Unlike our friend Aaron I was happy to watch the entire, riveting World Cup finale, and not only because my wife cut short her shopping to get back home in time to watch it with me. The two of us and the World Cup go back a ways. The night before our wedding we watched Poland lose to Argentina in Buenos Aires in the opener of the 1978 tournament. We’ve had better luck since then than the Polish national team.
Indeed, the best reason to watch the Germans play in recent years was the presence of two top Polish talents on the squad. One of them, Miroslav Klose, played his final game Sunday, having broken the World Cup career scoring record in the semifinal against Brazil. As it happened, the young player who replaced him late in yesterday’s game turned out to be its hero. Remember the name Mario Götze, even if it’s not Polish. His 113th-minute goal was thing of incomparable beauty, an epic breakthrough in a defiantly contested 0-0 tie that threatened to reach the anti-climactic penalty kick stage. In a game that had featured several near goals, it took a few seconds before it registered that Götze had actually scored. A 1-0 World Cup finale in extra time is as good as sport can get.
I’m serious. Each game has its logic, especially the final one. At halftime the consensus was that Argentina was the stronger team, though I wasn’t quite sure. Germany pushed its attacks from the start, only to run into an excellent defense, a near wall of Argentines who covered and clogged every scoring lane in front of their goal. But the thing is, Germany never stopped pushing. Just before the break, in extra time, a header off a corner kick just missed. But it seemed to suggest Germany’s relentlessness would resume after the break.
Argentina had its chances the first half, but mainly in the form of quick strikes and not as the result of sustained attack. And they included two if not three squandered openings, not to mention those after play resumed, though the dominating play of the German goalie clearly helped flummox the Argentines. By the second half their superstar Messi was beginning to press. The opportunities that seemed easy for him to create in the first half began to prove tougher. And Germany continued to push but the Argentine wall remained firm. In a game like this time was on Germany’s side, particularly if Messi’s quickness was slowing.
By the first extra time, the Germans were clearly the stronger and fresher of the two sides. Götze in a preview of sorts set up Andre Schuerrle — remember that name, too — for as hard a shot at the Argentines’ goal yet, though it was stopped by their own tough goalie. But was the Argentine wall starting to weaken?
Maybe not with Lionel Messi, but most every great goal is set up by the play of not just the ultimate scorer. In the case of Götze’s winner, the set-up was all Andre Schuerrle’s doing, and it took longer than what’s normally shown on highlights. It started with Schuerrle’s getting control of the ball near midfield and streaking up the left side of the field, drawing at least three Argentine defenders toward him. As they neared he launched a perfect left-footed cross to Götze, who had only one defender anywhere near him. The Argentine wall hadn’t cracked. It had disappeared. The goalie never had a chance.
Afterward the losing coach praised his team and the victors but also made it clear he had plenty of excuses. His team had had to play after a 120-minute overtime game in the semifinals against a team that had had an extra day of rest after winning in a semifinal game that was over before halftime.
Sense of honor aside, so much for the announcers’ talk that the team with less rest tended to do better in the finale than the more rested team. And wasn’t it going be difficult for Germany to come back to earth after such an unheard of drubbing of flaky Brazil?
Postgame there were lots of brickbats directed at the losing superstar Messi and near universal rejection of FIFA’s naming him the tournament’s MVP. Only goes to show, whom the media would tear down they will first build up. So he’s not Pele. Who is? He did what he could and it wasn’t enough. It was one game, one huge game, very hard fought. And in the end, it was settled by a fabulous shot by the young Mario Götze. “What a finish,” ESPN’s German color man Michael Ballack gushed. “That’s our Messi today.”
That’s why they play the game. And why we watch.