One night after Germany’s 7-1 victory over Brazil provided the most stunning result any of us had ever witnessed, Argentina and the Netherlands combined to make their own history. Never before had a World Cup semifinal finished scoreless after 120 minutes, but that’s exactly what happened in a 0-0 tie that saw Argentina goalkeeper Sergio Romero save two penalties in the shootout to send the Argentines to Sunday’s World Cup final against Germany, where more history will be made: It'll be the third final meeting between the two sides.
Here are my three quick thoughts on the game:
• Messi still has a chance to reach the pantheon
The greatest player of his generation will play in his first World Cup final on Sunday. If Argentina wins it, Lionel Messi will ascend to the highest echelon of players in the history of the game along with Pelé and Diego Maradona. Yet history will say little positive about this semifinal or Messi’s role in it, with the small exception of his successful penalty that gave Argentina a first-round advantage that it wouldn’t relinquish. (By the way: Why on earth would supposed master tactician Louis van Gaal choose center back Ron Vlaar instead of Arjen Robben or Dirk Kuyt to take the first Dutch penalty? Vlaar, who deserved better after a standout performance, took a weak kick that was saved easily by Romero, who deserves a huge thank you from his teammates for saving them in the shootout.)
Based on this game, the Germans will be a heavy favorite over Argentina on Sunday, but soccer is a funny sport, and Argentina will have the best player on the field. Suffice it to say that Brazilians will throw up in their mouths if their archrival Argentines win the World Cup in the Maracanã, the temple of Brazilian soccer.
• This game will hardly be viewed as a classic
And that’s being overly kind. Both Argentina and the Netherlands have players with the talent and technique to showcase a different style than we saw in this game. But the Dutch especially elected to play in a way that was less violent but no less physically-oriented than the World Cup 2010 final against Spain.
Time and again, Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir failed to respond to the Dutch physicality with the yellow cards it deserved—the Dutch ended up with two—and in time the Argentines, too, drew fewer yellows (one) than they should have. Excessive leniency by referees has been a running theme of this World Cup, amid reports that FIFA has directed referees to think hard about pulling too many yellow cards. That’s a shame.
This game had the ingredients to be a global spectacle. Instead we got one of the least-fulfilling World Cup semifinals in memory. After a group stage that had put this tournament in a position to be regarded as the best World Cup in decades, the mostly dour knockout rounds have put a damper on such talk.
• FIFA’s policy on head injuries is a sad joke
When Javier Mascherano staggered and fell to the ground not long after he collided heads with Bruno Martins Indi in the first half, any sane organization would have had a more stringent policy to protect the player before he ran right back onto the field. Clearly, FIFA doesn’t. The image of Mascherano crumpling to the turf was downright scary, and he wasn’t himself for the rest of the first half after he returned to the field, firing errant passes right to the other team that he would never do normally.
We’ve already seen one other disgraceful head-injury response in this tournament—when Uruguay’s Álvaro Pereira was struck square in the temple by a knee against England and returned to the game in defiance of doctors’ orders—and two cases are two too many. World soccer has to catch up when it comes to the real dangers of head injuries. (Nor is the response that Mascherano made a game-saving tackle late in regulation; he was likely at significant physical risk after the initial head injury.)