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Diary: Kickin ' it with Brazil's next superstars

David Hirshey Jun 17, 2014
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David Hirshey's Best Prem XI, 2013-14

Blog - Kicking and Screaming May 12, 2014
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 Posted by David Hirshey
Jul 10, 2014

Questions about the World Cup final

The World Cup team predict if the final will be open or a more defensive affair.

OK, so Argentina and Netherlands battled it out tooth, nail, clog and empanada, but after a World Cup filled with extra-time white-knucklers, Germany went ahead and bit off Brazil's entire arm. Maybe part of their torso, too. And given the anemic performance of the Albiceleste against the Dutch, it's entirely possible that Die Mannschaft could put up another lopsided number against Lionel Messi and 10 others on Sunday.

But there's also a chance that parity could be restored and make this final match as compelling (almost) as some of the early-round games that preceded it. I'll tell you one thing, though: If Argentina win, they better bring in the army to escort them across the Iguazu Falls, because Brazil will have a lot more to howl about than a broken vertebra.

So which semi will the final most likely resemble?
Let's hope neither. A World Cup final is deserving of more than just one team turning up (Germany-Brazil) or a game (Argentina-Netherlands) that could be the poster child for every soccerphobe's (both of them) hoary refrain about the sport's somnambulance-inducing qualities. Surely, there is a middle ground between a farcical seven-goal romp and a dour, risk-averse grind that inevitably goes to penalties.

Let's hope the World Cup final isn't as brutal as Argentina's win over the Dutch.
Let's hope the World Cup final isn't as brutal as Argentina's win over the Dutch.

An open, free-flowing contest on Sunday is probably too much to hope for because of how high the stakes are. Counterattacking can be wonderfully entertaining when you have someone like Messi at the heart of it, but it can also be recklessly misguided, as Brazil's David Luiz showed when he clownishly surged forward without bothering to alert his fellow "defenders" to fill in the yawning gaps behind him.

The resulting carnage served as a cautionary tale to Wednesday's semifinalists, with both Argentina and Netherlands setting themselves up in two banks of four and deciding to husband their energy until the last 15 minutes of regulation, when the game briefly registered a pulse. Up to that point, a Dutch defense marshaled by Ron Vlaar kept Messi in check. That's the same Ron Vlaar whose Aston Villa club let in more goals than any other nonrelegated Premier League team.

So had Vlaar suddenly morphed into the second coming of Ronald Koeman, the imperious Dutch center back of the '80s who won two European Cups and scored more goals than any defender in history? The answer came at the start of the shootout when, for reasons known only to the newly anointed tactical genius Louis van Gaal, the big Dutchman was selected to take the first kick. His shot was fired squarely at Argentina goalkeeper Sergio Romero, who needed only to fall to his left to parry it away.

But the fact that Argentina had twice been taken to extra time (and once to penalties) after going scoreless in regulation raises the question: Has the South American powerhouse lost its attacking mojo? In the past three games -- or 5½ hours of soccer -- the offensive juggernaut of Messi, Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Aguero and Angel di Maria (the last two alternating injuries) has scored a whopping total of two goals. Now Argentina face a German defense anchored by the excellent (but injury prone) Mats Hummels that has suffocated its past two opponents, conceding only a mercy goal at the death to Brazil.

Here's hoping we can forget about the semifinals and fans get a final worthy of the frequently thrilling and infarction-friendly World Cup the tournament was -- until Tuesday.

Will the Germans finally be at full strength?
If you didn't know better, you'd think that Germany have been playing a man down this whole World Cup. I mean, can you imagine what that score line against Brazil would have looked like if they actually had Mesut Ozil on the field? At least that's what you might have gleaned listening to various pundits over the course of the tournament.

One broadcast could barely draw a breath without pointing out that "Ozil is having a poor game," and the former German defender-turned-commentator Paul Breitner chimed in with "Ozil has just been going for a walk out there." True, Ozil didn't join fellow midfielders Sami Khedira, Toni Kroos and Thomas Muller in the goal-scoring fun against Brazil -- I'd like to think that he purposely missed that sitter because he's a good person and a part of him took mercy -- but he recorded an assist, and his passing percentage of 88 percent was almost identical to Kroos' (89 percent) and Khedira's (91 percent), who were being hailed by the media for their wunderbar performances.

And did I mention that he is playing out of position, having been pushed out wide by Low to accommodate the plethora of world-class central midfielders at Germany's "dispozil"?

Ozil didn't impress against Brazil, not that it really mattered.
Ozil didn't impress against Brazil, not that it really mattered.

Far be it from me to defend an Arsenal player -- and a $62 million one at that -- so I'll let the stats speak for themselves. Going into the semis, Ozil had completed more passes in the final third than any other player in the World Cup and he ranks in the top 25 of players who have run the longest distances in matches -- he's logged more miles than some half-decent players named Messi, James Rodriguez, Karim Benzema and Paul Pogba. If that is considered a disappearing act, then pity poor Argentina should he re-emerge in the final.

The long-overdue coronation of Lionel Messi
Isn't this what every true soccer fan wanted from the beginning of the tournament? The Little Flea on the biggest stage of all, getting a chance to finally take home the one prize that will cement his place in the hearts of his own countrymen, not to mention put an end to the tedious comparisons with Diego Maradona and Pele.

Messi may not have imposed his genius on the tournament, although his four goals and glorious low, curled, defense-shredding pass to Di Maria against Belgium were enough for Argentine coach Alejandro Sabella to proclaim him "our water in the desert." If there wasn't the usual quota of gasp-producing golazos to slake the public's taste, it was because not only did every opponent double- and triple-mark him, but he was forced to drop deep to provide an outlet for his overworked defense.

It would take a cold heart not to be rooting for Messi, who stands on the verge of World Cup glory.
It would take a cold heart not to be rooting for Messi, who stands on the verge of World Cup glory.

Still, even when he was strolling through midfield against Netherlands with Nigel de Jong Velcroed to his side, there was always the sense that he could turn the game on its head at any minute. It didn't happen then, but it will be even more fitting if he conjures that moment of Messi magic on Sunday. Vamos, Argentina, vamos!

Enjoy the home-field disadvantage
Every Brazilian who thought of skipping the final to wallow in his or her grief now has a reason to get out of bed on Sunday -- to boo the team that has caused Brazil such misery, embarrassment and salty tears, Argentina.

If you find it hard to fathom that the home fans would support a nation that eviscerated their erstwhile heroes 7-1, you fail to understand the enmity they feel toward their fierce South American rivals. The level of dislike Brazilians bear toward the Germans is a Chihuahua compared to the slavering, rabid pit bull of loathing that they reserve for their now brutally noisy neighbors. Also, Brazilians appreciate beautiful soccer when they see it, and some of the stuff Die Mannschaft displayed on Tuesday belonged in the Museum of Modern Art.

After Andre Schurrle kicked the extra point to make it 7-0 by ripping a thunderous left-footed drive into the top corner in the 78th minute, the most extraordinary thing happened. The remaining Brazilian supporters, while choking back their sobs, gave the German substitute a standing ovation. Then five minutes later as the Germans continued to toy with the abject hosts, stringing together a half-dozen one-touch passes while the Brazilians chased their shadows, the fans Ole-ed their skill.

By contrast, on Wednesday, Argentina got a taste of the warm and loving reception that awaits them on Sunday at the high temple of Brazilian futebol, the Maracana. As Argentina's turgid semifinal with Netherlands lurched into extra time, everyone in Arena Corinthians not wearing blue and white whistled and jeered La Albiceleste's every touch. So even though Brazil and Argentina share a continent, the final will feel like a home game for Germany. The din figures to be relentless, and if Argentina have any doubts whether Brazilian fans are any good at booing, all they have to do is ask Fred.

And finally, a few words about the What-The-Hell-Happened Game
In 35 years of writing about soccer, I never witnessed anything quite like it. It's not as if I hadn't seen a six-goal blowout before, or a team torn apart by a torrent of goals in the space of a few delirious minutes, or even a manager who got it all wrong. But it's one thing to watch Spurs get slaughtered at the Etihad and quite another to behold the most storied country in soccer get eviscerated in the semifinals of a World Cup on its home turf. I still find myself wandering around in an emotional fog two days later trying to figure out what the hell happened on Tuesday at the Estadio Mineirao in Belo Horizonte.

It's still mind-blowing that Brazil collapsed in the manner they did vs. Germany.
It's still mind-blowing that Brazil collapsed in the manner they did vs. Germany.

The night before the Brazil-Germany semifinal, I ran into Steve Nash at a New York City soccer field, where he was warming up for a co-ed game in one of the many leagues he plays in. I asked the Lakers guard which team he favored in the match. "I'm rooting for Brazil because it means so much to their fans and I had a wonderful time there in the early rounds of the Cup," Nash said. "But Germany scares me. They pass and move so well together and they're so strong defensively, they remind me of the San Antonio Spurs. I just think that without Neymar and Silva, Brazil will struggle."

The thing is, Brazil didn't "struggle." They didn't scrap and fight and run themselves into the ground -- then I could have accepted the result. If they had, I still wouldn't have liked the result, but I could have accepted it. But what I'd seen was more of a craven capitulation than a battle joined, and it's risible to think -- given the gulf in talent and mental fortitude between the teams -- that the presence of Neymar and Thiago Silva would have made much of a difference.

In fact, I'm still wondering how Germany managed to concede that last-minute strike by Oscar. To see Manuel Neuer pound the turf in anger as if he had just let in the winning goal rather than one that reduced the deficit to a mere half dozen is to marvel at the implacable mindset of this German team. Meanwhile, when Brazil went behind 3-0 in the 24th minute, the Selacao put their heads in their hands, perhaps to shield their eyes from the onslaught that seemed destined to follow.

Ultimately, any inquest will lead with Luiz Felipe Scolari and his glorified Stoke City tactics throughout the World Cup. Is it any wonder that his nickname as a player was "Perna-de-Pau" (or Pegleg)? Or that when he led Brazilian club Gremio to the Copa Libertadores in 1995, its defensive and physical style was reviled in the land of jogo bonito?

Scolari may have not fielded a team of "wooden legs," but Brazil often played like one in this World Cup.  I, for one, will not shed any tears on Sunday when the only trace of Brazil at the Maracana is their fans praying that Argentina don't win.

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."