The best team won the World Cup. Too bad it has to end
So Germany are World Cup champions. Whether you were pulling for them or not, one thing is clear (and in soccer, as we all know, very little is clear, but, rather, opaque): Germany was the best team and deserved it. It came out of the Group of Death, where it cruised past Portugal and the “second best player in the world,” then beat Algeria, France, Brazil (!!!), and, in the final, Argentina, with the best player in the world. The seven goals against the home team was a bizarre anomaly, something in that stage of the tournament we’ve never seen before (nor will we ever see again), but…it beat the home team in the semifinal.
It’s hard to believe, with the sturdy scaffolding provided by the German soccer federation and the fine tradition and financial health of the Bundesliga (and, just as important, the lower divisions), that it has been 24 years since its last World Cup victory and 18 years since its last major tournament title: the 1996 European Championships. Since then its record has been staggering: runners-up in the 2002 World Cup; third-place in 2006; runners-up in Euro 2008; third place in 2010; top four in Euro 2012. Just no titles—until today.
Thankfully, for all fans, Germany finished the job within 120 minutes with Mario Götze’s lovely strike seven minutes from the end. It was a goal of impeccable technique that minutes earlier Argentina’s Rodrigo Palacio couldn’t quite execute. In fact, the Germans didn’t need the dreaded penalty kicks in any of their matches. When they played a tough defensive team in France, they got an early goal in the daytime heat of Rio and it stood. When they played the run-and-gun Brazilians, they did the unheard of and racked up seven goals. Earlier in the tournament, when they were down a goal (and they were only down seven minutes in the entire tournament) they came back against Ghana and tied it, with a Miroslav Klose effort late in the match.
There was never any question of the team’s creative talent—Özil, Schürrle, Müller, Kroos—but the defense, led by the noble captain Philipp Lahm, held up, and Manuel Neuer, alternately neurotic and brilliant, proved up to the challenge. Coach Joachim Löw—with the pressure building after an unheard of eight years on the job and a public and press back home growing increasingly impatient—had to deliver a WM, a weltmeisterschaft, and he did. In the final, he faced adversity when Sami Khedira was a late scratch due to injury and his replacement Christoph Kramer, in only his fifth cap, had to come out after basically getting knocked upside the head. After 32 minutes, Löw had to burn a sub, but nothing was lost when he brought on Schürrle. In fact, they may have been better.
Lionel Messi was a menace in fits and starts—and couldn’t convert a great chance in the first half—but the Germans, as the Dutch had in the semi, largely contained him. By extra time, he appeared spent and was left walking around the half-way circle.
It was a good final, a very good final, the best since the 1998 (at least the first half of that 3–0 win for France over Brazil) and probably the best overall since 1986, when the same two teams played in Mexico City, with Germany coming back from 2–0 down but Argentina prevailing 3–2. Was it a great World Cup? Maybe. That was bandied around in the tournament’s first couple of weeks, but the quality did wan. When considering any and all history—wars, art, and, yes, soccer—distance is required.
We do know this: The best team won. It was an exhilarating month. And it’s heartbreaking that it has to end.