The memories from Rome two dozen years ago endure. Two Argentina players ejected. Forty-four fouls. And finally the Mexican referee, unwilling to see the championship come down to a shootout lottery, awarding Germany a questionable penalty kick with five minutes to play. It was, the Italian newspapers said, a ''brutta finale,'' the ugly culmination of what the Gazzetta dello Sport called "a Mondiale to weep for."
That was the last time the Argentines played in a World Cup final and there may be a bit of karmic justice in that they'll meet the Germans again on Sunday afternoon with the gilded trophy on the line in Rio de Janeiro. This is the Albiceleste's chance for a deferred do-over, to show the rest of the planet what it can do when it has its full lineup available.
That wasn't the case in 1990, when Argentina was without three suspended starters and a reserve and had little choice but to play a cynical match to have any chance of retaining its crown. "The Argentines did not participate in the match," said German coach Franz Beckenbauer. "They tried to destroy it. They played a non-game. They were just too weak to stand up to us."
This Argentina edition, which has been through five one-goal matches and two overtimes, won't have that problem. Its challenge will be to recover from Wednesday's draining semifinal shootout victory over the Dutch with a day's less rest than the Germans will have. "Some of our players are sore, beaten, tired," said coach Alejandro Sabella. "The results of a war, so to speak."
The Germans got through their astonishing 7-1 dismantling of Brazil with barely a mark on them. "Nobody was expecting that to happen," said forward Thomas Mueller, who fired the first shot in Belo Horizonte. So his colleagues will be far fresher for the final than will Lionel Messi and his mates.
"The German game was decided in the first 45 minutes so they could ease off in the second half," said Sabella, "whereas we had to spend all the effort and every last drop of sweat to reach the World Cup final."
Yet members of the 1990 squad traveled a decidedly more arduous road to reach the title match. They dropped the tournament opener to nine-man Cameroon, drew with Romania, and ended up third in their group. They lost goalkeeper Nery Pumpido to a broken leg in the second match. They needed a breakaway by Claudio Caniggia with 10 minutes left to beat Brazil in the second round and had to go to shootouts with both Yugoslavia and Italy in the quarters and semis.
This Albiceleste bunch may have perspired mightily but until they met the Netherlands they weren't up against a top contender. Compared with the Germans, who were tossed into the Group of Death with Portugal, Ghana, and the US, Argentina had a less demanding draw in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iran, and Nigeria. It also had an easier knockout round — Switzerland, Belgium, Netherlands — than did the Mannschaft, which faced Algeria, France, and the hosts.
Still, it's not as if Argentina got to choose its opponents. It played whomever showed up and advanced sooner (8th minute versus the Belgians) or later (118th versus the Swiss). What the Albiceleste has shown is that it can make an entire mixed grill out of one goal (three 1-0 victories) or none at all. That's the most valuable quality to have at the World Cup where, 7-1 aberrations aside, scoring dries up once you get to the win-or-die stage.
The Argentines haven't conceded a goal since their group finale against Nigeria, 373 minutes and counting. They've played the extended 120 twice. They outshot the Dutch with two of their best gunners — Angel di Maria and Gonzalo Higuain — unavailable. They've done what they had to. "We've made it into the final and crossed the Rubicon," declared Sabella.
During the glory era from 1978 to 1990, when Argentina won two Cups and made the final of a third, that was taken for granted. Since then the Albiceleste has had a long, strange trip back. The Argentines lost to the Romanians in the second round in 1994 after Diego Maradona had been thrown out for doping. They lost to the Dutch with a minute to play in the 1998 quarters. They went three-and-out in Japan in 2002. The Germans booted them out of the last two quarters — in a shootout in Berlin and with a 4-0 hammer job in Cape Town.
"We know the pain we have been through and we deserved some kind of happiness," said Maxi Rodriguez, the three-time Cup veteran who came off the bench to slam home the winning kick against the Netherlands on Wednesday.
Beating the Germans, which the Albiceleste did to win the 1986 title in Mexico City, would bring ecstasy. "Right now there's happiness, a sense of responsibility and expectation in the air," observed midfielder Javier Mascherano. "Let's hope we're up to the task."