RIO DE JANEIRO – Two nations go head to head for global soccer supremacy on Sunday, one seeking its fourth World Cup title, the other its third.
One is from Europe, the other from South America. One revolves around a brilliant individual, the other an unshakeable collective mindset. One got to the final with a seven-goal onslaught, the other through penalty kicks following a goalless stalemate.
Yet don’t think for a moment that Germany and Argentina are polar opposites with little in common. These two countries share a dramatic soccer history that saw their respective star-crossed paths mingle at moments of greatest triumph or strongest disappointment.
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Another of those divisive moments awaits at the Maracana Stadium this weekend, making this ideal time to reflect on what has come before it.
Diego Maradona is at the center of so much of Argentina’s soccer history and it is perhaps appropriate that he was the starting point for a modern soccer rivalry that is rarely spoken about but carries as much intrigue as any other in the international game.
Maradona is synonymous with the 1986 tournament in Mexico, spiking England with the Hand of God in the quarters, outfoxing Belgium in the semis, then pulling the strings to defeat West Germany 3-2 in the final.
The outrageous, outspoken, outlandishly talented ball of strength, skill and determination made the event his own, but it could so easily have belonged to the Germans too. A late comeback erased Argentina’s two-goal lead and sent the game to extra-time, but Maradona had one more telling intervention, a perfect pass that sent Jorge Burrachaga clear on goal to seal the win, and the Cup.
While the world lauded Maradona, who would quickly embark on a life of drinking and dabbling with the wrong substances, and hanging out with the wrong people, the Germans plotted their revenge.
It came four years later, as a West Germany team including current United States head coach Jurgen Klinsmann bounced through the tournament, clinching the final 1-0 at Rome’s Stadio Olimpico. It was one of the worst finals in history. Argentina was ultra-defensive and overly-physical, the Germans were happy to pick their spots – and pick off the Argentines.
Klinsmann and Maradona were not done with the rivalry, even though it took another 16 years for the teams to meet. They did so in 2006, as a Germany side coached by Klinsmann sought glory on home soil.
A bitterly contested showdown ended with the Germans winning on penalty kicks before a fierce brawl erupted on the field moments after the successful final kick.
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That animosity was still present four years later, ahead of another meeting at the same stage. By then, Maradona was in charge of Argentina, a madcap reign of rants and arguments and ultimate failure.
Despite taunting Germany ahead of the game, asking captain Bastian Schweinsteiger “are you scared” and promising victory, Maradona’s tactical naivety was laid bare, with Argentina pummeled to the tune of 4-0.
And now the latest installment arrives.
History would suggest that three straight wins gives a historical edge to the Germans but in Lionel Messi, Argentina has a modern Maradona, albeit one who is far better behaved off the field of play.
No team in world soccer is better at shutting down an outstanding individual than Germany; look at what they did to Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal in the opening days of the competition, what feels like an eternity ago.
Through the trials and pitfalls of the past month both of these teams have proven unshakeable, even when their times of greatest trouble arose. Each had to see off a tricky opponent in the round of 16, Germany surviving a game Algeria challenge while Angel di Maria sunk Switzerland deep into extra time.
Germany, of course, had its signature win over Brazil in the semis, but that confers no extra advantage on Sunday. Once again these old soccer foes meet, with another chapter in their storied rivalry ready to be written.