Just before the World Cup started I was at a function at the Argentine embassy in London, talking about the country’s long established sporting rivalry with England. Or at least that was advertised as the subject that Ossie Ardiles, Ricky Villa and at least one far less qualified observer were supposed to be addressing.
But it soon became evident from the questions asked by the large crowd of Argentine expats gathered in the magnificent Belgravia mansion that houses the embassy that rivalry with England was of no more than passing interest. What worried them far more was Germany. In particular what might lie in store were their team once more be obliged to play the Germans in Brazil.
Like much of the rest of the footballing world, the Argentines long ago stopped worrying about England. They ceased to regard us as much of a threat. Germany, on the other hand, they feared had a hold over their national game, as exemplified by the last time the two countries met in competitive action, in the quarter-final in South Africa four years ago, when Germany annihilated them 4-0.
“What worries me are the Germans,” one questioner said. “They have knocked us out of the last two World Cups. How are we ever going to beat them?”
It was a question that Ardiles quickly and simply answered: “You want to know how to beat the Germans?” he said. “Get Messi in the game.”
Now, for the third World Cup on the trot, Argentina are drawn against the Germans. This time, they are meeting their nemesis at the most significant stage of the competition, in Sunday’s final in the Maracana. And there is a lot more than just the pattern of recent results to concern them.
This Germany side really do look an intimidating obstacle, full of fluency, imagination and craft, easily the best team in the competition. Their midfield of Toni Kroos, Sami Khedira, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Thomas Mueller and Mesut Ozil is as good as any assembled in a generation, and that includes the all-conquering Spaniards. The way they dismissed Brazil in the semi-final makes the prospect even less inviting for a nation already convinced of its footballing inferiority. Argentina is quaking in its boots.
But the truth is, terrific as they are, Germany are not quite as good as the Brazilians made them look. Actually, the way Big Phil’s shower played on Tuesday they would have made England look good. In the group stage Ghana almost embarrassed Germany, being within a breath of winning. They did so by attacking them. Not with the brain-dead haplessness of the Brazilians. But with pace and strength on the counter.
And what the Ghanaians proved is that while the German midfield, goalkeeper and right-back are as good as any ever to wear the white shirt, there are weaknesses. Have a game plan, plot a way to neutralise their effectiveness, target their limitations – three things the Brazilians utterly failed to do on Tuesday night – and even a side as technically limited as Ghana, one riven with internal disputes and problems, can offer resistance. What the Africans showed is that there is a chance.
Argentina have all the resources – from the brilliant defensive midfielder Javier Mascherano, through the reborn centre-back Martin Demichelis, to the attacking invention of Gonzalo Higuain and the returning Sergio Aguero – to discomfort the Germans. But they also have one unique, devastating weapon at their disposal which can turn mere discomfort into triumph: Lionel Messi.
Because Ardiles is spot on. The key has to be the Barcelona man. Ardiles believes it is impossible to win the World Cup without at least one world class talent in your team. And Argentina have the best there is. True, in South Africa four years ago, undermined by Diego Maradona’s self-obsessed management, the twinkle-toed genius was a passenger, strolling through that quarter-final as if in a daze, barely able to contribute, never mind dictate the flow.
Get him in the mood and on the ball, however, and everything changes. Germany are then obliged to worry about what happens if they lose possession; Germany then need to think about something other than attack; Germany are then required to deploy at least two of their accomplished midfield in defensive mode. Three challenges that scarcely impinged on their thinking in Belo Horizonte against the abject hosts.
Ardiles, incidentally, added his prediction that Messi would be the star of this World Cup. His belief was that the player, having endured a less than stellar season in club football, would pull out all the stops to leave his mark on the international game. Everything, he said, pointed to him being Argentina’s saviour.
Messi started the tournament as if determined to prove his predecessor in the blue and white striped shirt right. He was brilliant in the group stages. Since the knock out, however, he has gone off the boil. Against the Dutch in the semi-final he appeared cowed by the snappy attentions of Nigel de Jong. He scarcely looked a saviour in waiting.
Fortunately his team-mates gifted him a second chance to imprint himself on history. Now he has the most glorious opportunity to prove Ardiles right in his belief that he is a better player than Maradona. Without Messi, the South Americans might be able to challenge the Germans, maybe push them all the way. But they won’t win it. If he plays like he can do, however, then they have the chance of lifting the hoodoo. With Messi in their team, anything is possible.
- Jim White is in Brazil and covering the World Cup
- Sports & Recreation
- Ossie Ardiles