Deutschland Victorious

13 Jul

This German boy can be proud of his heritage today, as Deutschland took home its fourth all-time World Cup title. The 1-0 victory over Argentina wasn’t quite a scintillating end to what had been a high-scoring tournament, and the game had slowly degenerated after a cracking start, but it was certainly deserved. Mario Götze’s 113th-minute strike was remarkably similar to Andrés Iniesta’s goal four years earlier, a final stroke of brilliance rewarding the better team and sparing us the misery of a final going to penalties.

The similarities to Spain don’t end there, though: this German side overcame my skepticism over any team’s ability to win by playing possession football in the 2014 Cup. Oh, me of little faith. I didn’t think anyone had the talent to pull it off, especially under the wilting Brazilian heat, but as a staunch defender of that brand of play, I’m happy to be wrong. I’d picked the Argentines before it all began, and across six games and 112 minutes of a seventh, they followed the predictable formula to a tee, relying on their well-organized defense and the occasional moment of magic out of Lionel Messi and company. It was a fine showing for the second-best team on earth, but injuries slowly hobbled Messi’s partners in crime, and Messi himself, despite being the most feared player on the pitch, was not quite at his stratospheric peak. He remains the best player of his generation, but there is still room to add to his legacy.

The German triumph, on the other hand, had nothing to do with any one star; ask five people who their best player in this Cup was, and you might get five different answers. Instead, they played a complete team game, a style not unlike Spain’s famed tiki-taka, only with an added dose of directness that made them even more dangerous. They were hardly a plucky underdog in that regard—they might be the deepest squad on earth, with an embarrassment of riches across the lineup—but, to quote someone I read over the past few weeks but cannot properly attribute, “the ball was the star.” In classic German fashion, they’re a seamless machine, playing a team sport as it’s meant to be played, and at the highest level possible. With the Spanish dynasty at an end, Joachim Löw’s men may be on the verge of their own great run. They’ve been threatening to go on one for years, and with this breakthrough and a relatively young core playing some of the most appealing soccer imaginable, what’s not to like? They’ve proven they can destroy teams that aren’t at their best defensively, and they have the patience to outlast those who are.

Still, the most memorable part of this World Cup was probably the hosts’ unequivocal on-field disaster. Brazil set out to replace the memories of the 1950 championship debacle against Uruguay, and they achieved it in the worst of ways in that 7-1 semifinal demolition in Belo Horizonte. A new generation of Brazilian fans has its own World Cup nightmare.

It wasn’t hard to see this ending poorly. The pressure was brutal from the start, and not once did the Brazilians impress; they always looked wobbly, and the resulting questions had coach Luis Felipe Scolari snapping at the media. The reaction to the Neymar injury likewise did not portend good results; the players holding up his jersey as if he were on his deathbed was a clear overreaction, and underscored the squad’s Neymar dependence. Brazil should have the depth to adjust to that sort of injury, but Scolari’s squad just seemed a disorganized throughout. The defense was filled with erratic players with little interest in defense, while the midfield was an inconsistent, revolving door; among the strikeforce, only Neymar and Oscar were remotely threatening. This Brazil squad had an identity crisis from the start, with no one really knowing his role, and the end result managed to combine the recklessness of o jogo bonito with the goonish defense of a modern, bus-parking squad, the worst of both worlds rolled into one. Brazil is in desperate need of new leadership that can seize control and impose a vision of some sort. If Alejandro Sabella can take an Argentine squad that had been so erratic four years earlier and turn them into a corps of defensive stalwarts, Brazil can certainly do something similar.

The team that dispatched of Brazil with little trouble in the third place match deserves a mention as well. The Dutch, written off before the Cup as both too old and too young, performed admirably, with Louis Van Gaal proving the anti-Scolari with his shrewd tactical moves. The Dutch weren’t always terribly fun to watch, but they got the job done, and Arjen Robben, despite the dives, was a marvel: he manages to be one of the most predictable players on earth, yet still, no one can really stop him. He gives hope to one-footed, prematurely bald bad actors everywhere.

It was a memorable World Cup, from German class to Brazilian infamy, from a very welcome goal explosion to a hungry Uruguayan. The U.S. and Mexico both took a step in the right direction, the French got their mojo back, and the Costa Ricans came ever so close to stealing our hearts with their stout defense. Chile and Colombia continue to climb in the right direction, and the Belgians, with a little more inventiveness, could be dangerous over the next few major tournaments. Spain’s golden age may be over, but there is still plenty of talent in the pipeline, and they’ll be back. In the end, Brazil put on a fine show, and even if their own fate was cruel, they, too, have hope for the future.

For now, though, the enduring image will be a bunch of young, swaggering, sculpted German models who had the ladies at my bar table swooning (and the grudging admiration of us gentlemen). The sweeper-keeper Manuel Neuer, the diminutive but dominant Philipp Lahm, the mercurial Mesut Özil, a bruising and bloodied Bastian Schweinsteiger, on the floor yet again. Mats Hummels upped his stock with a superb performance, Tomas Müller scored enough to make people forget his flopping, and Miroslav Klose wrote his way into the history books by surpassing Ronaldo on the all-time goals list, yet another indignity at the expense of Brazil. The crowning moment, however, belongs to Götze, the baby-faced Bayern Munich boy (he’s 22!) who will live in football fame forever. It was a triumph for a great footballing nation, a triumph for lively and attacking football, and also for Götze, who might have himself a northern Minnesota doppelganger when I finally get around to getting a haircut this week.

karl and mario

I can dream, can’t I? And sorry about the mate, Mario; I have some loyalty to all my Latin American countries after spending so much time studying them as an undergrad.

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