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Diary: Kickin ' it with Brazil's next superstars

David Hirshey Jun 17, 2014
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Diary: The U.S. are in like Clint

David Hirshey Jun 17, 2014
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Diary: Feeling Spain's pain in Salvador

David Hirshey Jun 15, 2014
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Jul 14, 2014

It wasn't Messi, but it was pretty

The ESPN FC panel break down the World Cup final and reveal that they were disappointed by the match, and believe Argentina may have deserved more.

The national drink of Brazil is no longer the caipirinha. It's been replaced by the salty tang of Argentinian tears.

While the host country's 7-1 humiliation in the semis will linger bitterly on the national palate for decades, at least the taste has been sweetened somewhat by their biggest rivals' failure to win the World Cup on Brazilian soil.

Had it gone the other way -- had Argentina and not Germany made it all the way up the "seven steps to heaven," as Big Phil Scolari called the final pinnacle -- "nightmare" would have been a laughably insufficient expression for what Brazil would have suffered. Instead, it was Die Nationalmannschaft who crowded onto that celestial podium where God (or is that Angela Merkel?) now holds forth in a German accent.

Whew. The Earth is back on its axis, the rip in the space-time continuum has been repaired and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI now gets to lord it over Pope Francis in the Vatican duel for soccer supremacy. But boy, did Germany make us sweat before natural order was restored.

Germany's World Cup glory was a long time in coming.
Germany's World Cup glory was a long time in coming.

It seems fitting that in a tournament defined from the quarterfinals on by cagey, unbearably tense (with one notable exception, of course), don't-lose-at-all-costs matches, many of which went to hideously nerve-jangling penalties, the 64th game would end up scoreless after 90 minutes.

But this was also a World Cup marked by spectacular goals, and Germany's winner in the 113th minute was as good as it Gotze. It began with the uber-sub Andre Schurrle beating a valiantly weary Javier Mascherano down the left flank before sending a looping cross into the Argentine penalty area, where his fellow substitute Mario Gotze had found a pocket of space. In one seamless motion, the Bayern Munich striker cushioned the ball on his chest and as it dropped like a feather, he volleyed it past Argentina keeper Sergio Romero into the far corner.

It was the perfect goal for a team that already had played the perfect game in annihilating Brazil. While the Germans were never going to improve on that stunning penultimate performance, Gotze's wondrous piece of skill eclipsed all seven of their strikes in the semifinal. The moment was worth waiting almost two gripping, heart-in-the-mouth hours.

After a tense, agonizing World Cup final, Gotze's goal vs. Argentina was worth the wait.
After a tense, agonizing World Cup final, Gotze's goal vs. Argentina was worth the wait.

Germany entered the final as favorites, looking to put an exclamation point on the 14-year soccer reinvention that began after the country's embarrassing, winless showing at the 2000 European championships. Out went the well-drilled German style, replaced by fast, flowing, technically adroit players -- several of whom, such as Jerome Boateng, Sami Khedira and Mesut Ozil, came from ethnically diverse backgrounds.

Under the initial guidance of Jurgen Klinsmann and later Joachim Low, Germany had reached at least the semifinals of every major tournament since 2006. But this World Cup was to be the coronation of their golden generation and so confident was the country of success that both of Germany's leading tabloids (Bild and Abendzeitung) guaranteed victory with their headlines: "Today we get our hands on the trophy" and "We're already world champions." A victory parade was already being planned for Berlin.

Argentina, however, was not about to genuflect just because of the Germans' swagger and the fact that the men in white had done them the favor of eviscerating Brazil before they could. This Albiceleste squad had what Germany didn't: the world's best player. And as long as Lionel Messi could walk, something "the Little Flea" had done a surprising amount of in the tournament, Argentina would be a tough out.

After all, Messi didn't win four Ballon d'Or awards by going missing in big games, and he was never going to feature in a more important one. Whatever had prevented him from stamping his imprimatur on the tournament -- the burden of impossible expectations from his countrymen, the lack of fitness after an injury-marred season with Barcelona, depending on Gonzalo Higuain and Sergio Aguero for attacking support -- would surely disappear in the final just like the vanishing spray referees use to mark off free kicks.

At least that was the prevailing sentiment of the 400 or so singing, dancing and wonderfully joyful Argentina fans who packed every inch of New York City's Football Factory in the hope of seeing the ultimate Messi-anic moment that would propel him into World Cup immortality alongside Diego Maradona.

"Today, I think we'll see the Messi of Barca," said Mayron Blanco of Clifton, New Jersey, above the din at the bar. "He's been OK so far in the tournament but now's his chance to go into the history books."

True, but he'd have to do it with a woefully ineffective Higuain (thank God Arsenal botched that deal last summer), an unfit Aguero and no Angel Di Maria, the Scottie Pippen to Messi's Michael Jordan. Still, as Maradona had showed in 1986 when he single-handedly led Argentina to the World Cup title, all it takes is a few flashes of genius to get the job done. And Messi made his intentions known in the ninth minute, when he left German defensive anchor Mats Hummels for dead with a surging run to the byline before Bastian Schweinsteiger intervened to snuff out the danger.

Messi tried his hardest at the Maracana but fell short vs. the stronger Germans.
Messi tried his hardest at the Maracana but fell short vs. the stronger Germans.

Of all of Germany's preternaturally talented midfielders, Schweinsteiger is the most influential. Operating from the base of midfield, the 29-year-old veteran of three World Cups is a ferocious ball-winner while setting the tempo of the German attack with his probing, precise passes. When he wasn't writhing or bleeding all over the field, "El Commandante" (as one Brazilian newspaper hailed him) was his old snarling self, especially when going up against Mascherano, his Argentine counterpart, whom he described as "the leader of a pack of wolves." It was meant as a compliment to the Barcelona player who had suffered a concussion and a torn anus against the Netherlands, the latter wound a result of a heroic, game-saving tackle on Arjen Robben in the semifinal.

Mascherano showed no ill effects from the injuries, and in concert with the criminally undervalued Pablo Zabaleta, continually disrupted the German attack in the first half. In fact, had Higuain not epically flubbed Toni Kroos' unwittingly beautiful through-ball header, Argentina would have led after 20 minutes.

That wasteful display was to set the tone for most of the game, with Germany dominating possession and Argentina badly fluffing its better opportunities in front of Manuel Neuer, whose towering presence alone seemed enough to intimidate the blue and white attackers. But it is one thing to cow Higuain and Rodrigo Palacios into panicking in the penalty area, quite another when faced with the terrifying sight of Messi galloping clear on goal.

But alas this was not -- as Blanco, the Argentine fan at the bar, had predicted hopefully -- the Messi of Barca, unless he was referring to the 2014 edition who had a fitful campaign despite scoring his usual boatload of goals. This was the Messi of Argentina who, despite some clinical finishes in the early rounds and a couple of sick passes against Switzerland and Belgium, never really sprang fully to life in the tournament.

German chancellor Angela Merkel and German president Joachim Gauck took their chance to celebrate.
German chancellor Angela Merkel and German president Joachim Gauck took their chance to celebrate.

As Messi, with only Neuer to beat, dragged his shot wide, Blanco and the rest of the Argentine supporters let out an anguished groan, as if they could feel the air going out of their World Cup balloon as early as the 47th minute. They received more depressing evidence three minutes from regulation time when Messi collected the ball at the edge of the area and was preparing to fire home the goal that would engrave his name in Argentina folklore. But he waited a split second too long and the excellent Boateng came flying in to nip it off his foot.

That proved to be Argentina's last opportunity of regulation, 90 minutes in which they didn't record a single shot on goal. It might have been different had Aguero been on the field to partner with Messi, but ... oh wait.

Still, Argentina had made it to extra time 0-0 against a team that had put seven past their despised enemy Brazil, and that gave the fans at the Football Factory enough hope to keep banging their drums and singing their World Cup anthem, the one set to the refrain of Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Bad Moon Rising" (ask your parents) that poses the question over and over: "Brazil, tell me how it feels to have your daddy in the house." And by daddy, they don't mean Pele but Messi. It's an infectiously catchy tune and I haven't been able to get it out of my head for the past month, much like the golden oldie I never tire of hearing, "Tottenham Hotspur, it's happened again."

Messi's Golden Ball victory is scant consolation for falling one step short.
Messi's Golden Ball victory is scant consolation for falling one step short.

The Argentine fans sang it with great gusto right up to the 113th minute, when it turned out that the only "daddy in the house" was a 22-year-old German named Mario Gotze, and then, the only sound you heard was the gentle rustling of people sniffling and quietly weeping. Then, the tears started to flow almost as rapidly as the beer -- the pub sold a record 2,000 pints before and during the final.

"The Germans were just too strong," Blanco said as he tried to console his wife, Maria. "When the game went to extra time I thought only a miracle from Messi could save us."

He tried, all right, but it was one heavenly step too far.

David Hirshey

David Hirshey has been covering soccer for more than 30 years and has written about the sport for The New York Times, Time, ESPN The Magazine and Deadspin. He is the co-author of "The ESPN World Cup Companion" and played himself (almost convincingly) in the acclaimed soccer documentary "Once in a Lifetime."