RIO DE JANEIRO ― As Brazil and the Netherlands lick their wounds, Germany and Argentina are busy with preparations for Sunday’s World Cup final ― the third time the two sides have met in soccer’s most important fixture.
Spectators widely see the two deserving of their places in the final, but the way they earned their tickets to the final this week could not have contrasted more.
Germany on Tuesday handed Brazil the biggest semifinal defeat in World Cup history, a result that undoubtedly left a long-lasting scar in the memory of the host country.
The next day, Argentina fought an equally defensive Netherlands to the bitter end, finally succeeding in a 4-2 penalty shootout after 120 grueling, scoreless minutes.
Both finalists’ most recent last World Cup triumphs have come against each other: Germany defeated Argentina in Italy in 1990, while Argentina has been waiting for its third victory since it overcame West Germany in Mexico in 1986.
The duel comes down to a Germany, vying for its fourth title, that has dominated nearly every match with crafty midfield play and machine-like cohesion against a focused, workhorse Argentina led by a decorated striker Lionel Messi, a four-time world player of the year who has won every honor except the World Cup,.
Observers say this final will be determined by whether Argentina’s defense can keep out Germany’s creative playmakers long enough for Messi and company to outscore them.
Germany’s players warm up during a training session in Santo Andre, Brazil, Thursday. (AFP-Yonhap)
Germany has won five of its six games this tournament, drawing once with Ghana, and went into extra time once to beat an aggressive Algeria 2-1. With an offensive threat backed by Miroslav Klose ― the 2006 Golden Boot winner and now the all-time top World Cup goal scorer ― Germany has now scored the most goals in World Cup history, overtaking Brazil 223 to 221. If it wins Sunday, it would make history as the first ever European team to win a World Cup on Latin American soil.
Klose, a fixture on the squad since 2002, was the only player on the team that year that was beaten by Brazil in the final. He also experienced Germany’s 2006 World Cup defeat on home soil, vowing not to experience such a heavy defeat again.
“I know how crap it feels to lose in the final,” said Klose. “We’re going to have to dig deep for everything we’ve got inside us against Argentina.”
Meanwhile, Argentina has won all its games, though it has been forced into extra time twice including Wednesday’s shootout. Fans seem hopeful of Messi having a “Maradona moment” to lead his team over the tournament favorites. But out of Messi’s spotlight, the calm, dependable Javier Mascherano in midfield has been the quiet core of the team, passing gracefully while tackling fearlessly.
Argentina has overcome doubts over its defense, having conceded just three goals ― all in the knockout rounds ― even while its stellar offensive lineup hasn’t performed as well as expected. But the team’s biggest strength has been in its focus and solidity.
Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella lamented that his men had a day less time and 30 minutes’ more running than the German squad to recover from their “war” against Holland, but added that he had great admiration for the football of both Brazil and Germany, particularly the latter for its mental poise and even South American touch.
He added that he learned the key to winning from a previous coach of his: playing the spaces.
“He just said the one who covers the spaces better will win,” he said. “Germany proved that. You don’t just need five forwards. You just have to recover space.”
“I’m very happy because we reached the final and now we will see what we can do,” he also said. “We will give everything as usual, with humility, work and 100 percent effort.”
As for the host country, Sunday’s match is a bitter pill to swallow. Brazil’s decisive 3-1 win in the World Cup opener over Croatia last month sent hopes riding high that it would be just as victorious in the closer.
But fans’ expectations slid match after match. The Selecao kept edging through, first on a goalless draw with Mexico, then on penalty kicks with Chile and a quarterfinal victory over Colombia that cost its team a disqualified captain and injured star striker.
Those sacrifices proved too great on Tuesday, when the Thiago Silva-less back line crumbled dramatically to textbook attacks.
Brazil had gone into the tournament hoping to exorcise the ghosts of its 1950 final loss on home soil to Uruguay.
After taking to field one last time for the third-place title on Saturday in Brasilia, Brazil may cringe to watch the legendary Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro play host to its age-old rival facing and the one that humiliated it on Tuesday.
Brazilians say they want to leave the devastation behind them and are looking to this weekend with dampened emotions.
“The World Cup, for us, is already over. When we lost 7-1 to a team we have beaten so many times in the past ... it’s annoying and we try to figure out an answer. Of course we have the third-place match on Saturday, but I think that even for the players and the population, it doesn’t matter,” said Paulo Conde, a special reporter for the local Folha de S. Paulo newspaper. “It’s already a dark page in our history and we want to step out of it. Monday will be a good day for us.”
The media is already shifting focus to how to revamp the quality of football, whose signature offensive flair has long left the field. They praise today’s German squad as reminiscent of the Brazilian footballers of past decades ― full of movement, talent, speed and quick passes.
And whether the yellow-shirted fans here are rooting on Sunday against their bitter rival or for the team that has earned their bittersweet admiration, it is clear they have already picked a side.
By Elaine Ramirez, Korea Herald correspondent