Germany didn’t stand still: A sultry night in Durban, South Africa four years ago saw Germany’s World Cup hopes melt away with a bullet of a header from Carles Puyol. The Barcelona defender’s goal in the 73rd minute of the semifinals sent Spain through to the final, and relegated Germany to the third-place match. Once again, Die Mannschaft were bridesmaids, still looking for their first championship at senior team level since Euro ’96. This reporter watched from the mixed zone as manager Joachim Low and his players, despondent and appearing to be immersed in thought, loaded onto the team bus parked deep within the bowls of the Moses Mabhida Stadium before peeling away into the Durban night. What must have been going through their minds? Surely, they must have thought they were cursed, pondering what they had to do to get over the hump and end their World Cup dry spell.
Turns out they were plotting their next move. The moment the referee blew the final whistle in Durban, Low and his players were planning for the future. They knew they were close to reaching the final in Johannesburg, and all that was required was some minor tweaking—and not a major overhaul. Veterans such as Philipp Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Miroslav Klose featured prominently in Brazil this summer, as they did in South Africa. Six players who started versus Spain in Durban were on the pitch at the start of Sunday’s final against Argentina. They provided the solid foundation upon which Germany’s fourth World Cup title was won.
But Low also understood the need for introducing new blood into the team, and he drew from the rich reservoir of young talent at his disposal to reinvigorate this German side. It’s telling that no less than five players (Manuel Neuer, Mats Hummels, Benedikt Höwedes, Mesut Özil and Jérôme Boateng) who started for Germany in the final of the 2009 U-21 European Championship also started against Argentina—and it would have been six had Sami Khedira not pulled up lame in the pre-match warm-up on Sunday. All of them, with the exception of Ozil, were sensational in this tournament.
The Germans thrashed England 4-0 on that fateful day five years in Malmo, Sweden, but it was victory, like this one in Rio, that was born out of major setback. After the national team failed to get out of the group stage at Euro 2004, the German Football Association refocused its efforts, convincing teams from Germany’s top two professional divisions to enhance their academy systems and firmly focus on player development.
The result? Germany has produced a class of outstanding youngsters who have come through the ranks of the Bundesliga, including Mario Gotze, who just happened to score the winner in extra time on Sunday.
This is a generation of German players of such calibre, such style and such class that they were able to beat a team featuring the best player on the planet—Lionel Messi—in a World Cup final. That’s no fluke. And it didn’t happen over night. It took time. The Germans didn’t stand still. That’s why their world champions.
A quick word about Messi: God bless him, but Lionel Messi didn’t deserve to win the Golden Ball as the tournament’s best player—jus like Zinedine Zidane didn’t deserve to win it over Fabio Cannavaro in 2006. Sadly, this award has become a popularity contest where reputations count for far more than performances on the pitch. How else to account for handing the honour to Messi, who failed to score a goal in the knockout round and was kept pretty quiet by the Germans and before them the Dutch in the semifinals? No doubt that Messi was among the best players in this tournament. But the best overall? No. Philipp Lahm or James Rodriguez were both far more influential than Argentina’s wizard.
Still, Messi remains among the greatest players in the history of the sport. He’s right up there with Pele and Diego Maradona, and Sunday’s loss doesn’t change that fact one bit. He’s not as beloved in his native land as Maradona—largely because Diego spent a good portion of his career in Argentina and was an icon at Boca Juniors, while Messi jetted off to Barcelona as a teenager and has played his entire professional career in Europe.
And Maradona, of course, has a World Cup title to his credit, and Messi doesn’t. But neither does Johan Cruyff, Michel Platini, Alfredo di Stefano, Ferenc Puskas, George Best and host of others. We sometimes lose sight of the fact that these athletes are human beings like you and I (and not super heroes) and, most important, that this is a team sport. The idea that Messi had to put his nation on his back and lead them to the World Cup in order to be considered among the sport’s best is repugnant. Messi has accomplished a lot and given us so much. If he never played another match, he’d still be among the greatest players of all time.
Stat of the day
171 – 2014 is now the joint-highest scoring World Cup in history (level on 171 goals with France 98). Parity.
There was only one, and it was a beauty, more than worthy of winning a World Cup final. With a penalty shootout looming, Andre Schurrle delivered a cross from the left flank into the box to an unmarked Mario Gotze. The Bayern Munich star did very well to control the ball with his chest before hitting a one-timer past Argentina goalkeeper Sergio Romero and just inside the far post.
Save of the day
Sergio Romero came up huge early in extra time, making a key reaction save from in close to deny Andre Schurrle.
Best moment of the day
When Germany hoisted the World Cup Trophy, bringing an end to what was one of the best World Cup tournaments ever.
He said it
“We did need a little bit of luck in the final, as we were practically already preparing for a penalty shootout.” — Mario Gotze
Question of the day
Tweet of the day
Former Barcelona and Spain defender Carles Puyol presented the World Cup Trophy during a special on-the-field ceremony before kickoff alongside Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bundchen:
Puyol hasn't had such a pretty partner as that since, um, Gerard Pique.
1) Bastian Schweinsteiger: The Bayern Munich man ran himself ragged in central midfield, anchoring a German side that shut down Lionel Messi and his cohorts. 2) Mario Gotze: In just over 30 minutes as a substitute he completed 11 passes and registered two shots, and scored the winner in extra time. 3) Javier Mascherano: He was absolutely immense for Argentina, working tirelessly to protect a defence that nearly blanked the Germans.