To say this World Cup final victory was a long time coming for the Germans is a huge understatement.
It’s not for the timing: though this is Germany’s first World Cup title since 1990, they’ve come heart-wrenchingly close to winning the solid gold hardware on numerous occasions since then, too. Until Sunday afternoon’s 1-0 extra time victory over Argentina in Rio de Janeiro, Die Mannschaft were experts at being one or two notches below the best.
Four years ago a breach in concentration against eventual champions Spain forced them to settle for third place. A similar performance at the 2006 tournament, which they hosted, yielded the same result. And perhaps cruelest of all was their second half meltdown against Brazil in the 2002 final. Yet at the start of each of those tournaments, the Germans were always pegged as a favorite to win the whole thing.
A nation’s perception hinges on how they’ve competed over time. That Germany (before Sunday, West Germany) had won three World Cups dubbed them a “soccer powerhouse.” True followers of soccer knew not to discount the Germans simply because a fourth title had eluded them in the last few decades. Not only had Germany come excruciatingly close to winning the World Cup multiple times, but they also had a playing style that few teams have been able to solve.
Prior to Sunday’s final match, Argentina head coach Alejandro Sabella described his opponents’ tactics, particularly in midfield, as intricate. Sabella missed something subtle when he made that comment. While Germany’s possession methods are of course complex, their overall game is beautifully simple: don’t stop until the ball is in the net; when it’s in, make sure it goes in again.
No game showcased the relentlessness of Germany’s attack than their 7-1 drubbing of Brazil in the tournament semifinal. Their multi-goal performance, which wasn’t even their biggest World Cup win of all-time (they defeated Saudi Arabia 8-0 in 2002), had nothing to do with retribution for Brazil beating them in the 2002 final or Miroslav Klose chasing the title of the tournament’s best-ever scorer. Germany did what they’re trained and programmed to do, which is win by as many goals as possible.
Putting away one goal, let alone seven, was always going to be harder versus Argentina. The form of the Argentinians and the South American setting didn’t work in Germany’s favor. Neither did the pressure of playing in a World Cup final. Those factors essentially eliminated the possibility of Germany firestorming their way to victory. Only in 1998 and 1970 did a final have a margin of victory greater than two goals, anyway.
On Sunday, Argentina outplayed the Germans, nearly scoring. Lionel Messi narrowly missed two chances, one in each half, and Rodrigo Palacio chipped the ball wide of goal after going in alone on Manuel Neuer late in regulation. Those three chances, plus Argentina’s ability to dictate the pace of the game and control possession for key spells, prove that they were capable foes for Germany.
But after being the better team in almost all of their matches, it was fitting that Germans’ deciding game would come down to the wire.
Prior to the start of this tournament, Germany was selected as favorites to win, as usual. Brazil was too because of its up-and-coming players and the fact that they were hosting. Argentina, Belgium, France, Spain, and Netherlands were also popular or even dark horse picks.
But once the smoke cleared after the first round of group games, there appeared to be something significant missing from Spain and Brazil. Argentina, Belgium, and Netherlands would likely have to duke it out on their side of the elimination bracket, anyway, thus eliminating two of those sides. And France, while in fine form, was always second-best to Germany. At that point, suspicions that this could be Germany’s year swelled—if Jogi Low’s team could manhandle Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal 4-0, could they do something similar to Neymar’s Brazil and Messi’s Argentina?
Ultimately, the Germans revealed they were beyond capable. They outscored Portugal, Brazil, and Argentina — each of which entered the tournament ranked in the top five and have a player who has a good reason to claim he’s the best in the world — 12-1.
This isn’t to say that Germany’s competition was weak and they got away with putting a soft squad on the field. Au contraire: there are two Germany’s, but not East and West. It’s one team with so much depth, Low can field two powerful squads from the über team of 23 players he brought to Brazil. The Germans’ skill on the field, particularly what they’ve produced in the last four years, rivals the best soccer ever played. Their players have exceled at the club level, elevating the reputation and quality of the Bundesliga and reaching new heights as perennial Champions League title contenders.
One of the German Bundesliga’s jewels—Bayern Munich—played an enormous role in their success in Brazil and in Sunday’s game. Mario Gotze, whose slick finish in the 113th minute won the game, plays for Bayern. Meanwhile, Messi, who besides his two scuffed chances was kept extraordinarily quiet, was marked and tracked by five German players that ousted him and Barcelona 7-0 in the 2013 Champions League semifinal. Rest assured, Philipp Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Thomas Muller, Jerome Boateng, and Neuer all compared notes on Messi before Sunday’s game started.
Often times, teams will change their approach entirely or start from scratch after losing. No matter how close they come to reaching their goal, by sheer virtue of not making it, many competitors role up their sleeves and call for a Renaissance. Between Germany’s last World Cup final win in 1990 and today, the only significant piece of hardware they’d won was the 1996 European Championship.
On plenty of occasions could the Germans have given up on their style in search of something new. But they stuck with their identity and finally got their reward. The wait is over.