RIO DE JANEIRO — This World Cup has been one of the most compelling ever, with one dramatic game after another, the emergence of new stars and results no one saw coming. (Sorry, Brazil. Not trying to rub it in.)
So it’s only fitting that Sunday’s final features Germany and Argentina. With apologies to Brazil, the Netherlands, Colombia, Costa Rica and everyone else, there is no better matchup.
Germany is the best team in the tournament. Argentina has the best player on the planet.
Germany can score goals in bunches. Argentina has given up just three, and none since the group stage.
Germany has been a fixture in the final four for the last decade. Argentina’s best view of the final lately has been from its couch.
As if all that’s not enticing enough, this is the mother of all grudge matches. Not only have the teams met in the final twice before — Argentina won in 1986, Germany got payback four years later — but Germany has knocked Argentina out of the last two World Cups, each time in the quarterfinals.
“(We’ve) had fascinating duels in the past,” Germany coach Joachim Low said Saturday. “I think it’s going to be really a gripping final.”
Speaking of grudges, just imagine how devastating it would be for Brazilians to see Argentina, their fiercest rival, win the World Cup in the famed Maracana. But I digress.
World Cup rivalries are a tricky thing. Countries aren’t guaranteed of making the finals from one tournament to the next and, even if they do, the odds of repeatedly playing the same team are slim. Yes, the U.S. and Ghana seem to have a standing date these days. But it’s far more likely for teams to go decades without playing each other.
Argentina and Germany, however, are like those combative exes who just keep coming back to each other. It’s not healthy —sometimes literally — and Argentina usually ends up the worse for wear.
But here they are, meeting in the World Cup for a seventh time.
The last four meetings have been memorable, to say the least. Argentina appeared to be cruising to its second title in 1986, only to have West Germany tie it in the 80th minute. But with seven minutes left, Diego Maradona fed Jorge Burruchaga for the game-winner.
The rematch four years later had the distinction of being the ugliest final until Italy-France in 2006. Argentina’s Pedro Monzon became the first player to be sent off in a final after sending a guy named Jurgen Klinsmann flying. Late in the second half, West Germany was awarded a penalty for a dubious foul and converted it for the 1-0 win and its third title.
Germany won in a penalty shootout in 2006. And four years ago, Germany ended the train wreck that was Maradona’s coaching career with an embarrassing 4-0 rout.
“We want to write a new story,” Argentina defender Jose Maria Basanta said. “That (1990) final was very painful. We’re all motivated, and we want tomorrow’s history to be a positive history and a history of great pride.”
Argentina has come a long way from that team that slumped out of the World Cup in South Africa. Sure, many of the names are the same, with Lionel Messi at the top of the list.
There’s more to the Albiceleste than just Messi, however. In fact, it was Javier Mascherano and goalkeeper Sergio Romero who carried the team in the semifinals, when Argentina edged the Netherlands 4-2 on penalties.
“They’re much better organized now and stronger in defense than in 2010,” Low said. “This team is not only Messi. If you believe it’s only Messi, you’re mistaken.”
But Argentina will need a dazzling performance by Messi if it is to have any chance against a German team that has shown few flaws in its last two games. The Germans are peaking at just the right time — and they know it.
“Argentina is for me an excellent team, deservedly in the final,” midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger said. “It will certainly not be easy for us. But I’m quite convinced … we can beat such a top-class team.”
The two best teams playing for the final. It doesn’t get any better at this World Cup.