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The best of them all
10:17am Monday 14th July 2014 in Sport
A SPELL-BINDING World Cup, a fabulous final and a sumptuous goal to settle it for the best team in the tournament: truly we have been blessed.
Whether the watching figure of Christ the Redeemer on the hill-top overlooking the Maracana had anything to do with it is a matter for the theological debate, but Heaven knows this was a wonderful end to this marvellous Copa das Copas, the World Cup of all World Cups.
The spectre of penalties was looming distressingly large, when Mario Gotze, looking every inch the babyfaced assassin, produced a moment of true genius to secure Germany a 1-0 win and their fourth World Cup, and deservedly so.
It was pure agony for Argentina and their brilliant captain Lionel Messi of course, and their fans had arrived from the south in their tens of thousands, driving a 3,000 kilometres journey that took 30 hours.
Only a small minority had tickets, but the rest were content to merely be in this city of their mortal enemies to witness the chance of Messi joining Diego Maradona in the ranks of the immortals.
“Brasil how does it feel,”
they sung in the fan fests and streets of Rio, glorying in the moment before kickoff, while those in German white waited quieter but expectant: success such a familiar feeling.
After such a World Cup, there was a desperate need for a satisfying climax, and the trepidation that this would be a suffocating match soon vanished.
Joachim Low’s Germany were full of enterprise and vigour, taking the game to their opponents, while Argentina were coiled and calculating, like a snake waiting to strike.
Inside the Maracana, the tension among the fans was palpable. Argentina have been among the noisiest this tournament and though blue-and-white stripes dominated the stadium – those Brazilians who had had tickets appeared to have cashed them in – the occasion seemed almost too much.
This was no repeat of the dreary semi-final against Holland however. The fetters that had chafed Messi in that match were removed, and he was like quicksilver – slippery, unpredictable and almost unmanageable.
His speed was at times dramatic, often embarrassing the stalwart but sometimes static German defence.
One, twice, up to five times he threatened, but each time he was thwarted by some last-ditch interventions. His best chance, at the start of the second half, was created by a perfectly-timed run on to Lucas Biglia’s ball, but his finish was a shade off perfection and, almost in slow motion, it drifted an agonising inch or so wide.
This was a day for heroes, the youngest being Christoph Kramer, thrust in at the last minute having played just 12 minutes of the World Cup after Sami Khedira injured himself in the warm-up. Kramer was excellent but lasted only half-an-hour before a blow to the head ended his match.
It was day for villains too. Gonzalo Higuain may never recover from his miss midway through the first half.
Toni Kroos, who became the first player born in the former East Germany to lift the World Cup, lost his bearings and sent a header back over his central defenders. Higuain, trotting back, found himself with only Manuel Neuer to beat.
He tried to take it in his stride and lash it home first time but dragged it horribly wide. Argentina’s reaction spoke volumes. Javier Mascherano put his head in his hands, on the bench Sergio Aguero put his shirt over his face. When Higuain did get the ball in the net, his celebrations were cut short by an offside flag.
Mesut Ozil, at times inspired, executed a sweet drag-back and set up Kroos, but Germany’s player of the tournament for once failed to make the best of it.
A treat of a first half settled down to rather more routine fare.
Only Messi looked in a league of his own, and it took two outrageously-good challenges from Jerome Boateng to halt him.
There was further agony at either end, that decisive, stroke proving elusive as the game inched towards penalties.
A shoot-out would have been the wrong way to end five weeks that have thrilled the world and for that reason alone it was welcome relief when Schurrle drove forward and found Gotze, who controlled with his chest and struck an angled volley to break 100million Argentine hearts.
What a World Cup it has been, and what a way to end it.
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