What’s a Mob to a King? World Cup Final Preview

First things first: You’re going to watch this game.

You have to watch this game. Even if you haven’t watched a minute of this World Cup, even if you’ve never watched a minute of soccer in your life, even if you think watching a minute of soccer is a waste of a minute, you’re going to watch this game. You’re going to watch it because everyone else is. You’re going to watch it because a Sunday afternoon with friends and beer is only made better by watching strangers run around, developing allegiances to those strangers whose names you’d never known, picking a country for just a couple hours and adopting it as your own, suddenly feeling like those strangers and that country filled a void in your life — a space deep in your very own heart — that you never knew existed. A new family that you’d die for, and brings you life, for just two hours at a time.

Let’s get something straight: You’re going to watch this game, and you’re going to love it.

It won’t matter if the game is any good, though it should be. It won’t matter if you can’t tell Thomas Mueller from Manuel Neuer from Pablo Zabaleta from Gonzalo Higuain. It won’t matter if you don’t have a firm grasp of the offside rule, or the difference between a goal kick and a corner kick. The game in front of you on Sunday is not about learning the finer points of a high line, developing an appreciation for a midfield press, or dissecting the strengths and weaknesses of playing a false nine instead of a true number ten. It’s not even about knowing what any of those things mean. It’s about picking a color and bleeding that color for two hours. It’s about losing yourself in something that is absolutely meaningless and finding more meaning in that than in anything else in your life for two hours. It’s about forgetting about everything important in life and making the trivial become the ultimate for two hours. Pick one. It doesn’t matter which. Just pick.

But if you need some reason to pick one team over the other, well, there are some differences worth talking about. Argentina has the world’s most transcendent player, perhaps the best ever to take the field, in Lionel Messi. In the 2011-12 season, he scored 73 goals and produced 29 assists for Barcelona, both of which were more than any other player in the sport that year. That same season he became the all-time leading scorer for Barcelona, one of the most prestigious and successful clubs in soccer history, at 24 years old. For the calendar year of 2012, he scored 91 goals total: 79 for Barcelona and twelve for Argentina (in only nine games), not to mention chipping in 55 assists for club and country. Last season, in what was considered a disappointing effort, he notched 41 goals and fifteen assists. In his career, he has scored 243 goals in 277 matches for Barcelona and 42 goals over 92 matches for Argentina.

Those are numbers. And they tell a story, but they don’t tell the whole story. They tell you that he can, will and does score, and that he is capable of passing up an opportunity to put one on the board if a teammate is in better position. What they don’t tell you is that Lionel Messi does all these things in the most beautiful and stunning way possible. His tiny frame gives him a lower center of gravity that he uses constantly to get defenders out of position, to turn at angles larger players are incapable of without falling over, to speed past them and squeeze between them, the ball constantly just at the edge of his own toes. He looks less like a soccer player in those moments than he does some kind of sorcerer, flitting in and out of reality, knocking players down without getting within five feet of them, telekinetically keeping the ball in a place where only he can reach it, or more specifically, where no defender and no goalkeeper can. He looks fragile out there, because he is so small. Yet when the 90 minutes are up, it seems as if he is the  only one unbloodied and unbowed, ready to go another 90 immediately, willing to risk his life and limb again because what else is there to life. And even the opponent considers it for a minute, almost wanting to be ensorcelled a second time, just to be near it and a part of it again.

messi

Lionel Messi is the best player in the world. There is little doubt about that. Yet, the World Cup Final does not reward the best player, but rather the best team. That is almost surely Germany. 4, 2, 1, 2, 1, 7: those are the goal totals for Germany in the first six games of this tournament. Now, Pepe’s stupidity had something to do with that first number, but it was already 2-0 when he was sent off for headbutting Thomas Mueller, who would end that match on a hat trick. And the last, that giant, crooked 7 that will hang over Brazil for a generation — perhaps defining the Brazilian teams yet to come as much as the 2-1 loss to Uruguay in 1950 defined the great Selecaos of the 1960s and 70s — will certainly be remembered by most of the world as a Brazilian collapse rather than a German triumph. But Germany simply took what was given to them, executed their plan, and punished every Brazilian mistake in the most clinical and damaging way possible.

That is how they got here. The Germans do not have the best player in the world. Indeed, they don’t have a ton of players you’d find yourself thinking, “well, I certainly can’t wait to see him play.” Rather, you want to see the German team play. You want to see their midfield contract around an opponent the way darkness surrounds a kid who’s stayed out in the woods too long. You want to see how that same midfield suddenly expands to fill the entire attacking third, like one drop of food coloring seems to fill an entire glass of water. Germany is not players, they’re not even corporeal to their opponents most of the time. They’re encroaching darkness; they’re water.

They’re the relentless tide and the tropical heat. As they press up against their opponents, they weaken them, hurry them into bad decisions, rush them into poor passes and futile runs to nowhere. As they race toward the goal, they fan out and make every position a potentially dangerous one. They present too many legitimate goal-scoring threats for an honest defense to stop. Playing in this team, Miroslav Klose, who no one has ever confused with Lionel Messi, has become exactly Lionel Messi, scoring 16 goals in 23 World Cup matches, and currently the all-time leading scorer in World Cup History. Klose has scored more than 30 goals in a season once in his fifteen year career; Messi has at least that many in each of the last six, more than doubling that count twice. Yet, in this team, with its efficiency, ruthlessness and pitilessness, Klose becomes one of the world’s best.

Yet, this game is not so easily distilled into the one-man-team vs. team-over-individual match that it might seem. Argentina is a team that knows its success lies not only in giving Messi the opportunities to score and set up his teammates, but also that Messi’s individual brilliance allows them to attack with fewer players than most teams. Argentina can live with Messi, Higauin and Lavezzi alone working on offense, with sporadic assistance from from midfielders and fullbacks. That means that Argentina can employ six or seven players in defense, helping them blockade their own penalty area and daring opponents to either dribble into the teeth of their defense or optimistically shoot from long distance. Opponents react by sending more player forward in attack, which only gives Messi more room in which to practice his sorcery.

Indeed, it may take a moment of individual brilliance from Mezut Oezil, Thomas Meuller or Klose in order to break through the Argentine wall in front of their goal. The Netherlands never did commit extra attackers, and as a result only got off one shot on target over 120 minutes of soccer on their way out of the tournament. The best attacking team in this World Cup refused to attack, so fearful were they of Messi’s ability, and left Wesley Sneijder pinned in his own half. If Germany do the same, keeping Schweinsteiger, Khedira and Kroos out of the final third, one of Germany’s forwards will have to take up sorcery to progress.

This is not simply one man against a nation, not Messi v Germany, but two completely different styles of soccer being thrown at one another. The Germans rely on possession and patience, making short passes and methodically progressing toward goal, taking high percentage shots and then closing down on defenses if the attack breaks down, before they can transition into offense. Argentina will absorb the pressure and invite the opponents into their third, almost seeking to create two trenches of ten men each outside their own penalty area, so that they can quickly get the ball upfield and release Messi into space, give him a chance with plenty of room to work and fewer impediments between him and goal. Germany are a proactive team and want to control the game, to bend the game to their style and their desires. Argentina are reactive, letting teams play their way until the last possible second, suddenly flipping the field so that what had been a disadvantage is their greatest asset.

Pick one. Pick either. It doesn’t matter which. Pick one and bleed for them. Scream for them. Nothing has ever mattered less than those two hours on Sunday, but nothing may ever matter more for you during those two hours.

First things first: You’re going to watch that game.

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3 thoughts on “What’s a Mob to a King? World Cup Final Preview

    1. Do you remember the match we watched at Kelly’s Irish Times a few years back? Just marveled at what a different level he was playing at?

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