Germany and Argentina square off for the World Cup trophy in Brazilian soccer's Mecca, Estádio do Maracanã, in Rio de Janeiro on Sunday. The game is littered with storylines, legacy implications and star power and promises to provide a thrilling ending to what has been a riveting World Cup. Our live chat for the spectacle will kick off at 2 p.m. ET, leading up to the 3 p.m. first kick (ABC/Univision).
In the build-up until then, our Brian Straus, Jonathan Wilson, Liviu Bird, Adam Duerson and Tim Newcomb have compiled everything you need to know about the clash with a World Cup Final 101 crash course:
A LENGTHY HISTORY
This will be the third time (West) Germany and Argentina have met in the final of the World Cup - the only other repeat final is Italy against Brazil - and the seventh meeting of the nations in the World Cup. It's a rivalry that has, so far, been dominated by the Germans, with Argentina's only victory coming in the 1986 final.
The first meeting came in 1958 when Argentina, making its first appearance in the World Cup since 1934 and convinced it was a serious challenger for the title, lost 3-1 to the reigning world champions in Malmo after taking an early lead. Argentina, unable to cope with the greater physicality of the European teams, went out in the group stage after a 6-1 defeat to Czechoslovakia, precipitating its radical switch away from the aesthetically pleasing football of la nuestra to the cynicism of anti-futbol.
Eight years later, they met in Birmingham in a bad-tempered group game that reflected Argentina's newly rugged approach. It ended goalless as Argentina defender Rafael Albrecht was sent off. Twenty years later, in Mexico City, came the third meeting. Lothar Matthaus was set out to mark Diego Maradona, who was in the form of his life, and did an almost perfect job. Almost, though, wasn't good enough.
Jose Luis Brown headed Argentina in front from a Jorge Burruchaga free kick, awarded for a foul on Maradona, and Jorge Valdano added a second after a sharp Maradona turn and pass had played Hector Enrique into space. West Germany hit back with two goals in seven minutes from corners - despite Argentina's manager being so obsessed by the set-play prowess of the Germans that he'd burst into Sergio Batista's room in the early hours of that morning, woken the defender and asked, while he was still dazed, who he would be marking.
With six minutes to go, though, Maradona played in Burruchaga to make it 3-2 and win Argentina its second World Cup. Four years later in Rome, West Germany had its revenge, an ugly game in which two Argentinians were sent off being settled by Andreas Brehme's late penalty. The next meeting came in the quarterfinal in Berlin in 2006, when Argentina led 1-0 and seemed comfortable, only for its coach, Jose Pekerman to take off Juan Roman Riquelme for Esteban Cambiasso.
Miroslav Klose equalized with a header and Germany won on penalties, with the goalkeeper Jens Lehmann making a great play of taking a sheet of hotel notepaper from his sock and consulting it before facing each shot, convincing Argentina he had research showing where each player would place their penalties, even though only two of the seven names on his part took kicks.
Eleven members of this Germany squad and eight from Argentina played in the quarterfinal in Cape Town four years ago when Germany won 4-0. Thomas Muller put the Germans ahead after three minutes and Joachim Low's side preceded to pick Argentina apart on the break, with Klose scoring twice, on either side of an Arne Friedrich goal. This, though, is a very different Argentina side, better managed and far less open. Germany, too, has evolved and is less reliant on the counterattack than is was, but it is the development of Argentina that is by far the more significant.
"That was a hard blow, especially after a World Cup in which we played well but, on that day, nothing came off for us," said Argentina goalkeeper Sergio Romero. "The post, the chances... but four years have passed and we hope to things better than we did that day. We’ve grown a lot. From the first game, there’s been criticism and the team has changed, but the team puts their lives onto that pitch, they kill for each other."
-- Jonathan Wilson
THE ROAD TO RIO
If an appearance in the World Cup final is considered the culmination of nation’s long-term soccer trajectory, like the final chapter of a novel, rather than the product of a few bounces during a month-long tournament, then Sunday’s match-up between Germany and Argentina is particularly fitting.
That’s not to say the two traditional powers, who have claimed a combined five World Cup titles, don’t deserve their places based on their performances in Brazil. Each has a 5-0-1 record and each has world-class players performing at their peak. None of the other entrants has a stronger claim on the trophy. Germany and Argentina have put in the work, both in the past few weeks and in the past several years.
Germany’s path to the final started a decade ago, when Jurgen Klinsmann and his assistant, Low, set out to recast Die Mannschaft as a dynamic, skillful and attacking team. Bastian Schweinsteiger, Philipp Lahm, Per Mertesacker and Lukas Podolski, each 21 or 22, formed part of the core that reached the World Cup semis in 2006.
Low took the reins and has stayed true to the original vision, finishing in the final four of every major tournament since while building a squad based on the Bayern Munich side that crushed the tiki-taka of Barcelona in 2012 and won the European title the following year. No midfield in the world has the range or attacking diversity of Germany’s, which now features the likes of Thomas Muller, Mesut Ozil, Toni Kroos and Sami Khedira. In Bayern’s Manuel Neuer, Germany boasts arguably the world’s top goalkeeper.
That was more than enough to see Die Mannschaft through the competition’s most balanced group. An easy 4-0 winner in the opener against a not-ready-for-primetime Portugal was followed by performances that failed to impress. Germany overcame a poor 10-minute stretch against Ghana to earn a 2-2 draw then struggled to solve a game U.S. side in a 1-0 win that was closer than it should’ve been. Algeria put up a fight in the round of 16 before falling, 2-1, on extra-time goals by André Schurrle and Ozil and France gave the Germans all they could handle in a tight and tense quarterfinal that ended in a 1-0 triumph.
Germany wasn’t nearly as fluid or fearsome as in previous tournaments, but that was by design. Low sought a more balanced approach -- the sort needed to survive high-stakes matches against top opposition. Lessons had been learned from past disappointments.
"We’re playing the kind of football that will give us a chance to win,” said defender Mats Hummels, who scored the only goal against Les Bleus on an early set piece.
Then came the epic 7-1 semifinal annihilation of Brazil. Suddenly, Germany appears to be at both its old-fashioned and newfangled best. It can grind like its predecessors, or it can overwhelm with modern attacking menace.
In Argentina, Germany will meet a team that’s also found success by striking a a championship balance. Lionel Messi’s ability should never have been in question – it’s been the team and tactics around him that has limited Argentina. Manager Alejandro Sabella has put the focus in back, where Pablo Zabaleta (Manchester City), Ezequiel Garay (Benfica) and goalkeeper Sergio Romero (AS Monaco) have marshaled a defense that has made the most of opponents’ concern for Messi and the might of midfielder Javier Mascherano.
Argentina, which began its World Cup at the Maracanã, never was going to be threatened in a group that including Nigeria, Iran and debutants Bosnia-Herzegovina, but still needed a few heroic moments from Messi to ensure first place. Since then, the Albiceleste have locked it down. Switzerland (1-0), Belgium (1-0) and the Netherlands (0-0) each were shut out, and Romero and his teammates were confident and mistake-free
during the shootout against the Dutch.
It may be Argentina’s first World Cup final in 24 years, but this team has as much championship pedigree as Germany’s. Nine players, including Messi, Mascherano and Romero, won Olympic gold in 2008 and six lifted the FIFA Under-20 World Cup three years earlier.
The World Cup’s top teams have earned their way to the Maracanã thanks to weeks, and years, of work. It’s a fair and fitting final.
-- Brian Straus
Germany has played the same shape and a similar team throughout the World Cup, with Lahm taking over at right back in the last couple games after Khedira regained his place in midfield. Its options in attack include overloading the middle with Ozil tucking in, or playing down the right through Lahm and Muller. Add in the World Cup’s all-time leading scorer Klose and a high line backed by Neuer, and Germany is the fiercest attacking team in Brazil.
Argentina has relied on Messi’s moments of magic and the defensive fortitude of players such as Mascherano, who had one of the best games of his career in the semifinal. The attack has also been more balanced since Ezequiel Lavezzi has started on the left in a 4-4-2. Sabella has a propensity toward more pragmatic tactical schemes, starting 5-3-2 against Bosnia-Herzegovina in the first match and slowing the tempo to crawling pace against the Dutch.
It’s a style that served him well as Estudiantes manager before taking over Argentina. He took his team to the Club World Cup final in 2009 in his first year as head coach. There, he met Barcelona in its six-trophy year. Despite Barça’s clear superiority, Estudiantes only lost in extra time after leading for nearly an hour.
As Sabella later explained, the key was neutralizing Barcelona’s central overload by matching it 1-for-1 and planning for Messi’s inside runs from the wing and Dani Alves’ overlap. If that sounds familiar, it’s because the current German team has a similar style. Sabella likely won’t return to the 5-3-2 per se, but he will need to find a way to again stifle a team much more creative and powerful in attack than his own.
-- Liviu Bird
The debate is over: Messi can produce for his country. Now Argentina’s captain, the four-time FIFA World Player of the Year (honors won thanks to his exploits at Barcelona) has scored four goals at this World Cup and set up a spectacular fifth.
La Albiceleste, which has tallied eight total goals, would be nowhere near the final without him. And his impact extends beyond the scoreboard. In Wednesday’s semifinal, the Netherlands sacrificed attacking manpower in order to ensure support for the player marking Messi in midfield. The Dutch managed a single shot on goal in 120 minutes.
So a new conversation begins. Fair or not, Messi’s long-term legacy will be shaped by the next 90 minutes at the Maracanã. Maradona couldn’t equal Messi’s achievements at the club level and was banned multiple times for drug use. But he’s Argentina’s unassailable footballing hero (Messi has called him the “greatest there’s ever been”) in large part because of the summer of 1986, when he willed Argentina to its second World Cup. Maradona netted two famous goals in the quarterfinal against rival England, added another pair in the semi versus Belgium and created the winner in a 3-2 defeat of West Germany in the final.
Messi will never match Maradona’s charisma (that's probably a good thing), but he has the discipline and humility his compatriot lacked. At 27, Messi has years remaining on his astonishing career. But this is the final World Cup he’ll play in his prime. This likely will be his last, best chance to put his stamp on his sport’s biggest game. If he does, in an era when the competition is so much tougher and the spotlight so much brighter, there will be no legacy beyond his reach.
-- Brian Straus
Lionel Messi's legacy is on the line
On Friday's SI Now, NYCFC Sporting Director Claudio Reyna and USMNT player Alejandro Bedoya discuss Lionel Messi's World Cup success and the future of his legacy.
Maracanã. For soccer fans, especially those in South America, that one word holds so much history. So much drama and emotion.
For the Rio de Janeiro stadium’s seventh game of the 2014 tournament—the most of any of the 12 venues—anyone looking ahead to the Argentina vs. Germany final can’t help but look back to 1950 when a much different Maracanã hosted on of the most bitter moments in Brazilian soccer history, the team’s 2-1 loss at the hands of Uruguay.
For 64 years, the Maracanã has made history. Ahead of hosting its second World Cup final, only the second venue in history to crown two winners (Mexico City’s Estadio Azteca also has that distinction), here are some key marks of the Maracanã and the World Cup:
• After two years of construction, the Maracanã wasn’t finished in time for the 1950 World Cup final, but it still hosted the event. Official completion came in 1965, even though it housed club soccer after the World Cup.
• The 1950 World Cup final drew nearly 200,000 fans (plenty of standing-room only seats), making the first version of the Maracanã the world’s largest stadium. During this year’s World Cup final Maracanã will host about 75,000 fans, but can seat 78,000 for other events.
• The Maracanã is the largest soccer stadium in Brazil and second largest in South America (behind Estadio Monumental in Peru).
• During the latest renovation of the Maracanã, fans were allowed to watch the construction from a tower and take pieces of the old stadium with them.
• Designated as historical and thus protected from demolition, the original façade for the Maracanã was left untouched in the 2014 World Cup renovation.
• The stadium is named after the local region, which is named after a river.
• The new fiberglass and fabric roof covers 95 percent of all seats and is treated with a chemical that self-cleans the roof when UV light hits it.
• The stadium stood from 1950 until 1992 largely untouched, but an upper grandstand collapse in 1992 that killed three spectators led to changes in subsequent years, including multiple renovations before the latest iteration.
• The true name of the Maracanã is Estadio Jornalista Mario Filho after a local journalist who helped spearhead its original construction. But it will always be the Maracanã to Brazilian soccer fans.
• The Maracanã will host both the opening and closing ceremonies during the 2016 Summer Olympics.
-- Tim Newcomb
All Eyes On Rio: World Cup focus shifts to the Maracana
The Maracana is set to be the center of the soccer universe on Sunday for the World Cup final between Argentina and Germany, as all eyes shift to Rio de Janeiro.
Argentina limping into the final against Germany isn’t quite on the level of William Wallace’s Scottish army picking its bloody pieces up off the ground after the Battle of Stirling to come back for one last scrap. But it’s getting close.
First and foremost among La Albiceleste’s injury concerns is the integrity of Angel di Maria’s thigh. The sinewy right winger scored Argentina’s lone goal against Switzerland in the round of 16 and assisted on Gonzalo Higuain’s eighth-minute winner against Belgium before limping off 25 minutes later. He hasn’t been on the field since then—and his team hasn’t scored in those 202 minutes.
Di Maria’s first-grade thigh injury has been treated in the meantime with platelet-rich plasma therapy and regular oxygen chamber visits, and on Thursday he took a light training session separate of his teammates, raising the possibility that he’ll be fit for the final. But what if he’s not? In that case, Sabella is likely to stick with Enzo Perez, who filled in capably against Netherlands in the semis, but whose energy meter appeared to wane as the game clock stretched into the hundreds.
Di Maria’s Energizer Bunny vitality would be crucial in the late minutes of what will be Argentina’s seventh game in 29 days. Seemingly of less concern—only because Argentina has already had to deal with his absence in earlier games, swapping in Higuain—is the health of striker Sergio Aguero, another high-energy lightning bolt player who’s carrying a thigh strain.
Aguero missed his team’s first two knockout games with a condition similar to the one that plagued him all season long at Manchester City, then returned for the semifinal off the bench and high-pressed the Dutch into some dicey play in back. Whether he tags back in for Higuain likely depends on that thigh holding up. But even if healthy, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him instead play a reserve role that suits his energy level well. City supporters will remember his last substantial off-the-bench appearance: In his first ever Premier League game, in 2011, he came on in the 59th minute and scored two goals and assisted on another, taking advantage of a knackered Swansea squad.
In back, Zabaleta is a mess but should recover fine from his Dirk Kuyt-delivered atomic elbow to the face, which left him looking like this. And Mascherano’s self-described—ahem—“torn anus” won’t keep him off the field. The latter Argentine also suffered what Dr. Twitterverse immediately diagnosed as a certain concussion against Netherlands. Whether that was the case or not, you can be certain the midfielder won’t be held to the standards of, say, the NFL, where players have been known to miss multiple games over several weeks for hits like Mascherano took. Four days after his hit, for better or worse, he will start.
As for the Germans? For a team that carried an alarming array of injuries into its opening game against Portugal— Schweinsteiger, Khedira, Lahm and Neuer— Low’s squad is in surprisingly good shape. Both Schweinsteiger and defender Jerome Boateng have returned from mid-tourney knocks, leaving only Hummels, a center back, as a serious question mark, with tendinitis in his left knee.
Hummels, one of four German finalists for the Golden Ball as the tournament's best player, has been crucial in Die Mannschaft’s run: He’s scored twice and missed just one game (with a fever), a round of 16 clash with Algeria that Germany easily could have lost. Low told German TV earlier this week that “we assume he’ll be able to play in the final,” and Hummels trained on Thursday.
But his is the type of injury that will have to be reassessed in pre-game warm-ups on Sunday. Lionel Messi working in the same territory Hummels defends, his absence would be a serious blow—especially if the lumbering Per Mertesacker becomes his replacement.
-- Adam Duerson
How Germany stops Lionel Messi to win the World Cup
On Friday's SI Now, USMNT midfielder Alejandro Bedoya and NYCFC Sporting Director Claudio Reyna discuss who they want to win between Germany and Argentina in the World Cup final and how Germany can stop Messi.
Before the World Cup, Argentinian fans produced a huge banner depicting "Dios, El Papa y El Messi" - God (Diego Maradona), the Pope and Messi, while numerous Argentinian fans have donned face masks of the pontiff during matches. Quite what influence Francis I has had on this tournament is difficult to know, but since he replaced Benedict XVI, a German, in March 2013, the first Argentine pope does seem to have had a remarkable influence on football.
The team he supports, San Lorenzo - named after the priest who allowed locals to play football in his churchyard in the Almagro district of Buenos Aires after seeing one of them knocked down by a tram while playing in the street - ended a 12-tournament drought to win the first championship after his investiture.
It has since reached the semifinal of the Copa Libertadores - a tournament that, to the amusement of fans of Argentina's other major clubs, it has never won - and will play Bolivar in the semifinal at the end of July. But that isn't Papa Francisco's only intervention in football.
Last August, before its derby against Newcastle, Sunderland sent its club chaplain to the Vatican with a shirt beating the Pope's name, desperate to end a run of six months without a league win. Francis blessed the shirt and, three days later, Sunderland won 2-1 thanks to a late winner from Fabio Borini, who had moved to England from Roma; who else could have been the papal envoy?
Francis's spokesman has said he will not watch Sunday's final with Benedict, who is understood to have little interest in the set, while the Pope himself has insisted he would not be praying for victory. Still, there is little doubt he will be desperate to add the World Cup to what is already a remarkable roll of honor.
-- Jonathan Wilson
BY THE NUMBERS
Compare the two finalists in 64 categories with the table below, provided by Aragorn Technologies: