is a regular column during the 2014 football world cup dedicated to my late brother]
For 84 minutes of that match, El Diego was a marked man as the German number 8 was constantly shadowing him. The Argentine maestro had neither the space nor the freedom to make any impact on the game even as the scoreline was tied up in a dead heat of 2 goals each after the persistent Germans had made a remarkable comeback in the space of 6 minutes to level the game. Then it happened, in the 84th minute. For just a split second, his marker, the German number 8, Lothar Matthäus, had given some space and Diego Maradona provided a spectacular pass to Jorge Burruchaga who went on to score the 3rd and winning goal of the finals. Thus on 29th June 1986 Argentina became the world champions and the legend of Maradona became a part of the footballing universe.
We often tend to colour history as a seamlessly integrated one-way street with no roadblocks or deviations. In football folklore Mexico 86 is always considered as Maradona’s world cup wherein he singlehandedly defeated the entire world. Truth is a little less romantic for those of us who watched the world cup live early in the mornings on Doordarshan in the summer of 86. Maradona did lose the ball on scores of occasions, made wrong passes and even missed on many simple looking scoring opportunities. In short, he was as fallible as any other footballer. But what separated him from others was his incredible will to win at any cost which made him often chase impossible ball positions which the lesser mortals would have easily given up. In fact, a clinical breakdown of Mexico 86 will reveal that there were hardly some 20 odd minutes in that entire world cup when Maradona shined brilliantly which was enough to emerge victorious.
Football is that sort of a game, it just needs one moment of genius to alter the entire course of events. A Maradona or a Messi could often be ineffective for an entire match and still win it with just one passing moment of sheer brilliance, just like Diego did in the 1986 final. In this world cup too Messi has shown the same tenacity time and again. For instance, that one moment of genius against Iran when he netted the ball from an almost impossible angle from outside the D, or that sheer run-in from the left wing to end with a perfectly timed pass to Angel Di Maria in pre-quarterfinals against Switzerland. Thus Messi takes his team into the final knowing fully well that all it may need is just one moment of brilliance to elevate himself into a Maradona.
After the 7-1 thrashing of Brazil, Germany are the overwhelming favourites on Sunday, about that there isn’t much doubt. Frankly, on pure entertainment value, dare I say, this German team has been the best in the tournament so far, a far cry from other German teams of the past which possessed defensive solidity but lacked attacking flair. This praise of Germany, coming from me, who has been a lifetime fan of Latin-American soccer style is indeed a tribute to the German reinvention after the Euro 2004 disaster when they simply decided to alter their entire footballing philosophy. This reinvention has resulted in creating a German machine at the centre of the footballing pitch with possibly the most attacking midfield the world has ever witnessed.
Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira’s partnership has created the most fearsome attacking midfield in the tournament, especially the latter’s sheer movement into the attack mode is seen to be believed. In that humungous semi-final it was Khedira’s runs into the Brazilian defence that caused all the havoc. By those standards, the other German midfielder, Mesut Ozil has been the quieter one in this tournament. But, with 454 accurate passes in the tournament so far, Toni Kroos, as the holding midfielder is possibly the best player in the team. What is more, Kroos also has two goals (both in that drubbing of Brazil) and three assists to his credit.
Despite all of Toni Kroos’ achievements, he still is the second best in the race to be the best midfielder of the tournament. Who has more accurate passes than Kroos? It is Javier Mascherano of Argentina with 460 accurate passes and 22 brilliant tackles which have been at the core of the Albiceleste’s progress to finals. Mascherano is a player who not only plays football, but also eats, sleeps and virtually lives football every day. His match-up with Toni Kroos will be the subplot of the final in Maracana on Sunday. Although Lionel Messi wears the captain’s armband, it is Mascherano who is the leader of men in this Argentinian team and he has to have a fantastic game especially with ball distribution from behind if the South Americans are to even dream of winning this world cup.
It is indeed a difficult dream for the Argentinians to win this world cup against a marauding Germany as they simply haven’t played their usual attacking game. Before the tournament began, the Argentinian forward line-up was supposed to fire-up this tournament with their goals but all they have done is achieve solitary goal victories throughout this campaign. It has been more of a tactical superiority of Alejandro Sabella and one man’s genius which has helped them reach the finals than free flowing goal scoring.
Before the tournament began, it was widely believed that the Argentinian defence was full of leaky cauldrons who would be suspect against even half powerful attacks. Indeed, in the first few matches, the defensive unit of Argentina looked very disjointed and aerially weak. Then there was a key moment in the second half of extra time in that knockout round match against Switzerland when everything changed. Not many football writers in the world have been able to recognize it, but this surely is a Sabella master act. After 105 minutes of play against Switzerland, Fernando Gago was replaced with Lucas Biglia in the midfield which has made a big impact on the Argentinian defensive play. Since that moment onwards the South American team has been virtually transformed into a closely knit compact midfield team.
Gago was one of the main offensive suppliers for Messi, but was also leaving out a lot of spaces in front of the Argentinian defensive line by playing wide. Now the Argentinian team is more aligned to Sabella’s philosophy of pragmatic enforcement which is not very flamboyant to watch for an average football fan but is a tactical masterpiece. In any case, Alejandro Sabella is anything but flamboyant. At the start of this world cup, I had written (http://goo.gl/yYbIHw) about the tactical ingenuity of Sabella which wasn’t much of a talking point among the footballing circles. Today am more than happy to have been vindicated by my inherent belief in the unassuming Argentinian coach who has a brilliant footballing brain behind that not so attractive exterior. If Sabella goes on to win the world cup, then rest assured, Argentinian football philosophy will have a new paradigm of “Sabellistas” to add to the repertoire of “Minnotistas” and “Billardistas”.
The one sore point of Sabella’s tinkering of the Albiceleste midfield is that Messi has had to play much deeper, almost as an attacking midfielder, especially after that injury forced absence of Di Maria. This is obviously affecting his ability to score goals as he is at his lethal best when supplied the ball around the opposition penalty. Many commentators have pointed out that Messi was totally ineffective in the game against Holland due to a much quieter game, but the truth is that he sacrificed himself for the team’s cause in that game. Messi, who was constantly marked by 2 to 3 Dutch players chose to remain deep rather than attack in that Semi-Final, thereby invalidating at least 2 opposition players and creating space for other Argentinians to attack. The problem was that the rest of the Argentinian attack simply lacked teeth in the forward line-up and Ron Vlaar was simply brilliant at the Dutch defence.
Yes, Argentina hasn’t probably played the most flamboyant of football that it is certainly capable of, but it has played a very effective game. We must remember that in the past when this South American side played the most attractive game, it simply didn’t get this far. Jose Peckerman’s Argentinian squad possibly played the most attacking and beautiful game in the 2006 world cup, but were packed off in the quarterfinals. The same Jose Peckerman had brought the most attractive team in the 2014 world cup in the form of Columbia, but did not last long. This is the one undeniable truth of modern day football, one cannot simply play a free flowing game without defensive pragmatism and hope to win major tournaments. For instance, even Barcelona known for its Tiki-Taka and all the flamboyance still has always had the service of defensive giants like Carlos Puyol at the helm.
There is also an undeniable fact that every team that has played against Argentina in this world cup have had to alter their game plan and play more defensively. It is testimony to Messi’s prowess in attack that even a team like Netherlands who started their campaign with 5 goals against world champions Spain and ended it with 3 goals against Brazil yesterday could only take just one clear shot at the goal let alone score a goal against Argentina! Opposition teams have found that the only way not to lose against Argentina is to park their bus in their own penalty area and waste 2 or 3 players marking the maestro Messi.
Will Germany too alter its game plan for the finals on Sunday, or will it just play the same system that has given them rich rewards? Possibly, for the first time in this tournament, apart from that group game against Nigeria, Argentina will face an attacking opponent who won’t park their bus in their own half. There was a goal fest when Argentina played against an attacking Nigeria, but now the Albiceleste are a much improved defensive unit especially after Dimechellis has replaced Fernandez in the centre. On the other end, Germany’s defence hasn’t exactly been solid. For instance, even in that historic Semi Final, Brazil did have many clear chances, especially in the first 15 minutes of each half, but just couldn’t score because this Brazilian team simply never had a striker in the first place (Fred was obviously a joke). Take the case of Howedes in the left wing, he has been totally out of place and lacking in pace as we saw in the games against Algeria and Ghana. Watch out for Argentinian fullback, Marcos Rojo against Howedes on Sunday, the latter may find it very difficult to curb the speed and enthusiasm of Rojo.
Despite Germany being the firm favourites on their sheer form, Die Mannschaft aren’t going to find the going as easy as in the semi-final against the other South American giant. History is against Germany and Europe, for not only have the South Americans won 7 out of their last 9 finals against Europeans, a European team has never won a world cup in the Americas – not in the whole of South, North or Central America, mind you. But then, it is often said, history needs to be created and this German Machine definitely has the ability to create history at the Maracna tonight. Between Germany and a new chapter in footballing history being written at the spiritual home of Brazilian soccer stands one man’s genius who goes by the name of Lionel Andres Messi.