure in their line-up, but players like Angel Di Maria – if he’s fit – Mascherano and Rojo have been sound if not spectacular. One player that has had a disappointing finals is Sergio Aguero, who looks so impressive back in the English Premier, but has been off the pace in the World Cup. The Argentine defence looks solid – they’ve kept four clean sheets in six games. They lack real firepower and 50% of their goals have come from Messi.
Likely line-up: Romero; Zabaleta, Demichelis, Garay, Rojo; Biglia, Mascherano; Di Maria, Messi, Lavezzi; Huguain.
Thanks to that semi-final, and the recent dominance of Bayern Munich, Germany’s players are rapidly becoming as familiar as any English Premier side’s squad.
Their path to the final has been steadily building, with the public execution of Brazil highlighting just how could they can be. It’s a typical German quality to get better as a tournament progresses, so we should not be too surprised that they find themselves in the final once more. The 4-0 win against Portugal and the 7-1 destruction of the hosts have bookended some solid but not entirely convincing performances.
The Road to Rio
June 16: Portugal W 4-0 (Mueller 3 – 1 pen, Hummels) in Salvador (51,081)
June 21: Ghana D 2-2 (Goetze, Klose) in Fortaleza (59,621)
June 26: USA W 1-0 (Mueller) in Recife (41,876)
Round of 16
July 1: Algeria W 2-1 (Schuerrle, Ozil) aet in Porto Alegre (43,063)
July 4: France W 1-0 (Hummels) aet in Maracana, Rio (74,240)
July 8: Brazil W 7-1 (Mueller, Klose, Kroos 2, Khedira, Schuerrle 2) in Belo Horizonte (58,141)
In every department, Germany are strong. As mad as Neuer is, he is also an excellent keeper, as he demonstrated when Brazil were in desperate search of some consolation in the second half of the semi. Philipp Lahm, Toni Kroos, Sami Khedira and Thomas Mueller have all been outstanding, and Miroslav Klose has enjoyed a bit of an Indian summer. We shouldn’t be that surprised, given their series of near-misses in recent years. Germany’s time has come.
Likely line-up: Neuer; Lahm, Hummels, Boateng, Hoewedes; Kroos, Schweinsteiger, Khedira; Mueller, Klose, Ozil.
It’s almost time to put the wallchart away…