Two excellent teams, well-organised but contrasting in style, cancelling each other out in a match that ebbed and flowed but – despite its quality – was a tiny bit flat until Mario Goetze’s wonderful take and finish in extra time.
It felt flat in part because Germany’s fans were drowned out by alternating choruses from Argentina and Brazil supporters, at times more interested in each other than the action on the pitch, but not quite as boisterous as one may imagine.
Initially promising to be an end-to-end cracker, this enthralling clash of the titans lost some of its fizz as Argentina seemed content to let things drag out, feeling they had players to change a game in a heartbeat; Germany, meanwhile, showed greater energy, but were let down but poor finishing and an off-day for Toni Kroos, who was sensational in the semi-final drubbing of Brazil but looked distracted by this occasion, his natural feel for the ball stilted at times, possibly thanks to the marauding presence of Javier Mascherano, possibly because bodyguard Sami Khedira was injured in the warm-up while his replacement Christoph Kramer barely lasted half an hour.
Meanwhile, police clashed with protesters outside the Maracana. Nothing major, but enough to pique the interest of global newspapers. There has been little political violence at this World Cup, the occasional outbreak but nothing on a mass scale; expect that to restart from tomorrow.
Back to the match, there were chances, yes, but they were not taken. Gonzalo Higuain missed a sitter, celebrated wildly when he was offside, and - along with Lionel Messi - was guilty of dragging several finishes wide; Germany, meanwhile, shared collective guilt, both in front of goal and in some of the final decision making. Nerves? Tighter defences? The tournament’s best goalkeepers?
Still, it was good to see Messi run more freely with the ball at his feet, even if little came of his forays. Mesut Ozil too had a more pleasing game, but – as with all his team-mates – the impact was limited. Germany’s best chances were a Benedikt Hoewedes header off the post, and two efforts by Kroos, one saved by Sergio Romero, another put wide when he probably should have scored.
As has often been the way in these tight knockout matches, extra-time offered more thrill for the neutral, Germany steaming out of the blocks and Argentina a delight on the counter attack. Jerome Boateng was a man-mountain though, covering for the surprisingly leaden Mats Hummels, whose touch and positioning were on point but who appeared to be carrying that knee injury again.
That miss could have been excused – after all, Neuer was given the referee’s support when he kneed Higuain in the head while punching a high ball clear. He was lucky to remain at large, let alone out on the pitch. Palacio may well have feared for his health.
As penalties became an increasing inevitability, Messi in particular seemed to be running out of steam, photos emerging apparently showing the Barcelona star vomiting on the pitch again. But Germany were also fatigued, leading Joachim Loew to play one last throw of the dice.
Goetze has had an indifferent season, and an indifferent tournament.
Not so long ago he was the golden-boy of German football, Borussia Dortmund’s wunderkind, but he probably should not have moved to Bayern Munich when he did. Struggling to impose himself on that team, he fared even worse for his country at this World Cup, a bit-part player, expected to miss out completely today.
But Goetze, tossed on for the tiring Miroslav Klose, remains a phenomenally gifted and intelligent player, and his lovely touch off the chest and flashing finish secured Germany their first World Cup since 1990.
Joy, delirium – and relief, both for Loew, and player.
Until this tournament, many in Germany wondered if the 54-year-old – no great star as a club manager and whose best work came with as U21 boss and senior assistant coach – had what it took to win major titles.
His calm, focus, foresight and intelligence - in allowing the traditionally direct Germans to adopt a more Spanish-influenced style of play - came off.
A victory for patience by the DFB, by his charges and by most fans, who resisted the temptation to call for his head.
But for Goetze this is immense.
He was hauled off at half-time against Algeria, lacked confidence and seemed unaware of his role in the team. He is now a national hero, and rightly so, thanks to his cute take and even sweeter finish.
He will also likely get his starting spot at Bayern Munich, with Kroos expected to move to Real Madrid later this summer. Nice way to return to work after the holidays, World Cup winner's medal in hand.
For Argentina – and Lionel Messi – it’s back to the drawing board, his final and entire tournament summed up by a free-kick sent high to the stands near the end of extra time.
It was absurd that he should be awarded the Golden Ball. A joke, a parody, a Simon Cowell set-up. As if FIFA had pre-inscribed trophies for both Messi and Neymar, ready for whoever got the furthest.
Messi was not even Argentina's best player at these finals: Mascherano, Romero and Pablo Zabaleta arguably have stronger claims. He certainly was not the world's best this summer: James Rodriguez and Thomas Mueller if you insist on a forward; the immense Neuer for the more open-minded.
Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella leaves his post with head held relatively high, reaching the final being a remarkable achievement for a man not rated among his country’s top three coaches. But his defensive, counter-attacking style – while effective to a point – has won few admirers outside the Argentina hardcore, and fans of defensive midfielders.
The underuse of Messi has been a particular disappointment. While Messi has fared better under Sabella than any other Argentina coach, he only impressed in fits and starts in this final, likewise through the tournament.
When you have the most gifted attacking player of a generation, there is a duty to use him accordingly. Argentina, for all their strength throughout the park, did not, although he must take some responsibility.
A new coach will guide Messi through to the next World Cup in Russia, when the Barcelona star will only be 31. But this may have been his best chance of reaching the levels Diego Maradona set in 1986.
Messi seems to have lost his way in recent years. His national team travails have infected his club form - yes, he scored 28 Liga goals this season, but it was his worst return in five years, and it is no secret that he is lacking a spark.
Perhaps that bumper new contract will not be enough for Messi to maintain his unparalleled standards. Maybe a new challenge is required. Only he really knows.
As the cameras focused on him while standing to accept his Golden Ball and runners-up medal, Messi was jeered wildly by the Brazilians in the crowd, whose back-and-forth with the legions of Argentines made this seem like a LatAm derby.
But for once today the Argentine chants of “Brasil decime que se siente… Maradona mas grande que Pele” could barely be heard.
That tune - based on catchy Creedence classic 'Bad Moon Rising' - will resurface soon enough, probably on the streets tonight as Argentines drown their sorrows, one hopes peacefully. The mockery of Brazil’s World Cup failures on home turf, in 1950 and now 2014, will live on for decades, centuries even.
But for the time being, Argentine boasts will be silenced as locals forget their semi-final humiliation and celebrate as one with masters Germany – before Brazil’s people get back to sorting out, you know, their country.
- Sports & Recreation
- Lionel Messi
- Mario Goetze
- Toni Kroos
- Joachim Loew