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Shougat Dasgupta
A Fan’s Notes

The Final: Messi’s moment or German cakewalk?

rgentina kept its appointment at the Maracanã. But on the other side of the pitch in the famous stadium — refurbished at a cost of $500 million — will be the Germans, old rivals to be sure but not the hated Brazilians, continental rivals whose smug superiority derived from their unparalleled success and football as bright and sunny as their egg-yolk-yellow shirts has grated on Argentinian nerves for a century. Perhaps we should be grateful. This iteration of the Seleção has been the least compelling Brazilian team in World Cup history (at least in 1974 they had Rivelino and Jairzinho), unworthy of a final, unworthier still of a fantasy final against Argentina.

If only Argentina had not been so awful in 2002, when the squad, tough and accomplished on paper, somehow slumped out in the group stages. Back then too, it was Germany that reached the final. Unimpressive in the knockout rounds after an 8-0 swatting aside of Saudi Arabia in the group stages, Germany were outclassed by the Brazil of Rivaldo, Ronaldo and Ronaldinho. Coached then, as now, by Luiz Felipe Scolari, that was a proper Brazilian team, combining flair, style and technique with a mean — as in, both parsimonious and thuggish — defence. In an era of English-style manager fetishisation, Big Phil's plight this time around, flailing comically on the sidelines as his team flailed comically on the field, should serve as a reminder that coaches are only as good as their players.

See, for instance, Luis Van Gaal, the Dutch coach and incoming Manchester United manager, hailed as an eccentric genius for introducing a goalkeeper specifically for the penalty shootout with Costa Rica and seeing that goalkeeper make two saves, all the while mouthing off at the Ticos, quarterfinal neophytes. Against Argentina, Van Gaal used up all three substitutes and couldn't pull off the same trick twice and was reduced to taking vicarious credit for teaching Argentinean goalkeeper Sergio Romero how to save penalties at AZ Alkmaar.

Having flashed the rapier to slice Spain apart 5-1, Holland put it back in the scabbard for the goalless draws in the quarters and semis. In fact, Holland, so explosive at the start but so shorn of ideas when the stakes were high, mirrors a World Cup that has flattered to deceive in the knockout phase. We have yet to see two first-rate teams compete in a tactical and technical master class, an example of what football at the highest level looks like. Such a game doesn't have to be high scoring — Brazil vs France in 1986, for instance, a 1-1 draw after 120 minutes — but should feature attacking football that founders on defensive excellence rather than a lack of adventure. Both the Netherlands and Argentina attacked so fitfully in their goalless semifinal, the first ever, that the former didn't even manage a shot on goal until well into the second half.

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What can you do other than laugh and put it down to pressure when a team of professional footballers is so neglectful of basic defensive duties that even at 6-0 down they committed so many forward that the opposition frequently finds itself on the counterattack with a man spare?

he previous night, of course, was the grand embarrassment of Brazil, a country that has given the World Cup more goals than any other forced to endure seven from an excellent but hardly extraordinary German side. Fortunately, the humiliation was so outlandish that Brazilian memories may not be as irrevocably scarred as they believe. What can you do other than laugh and put it down to pressure when a team of professional footballers is so neglectful of basic defensive duties that even at 6-0 down they committed so many forward that the opposition frequently finds itself on the counterattack with a man spare? Brazil caved not to public hysteria but its players' emotional incontinence, their inability to marshal, throughout the tournament, anything approaching calm or confidence.

So what of Germany? Fluid, composed — watch Mesut Özil slip the ball to Sami Khedira for the fifth goal against Brazil — and playing within themselves, the Germans must be favourites to win their fourth World Cup. In 2006 and especially 2010, the Germans played with refreshing zest but, faced with canny tournament-hardened sides in the Italians and the Spanish, were made to look naive. This is a more pragmatic German team that has broken its semifinal hoodoo and, aware of the threat Lionel Messi represents, will not leave themselves exposed. Argentina has been less impressive, a team that has laboured despite its apparent talent. Now that it is in the final, is it too optimistic to hope that the team will abandon its caution and play to its attacking potential?

Messi was off-colour against the Dutch, floating harmless free kicks into touch, but still created a chance or two. Will the injury-haunted Sergio Aguero, so dynamic for Manchester City, step up? Will Angel di Maria be fit? Javier Mascherano was magnificent against Holland and will be key to disrupting the reformed and fearsome midfield partnership of Khedira and Bastian Schweinsteiger. It's a mug's game but I might as well hazard a prediction. This is Lionel Messi's moment. He has indisputably been the best player in the world for the last half-decade. Being a great player — as Cruyff, Eusebio, Di Stefano, Hidegkuti, Puskas and Messi›s contemporary Cristiano Ronaldo know — is one thing. Being a great player who has inspired his country to the World Cup? That entitles you to eat at Pele, Maradona and Zidane›s table.

Argentina to win.

 
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