The last time the Germans hoisted the World Cup, in 1990, they represented half a country. With reunification only a few months off it seemed then that a Deutschland dynasty was in the offing. “The German team will be unbeatable in the future,” predicted coach Franz Beckenbauer after the West Siders squelched Argentina in the Rome final. “Sorry about that, folks.”
So much for historical inevitability. In the two dozen years since then, the combined Mannschaft has won only one major tournament — the 1996 European title in overtime over the Czechs.
“A whole football generation pleads: Do it for us, Jogi!” a headline in the newspaper Bild implored coach Joachim Low before his squad took on Brazil in what turned out to be a shockingly easy victory in Tuesday’s World Cup semifinals.
On Sunday comes the golden chance inside Rio de Janeiro’s storied Maracana Stadium when the three-time champions again take on two-time victor Argentina in their bid to become the first European country to win the Cup in South America and the first from their united homeland.
“It feels really awful to lose a final,” observed Miroslav Klose, the only man remaining from the 2002 team that was blanked by Brazil in the title match in Yokohama. “So it’s our time to win this one.”
The Germans are ideally positioned for victory. Their 7-1 disemboweling of the hosts essentially was a kick-around after the first half-hour and they’ll have an extra day’s rest over the Albiceleste, which is coming off a draining shootout triumph over the Dutch and which has played two overtime matches in its last three outings.
“Germany were always the favorites, along with Brazil, to win the World Cup,” observed Argentina striker Sergio Aguero, whose mates have reached the final for the first time since 1990, when their undermanned predecessors, who finished the match with nine players, were the first team to be blanked in the championship match. “They continue to be so now. We need to play our own game and it suits us that all the pressure is on them.”
The Germans have played in seven finals since returning to the global stage in 1954 after their post-war ban and have lost four of them — to host England in overtime in 1966, to Italy in 1982, to the Argentines in 1986, and to Brazil in 2002.
“If we don’t [win it], the semifinal victory will just be consigned to the archives of history,” mused defender Benedikt Howedes, whose colleagues were beaten by the Italians (at the end of overtime) and Spaniards (1-0) in the semis of the last two Cups.
Except for its defeat in Mexico City in 1986, Germany has dominated Argentina in Cup play, winning four matches and drawing one, while knocking out the Albiceleste in the last two quarters — in a shootout in Berlin and 4-0 in Cape Town.
“It’s going to be a different kind of game, a new chapter,” vowed Argentina goalkeeper Sergio Romero, whose two shootout saves stopped the Dutch.
The Germans, who scored four goals in six minutes against Brazil, won’t have anywhere near as much running room against the Albiceleste, which hasn’t allowed a goal in 373 minutes going back to its group finale against Nigeria. The question is whether Argentina, which may or may not have Angel Di Maria, its hobbled midfielder, back in the lineup, can revive an attack that has managed only two goals in 370 minutes.
Without Di Maria the Albiceleste never got in gear against the Dutch, who made a missing person out of superstar Lionel Messi. “We didn’t see Messi,” said Netherlands coach Louis van Gaal. The Germans may not have a Messi but they have a platoon of people who can do damage — eight players have scored in their six matches, with Thomas Mueller tallying five goals.
This is the generation that was developed after the Mannschaft’s humiliation at the 2000 European championships when it finished last in its group and managed only one goal. Since then, Germany’s youth academies have been cranking out so much talent that the United States team signed on some of the surplus for its own Cup lineup.
Fourteen of Germany’s players are 25 or younger and half a dozen of them played for the under-21 team that pounded England for the 2009 European title. Only two field players — Klose and captain Philipp Lahm — are over 30.
The Argentines, too, are in their prime. Their key men — Messi, Di Maria, Gonzalo Higuain, Aguero — all are 26. They know that this is their best chance to stand astride the planet. “It will be a final we must play with patience and calm, with hunger and heart,” said midfielder Javier Mascherano.
The Germans have been close enough so often since 1990 — they’ve lost to the last three champions — that they understand they can’t let another opportunity slip away. Why wait four years to celebrate in Moscow when you can do it on the beach?
“Unfortunately, we won’t be going to Rio to take a guided tour or to get to know the magic of the city,” said Mueller. “There’s only one reason to go there — to pick up the World Cup trophy. We know what we have to do.”