After one celestial semi-final and one sepulchral one, the final of the World Cup is now set. Germany and Argentina will clash at soccer’s high temple, the Maracanã stadium, on Sunday in the deciding rubber of their decades-long trio of World Cup finals. Argentina won the first 3-2 on Latin American soil in 1986, then Germany struck back with a 1-0 victory on European turf in 1990. As this year’s match will be in Rio, Argentina might appear to have the edge. Except that the Argentinians have limped and lurched their way through the competition, while the Germans have stormed through like Marshawn Lynch swatting away Saints in beast mode.
Let’s recap the semi-finals. Germany earned their spot behaving as the world’s worst party guest, kicking down the hosts’ door and trashing the place 7-1. Argentina, on the other hand, has been that sort of weird guy who just refuses to leave the party after everyone else has gone home.
The German semi-final caused untold suffering in Brazil, but the Argentinian one spread misery all around the globe. The 120 minutes of goalless, clueless futility against the Dutch was a wretched crash-landing after Germany had borne us all aloft with the style and power of their Übermenschen. We all knew Brazil’s drunken display of defending was going to scare the Dutch and Argentinians into a tighter game, but apparently it also frightened off their ability to pass and control the ball. Arjen Robben didn’t complete a pass until the second half and, in two hours of soccer, Lionel Messi didn’t touch the ball once in the Dutch penalty box. The same Dutch squad that bashed five goals past the defending champions from Spain couldn’t conjure a single goal in either their quarterfinal or semifinal.
The Dutch — and soon-to-be Manchester United — coach, Louis van Gaal was hailed as a genius after substituting Tim Krul in for the shoot-out against Costa Rica. How did Van Gaal’s generalship hold up one match later? First, in extra time, he subbed out his captain, world-class goal scorer, and number one penalty taker, Robin Van Persie. Second, he did not sub in Krul, his penalty specialist. No one would have expected him to, of course, but for his having done so against Costa Rica and thereby blaring an unequivocal message to his regular keeper, Jasper Cillessen. Something like, “You’re useless at this!” (But with all the harsh, gullet-scraping dissonance of the Dutch language.) And, of course, Cillessen is useless at this: he had never once saved a penalty in 16 prior attempts. So now he is 0 for 20, when the professional conversion rate of about 75% should have given him 5 successes, and a lamppost might have had one or two. Third, van Gaal selected a defender, Ron Vlaar, to take the critical first penalty in the shootout. Result: miss. Consequence: loss.
So now the eyes of the world turn to the match that has been a month in the making. Yes, that pinnacle of athletic irrelevance and resentment, the third-place playoff. The Dutch will enjoy the opportunity to obsess some more about how close they keep coming before collapsing at a late hurdle. The Brazilians will be delighted to face the vitriolic fury of 200 million former fans knowing that a win will produce only sarcastic applause and a loss could spark riots. Remember, just a few days ago, the Brazilians hadn’t lost a competitive home game in almost forty years — if they don’t atone for their last abomination, they’ll have botched two in a row.
The real final, of course, should be far more entertaining, particularly if the Germans can ride their cresting wave of brilliance. The Argentinians will almost certainly try to spoil the German flow, and Ghana and the United States have proven that the Germans can be held or hobbled. But form suggests that the Germans will soon be adding a fourth star to their crest in what could be a laugher.