One game left.
Will it be the coronation of Lionel Messi as one of the truly great ones or the affirmation of Germany as one of the best teams ever? The final has set up an interesting test between the idea that a team needs a truly great superstar to be world champions, The Great Man Theory for those who’ve survived my history classes, and the idea that an ensemble cast of excellent players is needed, The Common Man Theory, to continue the analogy.
The two most recent champions Spain and Italy were ensemble casts, Iniesta, Xavi, Villa, Puyol all seemingly contributing in equal measure, Iniesta scoring in extra time to win it for Spain. The Italians in 2006 also lacked a dominant superstar but overcame the French team that featured the simmering greatness of Zinedane Zidane, who finally imploded in the final. Indeed, no player on that Italian team scored more than two goals in the tournament and ten players scored at least a goal.
Germany seems to be modeled after these two teams, with quality and attacking prowess all over the field. The Germans feature the all-time World Cup leading scorer in Miroslav Klose up front, but he is not even assured a starting position and only has two goals in the tournament. Behind him is the frighteningly good Tomas Muller, with 10 goals in two World Cups, and he’s is only 24.
The remaining midfielders and attacking players interchange and move fluidly throughout the games. Sammy Khedira and Bastian Shweinsteiger hold down the middle of the field and deny the opposition space, while Phillip Lamm, Toni Kroos, Andre Schurrle and Mesut Ozil attack from wide areas. The back is marshalled by the sweeper/keeper Manuel Neuer who comes all the way out of his box frequently to play as a last line of defense. The name, “Neuer,” on his shirt must look like, “Never,” to opposing forwards trying in vain to score on him.
Argentina is a team built around the Great Man Theory of history. “We have the best player in the world; see if you can stop him.” This tactic has been employed successfully throughout World Cup History, most recently by Argentina when the great Diego Maradona took over the 1986 tournament. Efforts to contain him were either met with dazzling runs, that goal where he beats five English defenders is worth looking up on YouTube, or seeing eye passes for assists, as he did in the final.
Maradona wasn’t averse to a little, ahem, sleight of hand either, as seen by his “Hand of God” goal. That package of attacking skill and cunning deceptiveness is what endeared him to the Argentine people and he continues to dominate the media of his country.
Lionel Messi seeks to elbow him aside and make some room in the pantheon of greats that have led their teams to a World Cup victory. Included in that group are the great Pele, winner of three World Cups in 1958, 1962 and 1970. Franz Beckenbauer won the World Cup in 1974 as captain of West Germany, then again in 1990 as coach and then became head of the organizing committee that staged the 2006 World Cup, a great man indeed. Bobby Charlton and Zidane led their countries to World Cup victory in their only time hosting it. The great man approach has worked before.
Look for Germany to move the ball around effectively and try to carve open the Argentine defense with quick, effective counter attacks at the end of each run by Messi. The game may take on a punch, counter punch type of a rhythm. Javier Mascherano will be critical to Argentine efforts to control the middle of the field and avoid opening the kind of spaces that Brazil surrendered to Germany.
Messi: A not-so-secret weapon
Messi has been inspirational thus far, running through the Bosnian defense and causing defenders to knock each other over en route to his first goal, scoring in each of their group games, curling in a last-minute winner against Iran and assisting Angel Di Maria against the Swiss in the round of 16. And then, after the Dutch had managed to contain him for 120 minutes in the semifinal, he held his composure to make the opening penalty to lead his team to a nervy semifinal victory.
Germany will certainly be favored to win, coming in with a stronger squad and an extra day of rest but Messi may yet have one more trick up his sleeve. The pressure will be enormous on both teams, Germany having not won since 1990 and having undergone a restructuring of their entire national football structure after a disastrous 2004 Euros, not advancing out of their group. The fruits of that decade long effort are the young players now out to dominate the World for the next decade.
On the other side are, reportedly, 100,000 fans who have flooded into Rio singing songs, invading Copacabana Beach and generally reminding Brazilians that they are in the final and Brazil are through. There is a great video, circulating around social media, of the Argentines celebrating in their locker room after the semifinal. Messi is conspicuously absent, having been called in by FIFA for a random drug test, but the last lines of their song, loosely translated from Spanish are; “You are going to see Messi, the World Cup will be ours, Maradona is greater than Pele!”
This stuff runs deep. Enjoy the final.
When not being absolutely absorbed in the World Cup, David Cope is a social studies teacher and soccer coach at Battle Mountain High School.