Fourteen years ago, German soccer reached its nadir.
It finished bottom of its group at Euro 2000, prompting a national bout of garment-rending.
That prompted a top-to-bottom rebuild of the country’s sporting infrastructure. It was, more importantly, a complete reimagining of what German soccer meant.
In the past, the team had relied on size and mental strength to overcome finesse sides. In the years since, it has switched its onus to skills and suppleness. Quite literally, if you are a child who plays soccer with any aspiration in Germany, you will find yourself weighed and measured by the powers that be.
The results are out there on the pitch in yet another golden generation and, for the fourth time in its history, a world championship.
Its remarkable 120-minute, 1-0 victory over Argentina on Sunday evening was the closing of a circle. Germany’s past and present met in a classic final that cements its place as the world’s finest footballing country.
Supporters of Brazil will take issue with that statement. And, yes, this is still the romantic home of the game.
But its soul migrated on Sunday night at the Maracana. Brazil has the history and the swagger. Germany has the will and the consistency.
It is the side that can play any way against any opposition, and find the jiu-jitsu to turn your best qualities against you. It has an adaptability that is unique in the game.
It had floated through this tournament in high style. More Brazil than Brazil, and never moreso than when it humiliated the host in their semi-final.
Five days later, it had transformed itself into a team of open-field battlers. In the extra-time period, Argentina repeatedly went for the legs of Germany’s midfield fulcrum, Bastian Schweinsteiger. He spent what felt like 20 cumulative minutes trying to get up. The last of those challenges left him bleeding copiously after a mid-air face wash. You can put away the war metaphors. What made his reaction special was that he had none. He simply continued on in that irrepressible way we quite rightly think of as definitively German. They don’t respond to challenges. They rise to them.
Over two hours, it was a game of intense brutality. In the first seconds, Argentina’s Marcos Rojo came streaking horizontally across midfield to deliver a flying hip-check to Germany’s leading scorer, Thomas Mueller. That set a tone so low, only dogs could hear it.
What followed were an aching series of gruesome tackles. Christoph Kramer was seemingly knocked unconscious by an Ezequiel Garay shoulder. Manuel Neuer came charging out of his net and kneed Gonzalo Higuain in the head at full speed. The first wasn’t called a foul. The second was – against Higuain.
You couldn’t blame Argentina. This was its only winning strategy. Though it fields the best player in the world, the skill level gets thinner than mountain air after Lionel Messi. It hoped to unsettle the Germans. Instead, it recalled for the Argentines another way Germany used to win – by meeting force with the amplification of the same.
This wasn’t simply a scrap. That would’ve been unwatchable. Instead, it was an attritional battle occasionally leavened by wild aspiration.
Argentina had its chances. No country takes its soccer more seriously (though many are tied for that lead). And so Argentines will ache for a generation over the breakaway that Higuain shot wide early and another that Rodrigo Palacio dinked over the net late.
Germany had almost nothing in that regard. It controlled play, but it rarely came to anything at the other end. It was 0-0 after regulation, and the fifteen minutes that followed.
Then, the main chance. Andre Schuerlle diving in off the wing in the 113th minute. Substitute Mario Goetze finding space between the Argentine defence, but coming in at an impossible angle. Goetze took Schuerlle’s pass off his chest, and then stretched at full length to toe-poke into the corner. Goetze is right-footed. He took the shot with his left.
Goetze is only 22, one of the post-2000 generation. He has a long and likely laurelled career still ahead of him. But with that wonder goal, he wrote the first line of his obituary.
It ended in perfect metaphor. Messi had a free kick from distance, but within his considerable range. The Maracana crowd was frothing in the long seconds as he set up. Messi’s pre-kick routine is to paw flat-handed against his temples, as if ridding himself of negative thoughts. It’s never seemed so fraught.
He approached, and skied it over the bar. That was his legacy going awry. Poor Messi. Later, he was deservedly named the player of the tournament. He’s still one of the best ever. But he will never rid himself of that “one of” now.
Afterward, the predictable emotions. The Germans eventually worked their way into the stands to accept their trophy.
FIFA boss Sepp Blatter appeared to forget that it wasn’t his to hand over. At the last moment, he turned to Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, who was lurking behind him unhappily. She gave the statue to German captain Philipp Lahm with a look so studiedly neutral, she must’ve practised it.
Perhaps she understood that what she was surrendering wasn’t just a holy object. It was a bequest. Germany came to Brazil and stole its throne while all 200 million in the host country watched. This wasn’t a coronation, but a coup.
The Germans are the kings of this sport now, and for the forseeable future.