Germany last night put paid to all that — and also their modern reputation as the nearly men of international football — with the narrowest of victories over Argentina in a protracted saga at the Maracana that was eventually settled by a wonderful extra-time goal from substitute Mario Gotze.
Few will begrudge Joachim Low his long-awaited success but romantics will note, with a sigh, that Germany’s fourth World Cup triumph also meant failure for Lionel Messi in his attempt to emulate Diego Maradona on football’s greatest stage.
Throughout this month of pulsating action here in Brazil, Argentina’s passionate supporters had been baiting their hosts with a battle hymn — sung to the tune of Bad Moon Rising — asking how does it feel to have ‘Papa’ in their house, glorying in Caniggia’s winner in 1990, declaring Maradona to be better than Pele and, of course, bowing the knee to Messi, the latest and perhaps greatest claimant to the throne.
But the coronation didn’t materialise at the Maracana, as Germany’s resilience and collective will to win ultimately proved too much for even the most gifted footballer of his generation to overcome. All that was left for him and Argentina were the bitter tears of defeat.
Germany had matured with this tournament, as evidenced last night by what would have been Low’s third unchanged team in succession, had not Sami Khedira been a late withdrawal with a calf problem, his place taken by Christoph Kramer. (Though not for long, as the latter would be forced off through injury and replaced by Andre Schurrle after half an hour). But as Philipp Lahm led his team out to face the ultimate test, the question still to be answered was whether the Germans had hit an authentic peak of brilliance against Brazil in Belo Horizonte or simply done no more than was asked of them by masochistic opponents.
The answer last night, after Argentina had failed to convert some great chances to win the game, is that there have certainly been better German teams in history but few to match this side’s ability to first dig in and then dig out a victory.
Despite the sterling efforts of the Argentine medical staff, Angel De Maria missed out again yesterday. And while the Albiceleste had managed without him in the semi-final against Holland, his dynamism is an important part of their armoury, so his absence — coupled with Sergio Aguero once more being consigned to the bench for the first 45 — heaping even more pressure, if that was possible, on Messi’s shoulders.
Argentina’s supporters are the only ones I know who literally bounce their way through their country’s national anthem and they were on their feet again after just three minutes when Gonzalo Higuain fired across the face of Manuel Neuer’s goal.
And then the whole stadium was on the edge of its feet as Messi cut loose for the first time, scorching past Mats Hummels and getting to the endline before his ball back across the box was cut out by the covering Bastian Schweinsteiger.
It was an encouragingly bright opening by both sides, all attack and counter-attack, with no sign of the caginess which all too often stifles the early stages of a World Cup final.
And in the 21st minute, Argentina could and should have been ahead. There appeared to be no danger for Germany as Tony Kroos attempted to head the ball back to the safety of his goal but, in horribly undercooking the effort, he left Higuain with a free run on goal. But the moment seemed to get to the Napoli striker who also got his effort horribly wrong, not even testing Neuer as he panicked and pulled his shot wide.
Eight minutes later, he thought he’d made amends only to have an emphatic close-range finish ruled out for offside, a decision which had Messi earnestly consulting the linesman and the Argentinian support, after a monumental ovation, briefly stunned into silence.
The pace of the South American attack was causing recurring problems for the German rearguard but they, in turn, continued to make good ground up the right side, Lahm and Muller repeatedly finding space to post crosses into the danger area. And, right on the stroke of half-time, they should have taken the lead with a corner from that side, only for the unmarked Benedikt Howedes to find the post, not the net, with a free header from six yards.
Alejandro Sabello, seeking a sharper cutting edge, sent Aguero in for Ezequiel Lavezzi but, within seconds of the restart, it was Messi, of all people, whose finish was found wanting when he shot inches wide of the far post as the Maracana prepared to hail the game’s breakthrough moment.
When Neuer cleaned out Higuain while racing out to punch clear, Argentina’s players surrounded the ref as though they’d justwitnessed ‘Schumacher-Battiston — The Sequel’ but though the striker was certainly clattered, referee Nicola Rizzoli rightly deduced that the keeper had only had eyes for the ball.
The bigger problem for Argentina now was that Messi had more or less disappeared from the game until the 74th minute when, suddenly, there was one of those trademark runs across the face of the penalty area but, this time, without the required finish as he couldn’t wrap his left foot sufficiently around the ball to curl it inside Neuer’s post.
In the game’s ebb and flow, there were half-chances at either end and, as the action moved into squeaky bum time with around ten minutes to go, the sense grew that a tight affair would ultimately be decided by a moment of inspiration or a lapse in concentration. And, after a pitch invader had taken squeaky bum time too literally, came extra-time, with substitute Ricardo Palacio spurning another great chance to give Argentina the lead.
The contest was wide open now, fatigue and fear the new opponents for both sides.
But then, in the 112th minute, came the defining, game-changing, World Cup-winning act, with Argentina finally being made to pay for their wastefulness on the night as Germany’s two substitutes combined to devastating effect, Schurrle finding Gotze whose chest control and swivelled finish from a tight angle was the moment of pure class he’d sought in vain throughout the competition.
But what a time to get it so spectacularly right.
In the little time remaining, Argentina desperately sought to send the game to penalties but there was no way back, not for Messi — who ballooned a free-kick over the bar — or anyone else in blue, as Germany finally secured their fourth World Cup and their supporters acclaimed the achievement long and loud into the sultry Rio night.
Subs for Germany: Schurrle for Kramer 32, Gotze for Klose 88, Mertesacker for Ozil 120.
Subs for Argentina: Aguero for Lavezzi 45, Palacio for Higuain 78, Gago for Perez 88.
Referee: Nicola Rizzoli.
Germany suffer a setback 10 minutes before kick-off as Sami Khedira picks up an injury in the pre-match warm-up. The Real Madrid midfielder is replaced by Christoph Kramer.
Gonzalo Higuain squanders a glorious chance as he scuffs horribly wide after being put clean through by a woefully misplaced header by Germany’s Toni Kroos.
Bastian Schweinsteiger becomes the first player of the night to be booked, for a foul on Ezequiel Lavezzi.
Higuain thinks he’s put Argentina in front after turning Lavezzi’s cross past Manuel Neuer. However, his celebrations are cut short as a late — but correct — flag sees the ‘goal’ ruled out for offside.
Eleventh-hour call-up Kramer, who had been struggling to shake off the effects of a head injury, is forced off and replaced by Andre Schurrle.
Benedikt Howedes is booked for a horrendous tackle on Pablo Zabaleta.
45 + 1
A dramatic finale to the first half as Howedes’ header hits the post, strikes an offside Thomas Muller’s leg and rolls into Sergio Romero’s hands.
Argentina make a half-time change as Sergio Aguero replaces Lavezzi.
Lionel Messi gets played through by Lucas Biglia but his scuffed effort rolls agonisingly wide. A big chance missed.
Javier Mascherano goes into referee Nicola Rizzoli’s book after fouling Miroslav Klose.
Aguero quickly joins Mascherano in the book as the temperature rises.
The luckless Higuain is replaced by Rodrigo Palacio.
Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella makes his final change, bringing on Fernando Gago for Enzo Perez.
The World Cup’s most prolific striker, Miroslav Klose, is replaced by Mario Gotze as extra-time beckons.
A dramatic start to extra-time as Schurrle’s shot forces a save from Romero.
Palacio has a glorious chance to break the deadlock as his lob beats Neuer but drops wide.
GOAL. Germany make the breakthrough as Mario Gotze is found by fellow substitute Schurrle, brings the ball down on his chest and fires his volley past Romero.
Germany shore up the defence by bringing defender Per Mertesacker on for midfielder Mesut Ozil.
Argentina are awarded a late chance to force penalties but Messi’s free-kick is high, wide and not so handsome. Moments later the final whistle blows and Germany are champions.