The World Cup came to a close on Sunday, with Germany defeating Argentina in extra time, 1-0, in Rio’s Maracanã Stadium. Here, five Grantland writers look at five important characters from the match. Be sure to check out all of our coverage of the final, and the entire month of wonderful soccer action, at our World Cup landing page.
Mike L. Goodman: What’s the difference between being a phenomenal talent and a great player? Often, it’s just a matter of perception. There are lots of talents. Great players become great because they do something unforgettable. Think of Maradona’s “Hand of God,” Steven Gerrard in Istanbul, or Arjen Robben in the 2013 Champions League final. Before the World Cup final, everybody believed Mario Götze was a phenomenal talent. Now he’s got a World Cup–winning goal under his belt. Now he’s a great player.
Götze has been admired for a few years now. He was the jewel of Borussia Dortmund’s developmental system, the precocious playmaker who could have pulled the strings on the team for a decade to come, except Bayern Munich swooped in and bought him before he turned 21. Since joining the German mega-club, he’s battled injuries while playing as a false nine, on the wing, and in the center of the midfield, depending on what mad genius Pep Guardiola wants on a given weekend.
He began the World Cup as a starter for Germany, but was dropped when the quarterfinals rolled around. Was it fair? He underwhelmed, but the same could be said of Mesut Özil, who kept his place. Maybe expecting or hoping for Götze to become a breakout star was unfair, especially given his age. This is what happens when we think a collection of FIFA stats are supposed to manifest themselves in real life. He was a player we all knew was talented, even if we’d never exactly seen him be a superstar.
Until yesterday. Not only did he score the goal that won the World Cup for Germany, he did it in a way that showcased exactly what he does well: a burst from the midfield to split the defensive line and get into the box to receive a cross, incredible chest control to bring the ball down, and then the body control to create an angle going across goal, when it looked like he had no choice but to smash it near-post. Timely speed, positional awareness, close control, inhuman agility, and a poacher’s finish. That’s Mario Götze.
One goal doesn’t change a player. He’s still the same guy he was yesterday. But one goal certainly changes how we view him. Now the world has a moment to point to and say “That — that is what makes Mario Götze great.” Overnight he’s gone from a 22-year-old with promise to the player who won Germany the World Cup. Not bad for less than an hour’s work.
Chris Ryan: Spare a thought for the international football manager. They are treated like caretakers, even while working at the very pinnacle of the game. They rarely get the kind of cultish devotion and relentless scholarship afforded to their brethren in the club game. Ask most soccer fans and they can rattle off Sir Alex Ferguson or José Mourinho’s accomplishments or famous quotes. How many of them remember who managed Italy in 2006?
International managers get comparatively little time to work with their players, and even when they do, those training sessions are riddled with “club vs. country” conflicts and mysterious hamstring injuries. If things go wrong in tournaments, it’s their fault. If things go right, it was because of the genius of the players or the clubs they came from. If I say, “Spain 2010,” do you think of Vicente del Bosque or the Pep Guardiola–coached Barcelona midfield that won him the World Cup? Being the man in charge of a national team seems like a gig for coaches on their way up (Slaven Bilic), on their way down (ahem), or on their way to the bank (Fabio Capello). There are some exceptions, but for every Louis van Gaal or Guus Hiddink or Ottmar Hitzfeld, there are dozens whose names are lost to history. For the most part it’s a thankless job.
And then there’s Jogi Löw.
He’s 54, looks 44, and dresses more like a guy who spends his days tweaking the designs on the Ektorp Tullsta or the Stenstorp rather than coaching soccer. He has been in charge of the German national team since 2006, during which time he’s been to a World Cup semifinal, a Euro final, and a Euro semifinal, racking up a 77-20-15 record. Yesterday, he won the World Cup.
Even before he took over as Germany’s manager, he was the team’s architect. During the 2006 World Cup, it was widely reported that while Jürgen Klinsmann was the face of the team, Löw was the brains behind the tactics on the field. He is credited with retaining classic German soccer qualities like organization and defensive fortitude while introducing a quick-passing attack that is totally merciless on the counter. He has overseen the development of a generation of international soccer stars. In 2009, Germany won the U21 Euros. On Sunday, it won the World Cup with a team that featured six players from that U21 side. Germany’s success over the last decade has inspired several nations — notably England and the U.S. — to perform “root and branch” reviews of their programs in hopes of emulating Germany’s talent production line and finished product. Countless people are behind this program, and Germany fosters a very special relationship between its domestic game and national team, but if any one person deserves credit for this golden age, it’s Löw.
Over the last eight years, Löw has been linked with Barcelona, Real Madrid, and Chelsea, but he has remained with Germany. It’s not like this is some sort of sacrifice on his part; Germany is the gold standard in international football. With players this good — we didn’t even see much of Julian Draxler or any of the injured Marco Reus — and others on the way (Jonas Hofmann, etc.), Löw might just have the best job in all of soccer.
Noah Davis: First, it was Gonzalo Higuaín.
Midway through the first half, Germany’s Toni Kroos headed a ball back to his defense that fell instead to the Argentine forward. It was the type of inexplicable mistake that so often decides a tight championship match. Instead of burying his shot, the forward, who has scored nearly 150 times for club and country since 2007, shanked one to the left of the net.
Then came Lionel Messi.
Just after halftime, he had the World Cup on his favored left foot. His strikes find the back of the net; scoring is what he does. Messi does not miss, which made it all the more strange when he did, the ball rolling past the right post, harmlessly over the touch line for a goal kick.
The reason two talented forwards, one an All-Star and the other All-Universe, couldn’t hit the net? Manuel Neuer.
Scoring in soccer is hard. Like, really effing hard. So many things have to go right to even get a chance, and then there’s this 6-foot-4 German giant standing there, his enormous wingspan topped by huge gloves, with a hangdog look that’s somehow weirdly intense. You’re wondering who the other members of the Neuer-Götze boy band are, and whoops, your shot isn’t even close because he psyched you out with his sheer presence, and he didn’t have to bother stopping the ball.
Neuer, who plays for Bayern Munich — which is almost comically unfair and also too bad because someone that good shouldn’t be wasted on a team that dominates possession — conceded four goals all tournament. He won the Golden Gloves for being the best goalkeeper in the World Cup, despite making fewer saves per game than Keylor Navas and Tim Howard and not becoming a meme, like Guillermo Ochoa. What he did do was stop problems before they could start, by playing sweeper and getting into the attackers’ heads.
On Sunday afternoon in Rio, Manuel Neuer made two saves and kept a clean sheet. But the real work had already been done.
Kevin Lincoln: Of all the bloody spectacles in this spectacular World Cup — all the Brazil implosions, all the Wondolowski field goals, all the sad men on the wrong sides of shootouts — none felt more severe than watching Higuaín on Sunday. The missed shot was bad enough: Higuaín took hold of an errant German header early in the game and had only Neuer to beat, but he brought his foot around like he was swinging a baseball bat and the shot went wide. Then there was the near decapitation by Neuer, which looked like choreography in a Gareth Evans movie more than it did soccer.
It wasn’t either of these things, though. It was the celebration that got me.
A few minutes after shanking that good chance, Higuaín received a cross from Ezequiel Lavezzi that he buried in the back of the net. To any unbiased observer, it was obvious that the striker had been well offside, but not to the blissful Higuaín — he took off like a lunatic for the corner before finally noticing the flag raised, ruling out his goal. Watching Higuaín celebrate was a shameful experience — not for him, but for us. It was like walking in on someone in the bathroom, or hearing an argument through a shitty wall. It was voyeuristic; we all became complicit in that weird experience of having maybe the biggest victory of your life given and then taken away.
If Messi is a detective — clinical, masterly, and impossible to read — Higuaín is the beat cop who does the grunt work. Throughout the World Cup, he’s been a striker who hasn’t scored, which is one of soccer’s least desirable roles to play. But he had the one goal that got Argentina past Belgium, and if any of his attempts against Germany had gone in, we’d be remembering him as Argentina’s hero, as much as or more than Messi. You have to admire him for his dirty bluntness, the way he seems to charge straight at the goal like he’s going to run through it and out the stadium and into hell and back. But what Higuaín represents in the Cup’s aftermath is that sometimes, no matter how hard you grind, it just doesn’t work out.
Ryan O’Hanlon: Lionel Messi is the best soccer player I’ve ever seen. While there will be many hot takes, I want to write an earnest newspaper column about him:
After six games — six games serving as a one-man attack, six games playing through a lingering hamstring issue, six games being the focal point of strategies written up by obsessive opposing coaches — Lionel Messi was given one last impossible task.
His 123rd-minute free kick from a narrow angle and a remote distance was never getting past Manuel Neuer. When it looped over the crossbar and toward the stands of the Maracanã, it wasn’t the writing of the final line of a story — it was the reading of something that’d been written long before.
Messi won the Golden Ball, but that’ll be small consolation. It was almost cruel to make him walk up those steps to receive his trophy after the game. His teammates looked devastated, many in tears, and Messi raged from the inside, annoyed at the meaningless procession. But it was also fitting: individual awards shoved to the forefront of what’s uniquely a team game.
Let’s not forget, Messi deserved the award. He scored half of his team’s goals and assisted one more. No one at the tournament created as many chances for his teammates, and no one dribbled past more defenders. Louis van Gaal, widely considered the best manager in the tournament, felt the need to defang his oft-potent counterattacking side and sacrificed one of his midfielders just to man-mark Messi and nothing else.
Lionel Messi did all of that — and he did it without a healthy Ángel Di María and Sergio Agüero or a present Carlos Tevez.
Many are calling this the best World Cup of the modern era, and Lionel Messi was its top performer. Considering the circumstances, it’s another astonishing achievement for a player who scored 300 goals and won four World Player of the Year awards before his 27th birthday.
The teams he’s played for have won more than 20 trophies, and that number was one bounce, one offside step, or one more-composed swing of Gonzalo Higuaín’s right leg from being even higher. Germany won the World Cup, but just compare the two squads; Argentina came closer than it ever should have.
When you create impossible standards, they inevitably are not reached. But when you’re Lionel Messi, you still come heartbreakingly close.