AnalysisMonday, July 14, 2014
Down but not defeated
Mario Götze’s strike deep into injury time, with almost the entire soccer world already mulling over possible penalty shoot-out takers, was a punch in the gut for anyone following the Argentine national team through what had been a gripping competition. Even worse, it came in a manner that nobody could have expected having watched the first 116 minutes of play.
The Argentine defence, marked as the key to victory following Germany’s 7-1 demolition of Brazil in the semifinals, stood up admirably to everything the likes of Thomas Müller, Toni Kroos and Miroslav Klose could throw at them. One of the first signs of weakness emerged only then, in the second half of extra time and with the legs of the Albiceleste back-four inevitably gasping for the final whistle.
But it is not in the nature of the German soccer team to let an opponent off the hook.
Winger André Schürrle found space behind right-back Pablo Zabaleta, and opened up space as he haired down the flank. Javier Mascherano, following another heroic, imperious performance in the middle for the Argentine team, tried desperately to make up lost ground, but it was always a lost cause even for a man whose vocabulary does not possess those two words. Götze, meanwhile, had quietly slipped away from the attention of an otherwise towering Martín Demichelis in the middle.
One touch to control the ball ahead of Sergio Romero, rushing out to once more become Argentina’s hero, and another to volley delicately past the goalkeeper and into the bottom of the net, were all the Bayern Munich man needed to consign the Albiceleste to a third successive defeat to Germany at World Cup finals. It was also, after 1990, the second straight final in which the nation has gone down to an agonizing 1-0 reverse to the relentless Teutons. A “Golden Ball” player of the tournament trophy for Lionel Messi will be no consolation whatsoever for the man who failed, just, to drag his side to World Cup glory and finally shake off those negative comparisons with Diego Maradona.
Alongside Gonzalo Higuaín and Rodrigo Palacio, Messi completed a trio of Argentine players who fluffed their lines in the final, skewing shots wide of Manuel Neuer’s net when faced only with the goalkeeper to beat. Alejandro Sabella’s men had to work their socks off throughout the match, and have every reason, as the coach said on the verge of tears at the final whistle, to be proud of what they have achieved in the Maracaná and across Brazil.
But World Cup finals are won and lost on razor-thin margins. Three golden one-on-one chances cannot be missed, as Germany proved on the brink of penalties when Götze converted what was arguably their only clear-cut opportunity of the 90 minutes.
The coach will also have to face scrutiny for his decisions over the course of the final. Taking off Ezequiel Lavezzi, whose pace and enthusiasm had kept Germany on the back foot, for the unfit and out-of-sorts Sergio Agüero at half time robbed Argentina of the penetration they had enjoyed before the break, helping the Europeans compose themselves and maintain their control of possession. And opting to keep intact a back-four which had run itself ragged marking the always-dangerous Germans for almost two hours without injecting fresh blood in hindsight seems an unnecessary risk.
But the post-mortems and self-criticism can be put on hold for now. The Argentine national team will be welcomed back to national soil as heroes, despite their failure to break a 28-year drought at the World Cup. Nobody deserves more the rapturous reception that Messi and Co. are bound to receive when they touch down at Ezeiza international airport in the coming days.
Their run to the final came at a time of great conflict and polarization in Argentine society. Boca or River; Peronist or Radical; K or anti-K: recent national history and culture seems determined to define a people not on who they are, but who they are against.
The World Cup, however briefly, changed things. fifty thousand citizens from all walks of life came out following a penalty shoot-out triumph against the Netherlands, saluting the national team’s success in even reaching the final by turning the Obelisk blue and white during a seemingly interminable celebration. These last few days have seen Argentina walk around with its head held high, as 40 million citizens showed their joy at returning to the top table of world soccer.
Argentina did not lift the 2014 World Cup last night. But neither did they fail. Every single member of the 23-man squad in their own way is a hero, suffering defeat with tears after giving absolutely everything they had to give. The collective screams of delight, frustration and grief were released by a nation that put aside for one tournament their differences, a unity and togetherness that is all so rare in the national psyche.
Down but not defeated. The Argentina national team fought their way to the Maracanã with unlimited supplies of courage and heart, and they deserve to be applauded to the rooftops by the supporters who followed them so passionately across the wide expanses of Brazil. Win or lose, belonging to the Albiceleste truly is a feeling that cannot be stopped.