The 2014 World Cup final is one packed with history and pedigree and enticingly presents the chance for a generation-defining moment to unfold on the biggest stage of all.
Not since 2002 has a World Cup final been contested by two teams with as many previous triumphs as Germany and Argentina. What makes the contest extra special, at least on paper, is each has a ferocious thirst for success bought on by a generation-long failure to add to their legacies.
It was in a 16-year stretch that Germany and Argentina seized on the vacuum created by post-Pele Brazil to dominate the World Cup. In the five tournaments played from 1974 to 1990, either Argentina or Germany was in every final. Germany took home the trophy in 1974 and 1990 while Argentina triumphed in 1978 and 1986. To emphasize their dominance of the era, the two became the first, and still only, teams to face off in consecutive finals.
But perhaps the 1990 final, one of the ugliest in history and one to fittingly bring the curtain down on a tournament to forget, ultimately showed the signs of the long fallow period that was to follow for both. Unfathomable back-to-back quarterfinal losses to unheralded nations, Bulgaria and Croatia, came next for Germany. An even earlier exit in the European Championships of 2000 and a subsequent humiliating loss to rival England, on the scale just delivered to Brazil in the semifinals, convinced the powers in German soccer that change was needed.
The structure and culture at youth level was overhauled, and the results have been swift and spectacular. Their World Cup on home soil in 2006 sewed the seeds of promise before continued improvement turned into disappointment at failure to convert progress into silverware at Euro 2012. Now a group of players bred from that revolution at the turn of the century, having allowed the nation to fall back in love with its team once again thanks to a melding of traditional traits of resolve and physicality with new flair and imagination, stands on the verge of providing Germany with the ultimate reward.
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The decline was even starker for Argentina. Having been decisive four years earlier, the 1990 final saw idol Diego Maradona unable to prevent his team's defeat in what was to prove the last flickering of his genius at the top level. The problems always in the background of Argentina’s troubled genius were about to come to the fore. And while he eventually made it to USA ’94, the then-34-year-old’s participation was cut short by a failed drug test in Argentina’s second game, ending his glittering international career.
Argentina was unable to recover physically or psychologically from the star’s departure at that World Cup, and, in truth, has been plagued by his absence ever since. The first heir to his throne, Ariel Ortega, shared Maradona’s inclination for self-destruction. In 1998, the similarly diminutive talent aimed his head into the chin of Dutch goalkeeper Edwin van der Saar to eradicate his side’s numeric advantage in the quarterfinals. Less than five minutes later, Netherlands scored and Argentina was out. Ortega was back four years later, along with another man to earn the “next Maradona” tag, Pablo Aimar, to form a golden collection of players, but Argentina crashed out in the first round.
In 2006, it appeared as though the wondrous playmaker Juan Román Riquelme was set to lead Argentina back to the promised land. The Albiceleste had been the best team in the competition through to the last eight, and was leading host Germany going into the final stages of its quarterfinal. Then Riquelme was withdrawn, Germany scored and Argentina bowed out on penalties. In the ultimate sign of desperation to recapture Maradona’s magic, the former player was appointed coach for South Africa in 2010. The results were predictably calamitous.
Argentina has produced a litany of wonderful players since Maradona left the stage, but not one who could ultimately take the weight of pressure as the mischief-maker extraordinaire once did. Until now.
Lionel Messi was hamstrung by Maradona’s tactics, or lack of them, in 2010, but is now undisputedly the main man. With Maradona having exited the stage, the changing of the guard became official when new coach Alejandro Sabella made Messi captain and crafted a side centered on getting the best out of him. Previously criticized for his failure to reproduce his Barcelona brilliance for a country he left at age 13, Messi responded with 10 goals in qualifying. With a trio of other fine attackers around him, the stage was then set for 2014 and Brazil to be Messi’s 1986 moment when he would enshrine his legacy in the history of the game.
Things have not gone exactly to plan. The struggling fitness and form of his leading supporting cast has placed even more of the attacking burden on the slight shoulders of the Rosario native, who as a child had to battle the effects of a growth hormone deficiency. But, while perhaps not as spectacular as Maradona’s immortal magic against England and Belgium 28 years ago, Messi has carried his nation through to the final.
In almost every game he has played in Brazil, he has come up against teams that have tailored their game plan to stop him. In most cases it has worked, for all but a brief moment. Repeatedly he has shown that is all he needs to decide a contest. Against both Bosnia-Herzegovina and Iran, Messi escaped the attentions of his various markers, affixed the ball to his bewitching left foot and sprang to life, gliding past markers as if mere hapless foes in his personal masterpiece before guiding the ball with the minimum of fuss but maximum of difficulty beyond a helpless goalkeeper’s reach.
Only beleaguered Brazil striker Fred covered less ground in this World Cup through six matches than Messi. It mattered not. It takes Messi just one moment, one opportunity, to produce the game’s most decisive moment, either to score himself -- as he did in all three group games -- or to create for others -- as he did in both second round and quarterfinal.
In Argentina’s last World Cup triumph, Maradona had been shackled by a diligent and disciplined German side, which had just clawed back a 2-0 deficit to level at 2-2 with nine minutes to play. Then three minutes later, with Germany having the full weight of momentum, the ball fell to Maradona on the halfway line. Four German players surrounded him, but in a split second he provided a pass only he could see to send teammate Jorge Burruchaga clean through into the penalty area to score the winning goal. It had all happened before Germany knew what hit it.
Germany goes into the 2014 final as the favorite, and, with a team lacking an all-time great but packed with players who have distinguished themselves at the very highest level, the sense that moment has now arrived. For Argentina, whatever happens Sunday at the Maracana, it has finally moved on from Maradona. But the man who now carries the hopes of a nation on his left foot could in one moment make comparisons with his compatriot, forever to remain Argentina’s most beloved son, impossible to ignore while simultaneously eclipsing him in the pantheon of the sport’s and his country’s great players.