The holders and then the hosts suffered emphatic, ignominious exits from the 2014 World Cup, but two of the four favorites remain to contest a finale packed with storylines.
For Germany it is a an opportunity to finally get over the finish line and reap the ultimate benefit from the reorganization of the country’s whole soccer structure and culture a little more than a decade ago. Their opponents, Argentina, are led by a man now set for a date with destiny. Lionel Messi will take on the opponents against whom the man with which he is forever compared, Diego Maradona, achieved immortal status in the 1986 final and then stifled him at the same stage four years later. Pressure rests heavily on the shoulders of him and his teammates to deliver the trophy after a 28-year drought.
A startling 7-1 win in a semifinal that will live long in the memory means Germany will start as favorites. Argentina, having finally got past the Netherlands after a goalless draw and a nerveless performance in the penalty shootout, now have to tame the German machine at the Maracana.
It promises to be a most strenuous task. Much of the fallout from the first of the semifinals has focused on the historic shellacking taken by the hosts, but it also appeared a hugely significant day for Germany. Since a group-stage exit from Euro 2000 and an ignominious 5-1 defeat to old rivals England in a World Cup qualifier a year later, led to a major rethink of the way the country produced players and the type of players they were producing.
Germany’s stolid, aging, physical squad was not only unloved, but was now failing to get results. A place in the World Cup final in 2002 courtesy of a soft draw and fortune along the way was not allowed to paper over the cracks. More money was invested in all levels of youth development and requirements were put on the academies of the country’s clubs. In 2006, then coach Jürgen Klinsmann and his assistant Joachim Löw also initiated a change in philosophy to a far more positive style of play. The country fell in love with its national team again as Germany thrilled en route to the semifinals.
Under the charge of Löw the team has developed in the same vein since. The benefits of the youth overhaul were seen in the team that won the European Under-21 Championship in 2009 and then was thrust into the spotlight for the senior team at the World Cup just a year later. Again they entertained and again they reached the semifinals before bowing out.
And that has been the one frustration for Germany so far. No one could question the benefits of the revolution in the country’s soccer, but the new generation has been so far unable to do the thing that came as second nature to the country’s teams of the past, whether good or bad: win.
In four major tournaments from 2006, Germany exited in the semifinals three times and lost in the final once. After Germany disappointingly fell to an Italy side it felt it were superior to in Euro 2012, the mentality of the players was widely questioned. Sure, they could play with style and flair, but could they win the big one?
Going into Tuesday’s semifinal with Brazil, it was fair to raise the same question. While it was clear to see that Germany had more talent at its disposal than Brazil, heading into an emotionally-charged arena against the hosts offered the possibility for Germany to be overwhelmed. Instead, as Brazil lost their heads, Germany decisively kept theirs. The quality of play from Löw’s side was no surprise, but the manner in which they ruthlessly identified and then exposed the shambolic vulnerabilities of their opponents harked back to the teams of yesteryear. It was the ideal preparation for the pressure of the ultimate game.
Germany’s opponents are in a similar situation of looking to finally see the profits of their youth development and end a long drought for international silverware. Between 1995 and 2007, Argentina won the premier underage tournament, the World Youth Championship which later became the Under-20 World Cup, an incredible five times. That success has frustratingly failed to translate to the main stage.
Argentina has not won any major competition at senior level since the 1993 Copa America. The 1994 World Cup campaign was derailed by Diego Maradona’s expulsion for failing a drugs test; in ’98 they were undone by the heir to Maradona’s throne, Ariel Ortega, sticking his head into the chin of Dutch goalkeeper Edwin van der Saar and a Dennis Bergkamp wonder goal. Four years later, a golden team stunningly went out in the group stage before Argentina had the best team in the tournament in 2006 but were pegged back and defeated on penalties by hosts Germany in the quarterfinals. It was to the same foes and in the same round that Argentina crashed out in South Africa four years ago, this time hamstrung by Maradona’s questionable coaching.
This current crop has finally broken through and reached a first final since back-to-back matchups with Germany a quarter-century ago. Among those now looking to break the tiebreaker between the two countries in World Cup finals are five players from the victorious 2005 Under-20 squad -- Messi, Sergio Agüero, Ezequiel Garay, Pablo Zabaleta and Fernando Gago, while the 2007 winners counted among their ranks Angel di Maria and the man whose two penalty saves brought Argentina to the final, Sergio Romero.
But the fear is that the talent has now run dry. Argentina did not even reach the Under-20 World Cup last year, failing to merely make it to the final stage of South American qualifying. And Argentina’s last class of exceptional graduates is now in their prime. The fantastic attacking four of Messi, Agüero, Di Maria and Gonzalo Higuain are all 26 or 27. The star of the show in the semifinal win over the Netherlands, Javier Mascherano, is 30. On their home continent with superb support, if Argentina doesn’t win the big one now, then when will they next get as good an opportunity?
For both Germany and Argentina, this moment has been some time in the making. Now it all comes down to which can seize it on the big day.