RIO DE JANEIRO – For the third time in eight World Cups, the two finalists are Argentina and Germany, two countries with fine soccer traditions. To be fair, plenty of countries have fine soccer traditions, without having been able to turn it into anything tangible, so this one is a little bit extra special.
You have a player for the ages in Lionel Messi against a team for the ages in Germany and it is all going to go down at the iconic Maracana Stadium in a regal rumble for the biggest prize in soccer.
Even if you’re still pining for the United States after their valiant but ultimately doomed effort, or if you have little affection or affiliation to either of these countries, this is something well worth watching.
There is nothing in soccer quite like the World Cup final and after the 2010 version was duller than usual, we are due for a blockbuster. Heck, it is a big enough occasion that LeBron James made sure he got Decision II out of the way in time to be present for it.
Here are five things to look out for in Sunday’s epic showdown, which begins at 3 p.m. ET on ABC.
Messi vs. Mats
It doesn’t always take a well-known defender to stop Lionel Messi; unheralded Dutchman Ron Vlaar did a fine job of it over the course of 120 minutes in Argentina’s semifinal victory over the Netherlands.
It does take a good one though, and Germany most certainly has one of those in Mats Hummels. The Borussia Dortmund player is quick and mobile, ferociously strong, and fully deserving of his place on the 10-man shortlist for player of the tournament.
He won’t win it – defenders almost never do – but he won’t care too much if he is able to stifle Argentina’s diminutive maestro and help his team to the trophy.
As for Messi, the weight of the world and an expectant Argentine population is on his tiny but extraordinarily talented shoulders. His dad says he’s tired, but he’ll leave nothing in the locker for this one. Expect fun and fireworks.
Germany has been mightily grateful for his impact, never more so than in his remarkable performance in the 7-1 semifinal thrashing of Brazil.
Kroos doesn’t do magazine covers and modeling shoots, and he’s not a big target for cash-wielding sponsors, but he is one of the best and most effective players in the game and still might have his best years ahead of him.
If Argentina can’t shut him down, it is in a world of trouble.
Playing through the pain barrier is part of being a top athlete. And then…there is Javier Mascherano. Not content with suffering a likely concussion and carrying on regardless, the Argentina holding midfielder said he tore a part of his body that should never be torn in making a game-saving tackle in the semi.
He is a one-man engine room for his team, a dogged and determined workhorse who refuses to know when to quit. Some look at Messi’s improved form as the chief reason for Argentina’s run to the final, but those in the know point to the ever-present toil of Mascherano.
Argentina calmly knocked home four penalties from four attempts in its semifinal shootout and goalkeeper Sergio Romero saved two, so the South American side must have the advantage if it goes to 120 minutes and more on Sunday. Right?
Not even close. This is Germany we are talking about, the most dominant penalty kick-taking nation in soccer history. Germans just don’t miss from the spot, and Manuel Neuer is a beast between the posts.
Joachim Loew’s side won’t be afraid of things being still tied after extra-time, not one bit.
Now why on earth would Brazil want Germany, the nation that inflicted such a devastatingly painful blow upon it as recently as Tuesday, to win the World Cup?
The answer lies in its opponent. The only thing worse for Brazil than failing to lift the trophy itself would be to see hated regional rival Argentina come to its home and win the Cup.
With that unthinkable reality now just 90 possible minutes away, Brazilians are nervous and are prepared to get loud and proud in support of Germany at Maracana.
It is going to be quite a scene, as thousands of Argentinean fans have poured over the border to support their team.
It’ll be loud, just as it should be. Tune in, it’s going to be good.