If they were going to make history by winning the World Cup — and Germany’s soccer team certainly did that on Sunday afternoon in Rio de Janeiro — they did it the way that it should be done. They beat all comers and they smothered the world’s two best players along the way. It took two dozen years for the Mannschaft to win its fourth golden keepsake and its first as a unified country but there was, finally, no doubt about who was the Weltmeister.
“It’s unbelievable what we have achieved,” declared captain Philipp Lahm after Germany had KO’d Argentina, 1-0, on substitute Mario Goetze’s clinical finish in the 113th minute of the final inside Maracana Stadium.
No European country had won the Cup in the seven previous times when the tournament was held in the Americas and the Germans took the most demanding route to their triumph. They topped the Group of Death, drilling Portugal, 4-0, in their opener. They shut out the French, who’d scored 10 goals in four outings. They dealt the Brazilians the worst defeat imaginable. And they blanked the Argentines in what amounted to a home match for the Albiceleste.
Not that it couldn’t have gone a different way. If Gonzalo Higuain hadn’t botched his 21st-minute breakaway, if Lionel Messi hadn’t misfired just after intermission, or had been able to produce the equalizer with his last-minute free kick, Argentina might well have found a way to win. “The pain is immense,” mourned midfielder Javier Mascherano.
That, of course, was the Albiceleste’s story once the tournament got to the knockout round. One-nil, one-nil, nil-nil. Two goals scored during the final 490 minutes, neither of them by Messi, who was voted the Golden Ball as the tournament’s best player but who couldn’t match the magic that countryman Diego Maradona conjured when Argentina last won in 1986.
The Germans prevailed because they were the best from end to end and because they had the best bench. The winning goal was crafted by two reserves — Andre Schurrle, who came on after 31 minutes when last-minute starter Christoph Kramer was taken off after going woozy from a knock to the head, and Goetze, who replaced Miroslav Klose two minutes before the end of regulation. “You can make it happen,” Klose assured Goetze.
This is the team that Deutschland has been developing for a decade and it was a triumph of German engineering. Like Spain and Italy, the last two champions, the Mannschaft was loaded with players from its domestic league.
Sixteen of the 23 men on the roster perform in the Bundesliga and six of the starters — Lahm, keeper Manuel Neuer, forward Thomas Mueller, midfielders Toni Kroos and Bastian Schweinsteiger, and defender Jerome Boateng — play for Bayern Munich, which has won the last two titles.
In a day of globalized soccer, localization pays off in the Cup where familiarity breeds cohesion. Argentina’s players are scattered among seven countries, which makes it a challenge to create chemistry on the field. That said, the Albiceleste performed more than creditably against a German rival that, in retrospect, will be viewed as one of the most impressive of champions.
The Mannschaft had an extra day’s rest and a much less demanding semifinal against the hosts than Argentina did in its shootout bleeder with the Dutch. In the end the Germans were fitter and fresher and more capable of delivering a killer strike after nearly two hours of exertion. When Messi booted his last-chance kick high over the crossbar, it was a window into how things had gone for him and his mates over their final four matches.
The Germans have made a science of shutting down superstars. They did it to Maradona in the 1990 final. They did it to Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo and they did it to Messi. Once attacking midfielder Angel di Maria was sidelined with a thigh injury Argentina’s scoring dried up.
The Mannschaft, which rat-a-tatted 18 goals in seven matches, was armed with a rotary cannon. Eight different men dented the net — strikers, midfielders, defenders.
Had the final gone to a shootout the smart money would have been on the Germans, who’ve never lost one in the Cup and who’ve only missed one penalty in 18 shots over four tournaments.
Just when coach Joachim Low might have been pondering his firing lineup, Schurrle and Goetze combined for a textbook shot to the heart. “For us, the dream has become reality,” said Super Mario, who wasn’t born when the Mannschaft last won.
There were consolation prizes since — second place in 2002, third in 2006 and 2010. ‘ENDLICH!’ (Finally!) proclaimed headlines all over Germany. “At some point we will stop celebrating,” Neuer said. “But we’ll still wake up with a smile.”