It took until the twenty-second minute of extra-time at the end of the match to settle it once and for all, but by the time the full-time whistle blew in the Maracana last night, there was already a reasonably firm consensus on the matter. The best team over the course of the tournament had, in the end, won it. There may have been but the merest of cracks of light between the two teams over the course of the final itself, but Germany were thoroughly deserved winners of the 2014 World Cup. The best, most likeable and most attractive to watch team had finally come to vindicate a long term plan that had taken a long time to come to fruition.
When David Baddiel and Frank Skinner sung – after a fashion – of “thirty years of hurt” in 1996, the presumed intention was to at least partly to invoke sepia-tinted memories in those unfortunate enough to be listening to that song in the first place. Little might anyone have guessed at that time, as Germany lifted the European Championship trophy at Wembley and their supporters adopted the repeated refrain from “Three Lions” as their own, but the German national football team were about to embark on eighteen years of hurt of their own. Supporters have to be in their thirties to be able to clearly remember that time when the German national football was treated with kid gloves on account of its relentless winning habit, so it might just be possible that winning the World Cup in 2014 will carry a significance that will overshadow their previous tournament wins, in London in 1996, when a goalkeeping error handed them a golden goal in extra-time against the Czech Republic, and in Rome in 1990, when a late penalty was enough to take the World Cup home at the end of an uninspiring evening’s work against Argentina.
Germany might only have edged it on Rio de Janeiro last night, but that sort of performance, it has rather come to feel, has been a the signature of this World Cup. While the group matches were open and occasionally barmy, the knockout stages of the competition were cautious and tactical. Neither side created a host of chances last night, but when Germany did, they seemed to come closer, like a skilled archer getting their eye in. In stoppage time at end of the first half, they hit the post from a set piece, and as the match progressed from there on, it came to feel as though Argentina were plugging more and more defensive holes as Germany continued to seek a way to penetrate the last line of a defence that had been the tournament’s most inspired, otherwise.
But when the goal, a delightfully precise and delicate chip from Mario Goetze, finally came, it proved too much for Argentina to be able to claw back. This had been a clear issue for Argentina throughout the tournament. Much had been made of the fact that they’d only been behind for seven minutes in the entire tournament, but the question of what might happen should that happen hadn’t been successfully answered. They’d required a last minute spark of Lionel Messi brilliance to beat Iran in the group stages and finished the knockout phase of the competition having scored just two goals in four matches. Having been handed the ultimate carrot on a stick of lifting the trophy in the spiritual home of their greatest rivals, disappointment at having lost is inevitable, but this doesn’t make said defeat any less deserved. The best team, ultimately, won.
If there was, in retrospect, something inevitable about a German win last night, the narrative of the match at least changed with the final whistle. Prior to – and even after – kick-off, the overarching plot of this match in the press had been Lionel Messi’s date with “destiny,” as if this one player’s very existence should be enough to guarantee him a winners medal on its own. The truth of the matter is somewhat cloudier than that. Messi demonstrated his brilliance in earlier stages of the competition against moderate opposition, but he started to become crowded out against stronger opposition and his performance against Germany was “merely” very good. Indeed, where Argentina seemed to come unstuck in the final was, if anything, an over-reliance on stout defending and the notion that one player could dig the whole team from any hole in which it found itself.
Overall, however, yesterday belonged to Germany. It has been suggested in some quarters that the fall of Spain earlier in this tournament came about at least in part because, in a game that is increasingly dependent on tactical systems, their group opposition worked out a way of playing that nullified the threat that the team had posed for such a long time. It has also been suggested that Germany could be similarly poised at the cusp of such an imperial phase as Spain entered into after winning the 2008 European Championships eight years ago. If this is indeed the case, it is up to their opposition to figure out a way of preventing this from becoming the case. On the basis of the team’s performances over the last few weeks, this will be a tall order for any coach unfortunate enough to have been drawn to play competitively, but we might well suggest that the same was true of Spain, and they were surpassed in time. For now, the world champions are the best team international football. The 2014 World Cup finals ended, in that respect at least, with what it deserved in the first place.
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