Wordld Cup 2014
When the goal finally arrived, 112 minutes into a long, wearing night of tension, there were members of the German entourage who seemed intent on re-enacting the infamous end to the Ryder Cup at Brookline. Their victory run, en masse, took them all the way from the dugout to the opposite side of the pitch where André Schürrle had created the game’s decisive moment.
Mario Götze, another of Germany’s substitutes, had taken down Schürrle’s cross on his chest with his first touch. His second was to arrow a left-volley into the net and ensure that Germany will always remember Rio de Janeiro with the same fondness as Bern in 1954, Munich in 1974 and Rome in 1990.
Argentina’s anguish will not be made any easier by the knowledge that Gonzalo Higuaín and Lionel Messi both passed up opportunities to put in place what the people of Brazil have been calling the pesadolo – the nightmare – before extra time. Germany had struggled at times for their most devastatingly effective fluency and there was plenty to encourage the loud, boisterous Argentinian fans who had travelled across the border, turning the Sambadromo and Avenida Atlantica into temporary festival sites and going through those loud songs about Maradona being better than Pelé.
Yet Germany are worthy champions even if they found it difficult to reach their most illuminating heights and it was a wonderful goal with which to win this competition for a fourth occasion. It is the culmination of a story that brings together intelligent forward thinking and a clear strategy and Götze is an apt match-winner as one of the new generation of players to come off the conveyor belt.
Germany’s primary concern beforehand had to be that they had peaked too early on that night in Belo Horizonte when they turned Brazil’s tournament into an ordeal. They settled quickly but, equally, it did not take long before there was hard evidence that they were taking on much sturdier opponents this time. Messi made the Maracanã wait before the first seamless turn of speed and direction. Yet Alejandro Sabella’s players did show why Lothar Matthäus and Franz Beckenbauer, two members of German football royalty, had talked with a strange lack of understanding when they had acclaimed Germany as being the favourites by a country mile. Beckenbauer had been emboldened enough to say it “can be only Germany” when the truth was that Sabella’s side, and a little fella in particular wearing the No10 shirt, were far too talented to be underestimated that way.
The Albiceleste began the game in a way that suggested they were as unimpressed with the semi-final against Holland as the rest of us. Argentina, with no sense of exaggeration, had more chances in the opening half an hour than they had managed in 120 minutes in São Paulo on Wednesday. They were also entitled to think they really ought to have had the lead bearing in mind the chance Gonzalo Higuaín squandered after 20 minutes. Toni Kroos, of all people, had sold Manuel Neuer short with a back-header and Higuaín was free, bearing down on goal, only to suffer what looked suspiciously like a full-on loss of nerve. His shot was wild, maybe even slightly panicked, and it was tempting to wonder even at that early stage whether that moment might come back to torment him.
Higuaín could also reflect on a disallowed goal in the first half after a wonderful flicked pass from Messi had given Ezequiel Lavezzi the chance to pick him out with a right-wing cross. The offside decision was correct but it was another indication that Argentina were absolutely determined to show they were a superior side than maybe some had imagined.
There was also considerable evidence that they suspected Benedikt Höwedes might be vulnerable in Germany’s left-back position. A lot of Messi’s best work came when he drifted to that side. Lavezzi had been willing to run at the Schalke full-back before being replaced by Sergio Agüero at half-time and it happened too often to be a mere coincidence.
Germany, while clearly leaving something in reserve, still remained dangerous and came close to making the breakthrough just before the break when Höwedes charged through a congested penalty area and headed Thomas Müller’s corner against the post. Müller had been predominantly involved on the right of Germany’s attack but there was a strange lack of creativity from Joachim Löw’s side. Mesut Özil, once again, was on the edges of the game and Kroos was surprisingly ineffective at times. Germany had lost Sami Khedira in the warm-up because of a calf injury and the disruption continued before half-time when his replacement, Christoph Kramer, was given a personal introduction to Ezequiel Garay and groggily had to be removed from the game.
The substitute, André Schürrle, had a chance that Argentina’s goalkeeper, Sergio Romero, turned away but these were largely moments when Germany’s opponents gave the impression of being the more fully functional team. Two minutes after the interval, Higauín’s through ball dissected the German defence and this time it was Messi with the ball at his feet and nothing but Neuer between him and the goal. Maybe Messi was trying to be too precise given the quality of the goalkeeper in his vision. His shot went a yard wide when a player of his quality would ordinarily have been expected to score at ease.
Höwedes had been fortunate not to be punished in the first half for a studs-up challenge on Pablo Zabaleta and Argentina were aggrieved later that Neuer got away with a challenge on Higuaín that had shades of Harald Schumacher in 1982, albeit the goalkeeper did get a clean punch on the ball before a follow-up knee into his opponent’s jaw.
The game was laced with tension at that stage and it was probably inevitable that the two sides would start playing a little more cautiously. It was, nonetheless, nothing like as prosaic as Argentina’s semi-final.
Both sides kept advancing but it was easy to understand why an Argentina side featuring Javier Mascherano and Zabaleta had not conceded a goal in the knockout stages.