Ranking every possible 2014 World Cup final

Ian Walton

What do we want in a World Cup final? Goals, stakes, and history. Here's an attempt to rank all 16 potential 2014 World Cup finals based loosely on those three things.

SB Nation's 2014 World Cup Bracket'

Yes, the U.S. men's national team is out of the 2014 World Cup. I, too, am sad about this.

But the good news, as we reach the quarterfinal stage of the most exciting World Cup I can remember, is that all eight group winners are still alive for the first time in the 32-team era — and that this fortuitous field may set up an all-time classic in the final.

Storylines still abound: The most-crowned side of all time is playing at home, the best player in the world is still around, last Cup's runner-up is looking for its first triumph ever, a riveting rising star is piloting a dark horse South American side, two past European champions are looking to break South America's hold on Cups held in the Western Hemisphere, a precocious European upstart may arrive on the final podium earlier than expected, and the Cinderella of all Cinderellas still has its slippers. Moreover, these teams have all played gorgeous soccer at some point in this tournament, and there's theoretically plenty of powder left in all of their chambers.

Some teams have more powder and better narrative hooks, though, and that means some of these potential 2014 World Cup finals look better than others on paper. Thus, in the tradition of rankings I've done for other things, I set out to rank the 16 possible World Cup finals by watchability, more or less.

My caveats:

  • I expect that most fans will want goals and high-scoring games more than well-played games full of near-misses. In an attempt to quantify firepower, I did some quick math for a stat I'm calling Pyrotechnic Potential — explained in the sidebar to the right — and used it as a rough measurement for potential excitement in these rankings.
  • I leaned toward South American teams when I was torn on matchups, and toward Brazil in a couple significant instances, because I want a loud, partisan crowd for the final. The Maracanã can hold somewhere north of 74,000 fans; the more of them who are going nuts for their team, the better, and it's simply going to be a lot easier for South American fans to turn out and turn up en masse in Rio de Janeiro.
  • The "top" half of the bracket, which produces the teams I'm listing first, features Brazil, Colombia, France, and Germany, four of the top six teams in that Pyrotechnic Potential ranking and two of the three remaining South American sides. It's a massively top-loaded bracket, and it hurts that we won't get a Brazil-Germany or Colombia-France final.
  • I am in an insane fantasy football league that is deciding its draft order partly on where the teams we picked in this World Cup finished, and I have Brazil. I tried not to factor that in too heavily, honestly, but I'll freely cop to having a stake in Brazil advancing, even if I've been less than impressed with the five-time champions thus far in the tournament.
  • I'm sorry, Costa Rica. Really, I am.

And without further ado...

Potential 2014 World Cup Finals, Ranked

16. Germany vs. Costa Rica

Combined World Cup titles: Three
Combined Pyrotechnic Potential: 1.193
Uniform rankings: Germany No. 3, Costa Rica No. 30

I bet that Costa Rica's going to be most American fans' rooting interest going forward for CON-CA-CAF reasons, and I know that the Ticowagon would be overburdened if it gets to the final ... but even if Costa Rica somehow snuck past the sometimes dodgy Dutch, and eked out a miracle against either Argentina or Belgium, Germany would pummel Costa Rica, right? We're all in agreement on this?

Actually, let's just get this out of the way: Costa Rica's in the next three matchups, too.

15. France vs. Costa Rica

Combined World Cup titles: One
Combined Pyrotechnic Potential: 1.295
Uniform rankings: France No. 1, Costa Rica No. 30

14. Colombia vs. Costa Rica

Combined World Cup titles: Zero
Combined Pyrotechnic Potential: 1.379
Uniform rankings: Colombia No. 21, Costa Rica No. 30

13. Brazil vs. Costa Rica

Combined World Cup titles: Five
Average Pyrotechnic Potential: 1.116
Uniform rankings: Brazil No. 12, Costa Rica No. 30

It's hard to differentiate between the best and worst finals featuring Costa Rica, partly because it is incredibly hard to imagine Costa Rica winning two more games against top-level competition to get to a final. The Ticos are this tournament's Cinderella, no doubt, and have been suitably exciting thus far, but of the eight teams left, only they and the Colombians will be making their first top-10 finish in this World Cup — and the reason for that is quality.

But Colombia clearly has that this Cup, having thundered past its group and burned the Greece side that Costa Rica struggled mightily with in the round of 16, and it's been less evident from the Ticos, who rank last in goals scored among the remaining teams, and last in Pyrotechnic Potential.

Costa Rica, Photo credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

And while Costa Rica's claim to fame — advancing in this World Cup by winning the first group to ever feature three other former champions — is substantial, it's also built on convenience: Costa Rica's drumming of Uruguay happened before Luis Suarez's enthralling two-game cameo, and while dispensing with Italy was kind of the Ticos, Italy's only win was over similarly mediocre England, and Costa Rica played England to a goalless draw ... in a game that no one watched, both because it meant nothing and because it lacked a certain bite.

If Costa Rica should reach the final, Brazil is clearly its best Goliath, having won all five matches between the two teams since 1990, and I imagine very, very few non-Brazilian fans would be rooting for Neymar's bunch in that clash. (And David's won before: Costa Rica 3, Brazil 0 once happened.) Of the other three potential favorites, Colombia's aesthetics and novelty make them best, France is second despite pasting the Costa Rican's CONCACAF compatriots Honduras by a 3-0 line, and Germany is third because it would just be unfair.

12. Germany vs. Argentina

Combined World Cup titles: Five
Combined Pyrotechnic Potential: 1.385
Uniform rankings: Germany No. 3, Argentina No. 5

This is one of two World Cup final rematches available, and it would make Germany-Argentina the most frequent World Cup final in history, breaking a tie with Brazil-Italy by adding a third installment to a two-match series to finish the 1986 and 1990 tournaments. One problem with that history: Neither of those games begs for a sequel.

That 1986 match is among the higher-scoring World Cup finals, trailing only Brazil's 5-2 coronation in Sweden in 1958, England's thrilling 4-2 win over Germany in 1966 ("They think it's all over!"), and 4-2 victories by Uruguay and Italy between World War I and World War II, and it featured a fine play from Diego Maradona to set up the match winner. But it's obviously not the game remembered as a classic from the 1986 World Cup, and Maradona not scoring in the final of the World Cup he dominated like few have before or since thanks to some tight marking probably helped make that game a footnote to his incredible Cup.

The 1990 World Cup final, though, was bad, ending 1-0. I was just months old at the time, so I'll defer to George Vecsey, writing in The New York Times:

West Germany totally outplayed Argentina but still won ugly since it could not score a goal with a moving ball, but needed a somewhat dubious penalty call.

Then again, Argentina lost ugly, since its main strategy seemed to be going for the penalty-kick shootout at the end of 120 minutes, and then having the lights go out and winning the game on the flip of a coin.

The losers had two players kicked out of the game, one for a hard leg tackle1, the other for a neck tackle right out of professional wrestling.

The winners scored the only goal on a penalty kick that stemmed from heavy pressure on officials to call fouls that didn't used to be fouls.

All in all, it was one of the drearier final matches in any sport.

I suppose the Spider-Man 3 of this potential trilogy happening in the second game could be a good sign — or at least make a reboot welcome. And even if history's portents aren't great, a matchup between the clinical Germans and Argentina's shaky defense doesn't strike me as particularly magical in 2014, and Germany would surely mark Messi well to cut down on the diminutive wizard's chances. Try a new script, soccer gods.

11. Germany vs. Belgium

Combined World Cup titles: Three
Combined Pyrotechnic Potential: 1.269
Uniform rankings: Germany No. 3, Belgium No. 22

The two teams with black, red, and yellow in their flags play fine football, and there would be a kind of poetry to the symmetry of World Cup quarterfinal residents Germany — the Germans have missed the quarters once, in their first World Cup — playing neophytic Belgium, who just earned passage to their first final eight on Tuesday. But the best performance by either side so far has been Germany's assault on Portugal, though the dominance evinced in their dominant wins over the United States suggest that there might be more goals in a game played between the two, and without Tim Howard in go—oh, Germany and Belgium have better keepers than Tim Howard? Right, then.

If it seems like I'm down on Germany: Consider their competition, the relative merit of their more mechanical excellence compared to creative brilliance, and the fact that I like underdogs.

10. Brazil vs. Belgium

Combined World Cup titles: Five
Combined Pyrotechnic Potential: 1.192
Uniform rankings: Brazil No. 12, Belgium No. 22

For example: Brazil's performance has been disappointing at best over its four games to date, but the Seleção have played two of the better games of this World Cup, in their riveting draw with Mexico and their equally enrapturing tussle with Chile. And pitting Belgium's coltish thoroughbreds against Brazil's tradition in Rio would be a fun inversion of the New World vs. Old World dynamics of so many other international competitions.

We would also spend two hours comparing the hair of David Luiz and Marouane Fellaini on Twitter, so there's that.

9. France vs. The Netherlands

Combined World Cup titles: One
Combined Pyrotechnic Potential: 1.913
Uniform rankings: France No. 1, Netherlands No. 2

Remember Uruguay's storybook run to the semifinals in 2010? It was a more innocent time, before all three instances of Suarez biting someone during a game — and it was the result of Uruguay sprinting down the forgiving path to the final four while France tripped all over itself at the starting line.

this is the matchup of the two best-dressed teams in Brazil.

These are also the only two teams with 10 goals through four games in this World Cup; their combined Pyrotechnic Potential is the second-best of all 16 potential finals as a result. One pity: Though this is the matchup of the two best-dressed teams in Brazil, the blue-on-blue dream of France's classic home kit against the Dutch's stunning blue away outfit likely won't happen, and we'll have to settle for at least one of the two teams wearing their lesser duds.

8. France vs. Belgium

Combined World Cup titles: One
Combined Pyrotechnic Potential: 1.381
Uniform rankings: France No. 1, Belgium No. 22

It's a mirror match of sorts: One young and exciting European side playing another young and exciting European side. And while Belgium earned a fair bit of dark horse cred prior to the beginning of play, Les Bleus have looked like the tournament's best team for the stretches before and after the 165 or so minutes spanning their goalless (and meaningless) draw with Ecuador and their mostly listless play against Nigeria.

A major downside? Every amateur comedian will have four days to craft a 140-character joke about Germany trying to invade the final. And if France vs. the Netherlands is the best sartiorial skirmish of the potential finals, France vs. Belgium is the greatest mismatch apart from a France-Costa Rica nightmare, with the beautiful French kits more than outstripping the busy Belgian shirts.

7. Germany vs. The Netherlands

Combined World Cup titles: Three
Combined Pyrotechnic Potential: 1.814
Uniform rankings: Netherlands No. 2, Germany No. 3

The last German appearance on this list pits them against a Dutch team that has been similarly inconsistent in Brazil, and one that would be saddled with the freight of history: In addition from Germany's World War II-era occupation of the Low Countries, the first time the Netherlands played for the trophy, it was against (West) Germany in 1974. In that final, the marvelous "Total Football" Dutch succumbed to the German machine, sparking one of international football's best rivalries.

While the days of Beckenbauer, Muller, and Cruyff are well behind us, there would be something sweet about Arjen Robben capping off a second great era of Dutch play with the Oranje's first World Cup in a final over Germany ... and Dutch fans would surely be vexed by once again falling short against the Germans.

6. France vs. Argentina

Combined World Cup titles: Three
Combined Pyrotechnic Potential: 1.487
Uniform rankings: France No. 1, Argentina No. 5

The irony of France winning a World Cup final against arguably the world's best player by a 3-0 count in Brazil after France won a World Cup final with arguably the world's best player by a 3-0 count in France would only be lacking Brazil, um, being in the game. More importantly, how many chances do we have left to see how Messi measures up to Mathieu Valbuena?

5. Brazil vs. The Netherlands

Combined World Cup titles: Five
Combined Pyrotechnic Potential: 1.737
Uniform rankings: Netherlands No. 2, Brazil No. 12

A rematch of a 2010 quarterfinal, this would be one of the great mismatches in terms of success on the biggest stage: Brazil would come in with its 5-1 in World Cup finals, and the Dutch would carry their 0-3 albatross. And the outcomes would be equally interesting: If the Netherlands were to break through against Brazil in Brazil, it would be supreme vindication of also-rans maintaining hope ... but a Brazil win would be sobering verification that favorites are favored for good reasons.

There is also the non-trivial possibility that this game would turn on a grotesque penalty, though, and we can't have that in our dream final.

4. Colombia vs. Belgium

Combined World Cup titles: Zero
Combined Pyrotechnic Potential: 1.455
Uniform rankings: Colombia No. 21, Belgium No. 22

The lesser of the two seemingly possible finals that would assure us of a first-time World Cup champion — I said I was sorry, Costa Rica — this would be a paradigm shift for soccer, history playing out in fast-forward. Both teams are quite young2, and their most exciting players, James Rodríguez and Eden Hazard, are 22 and 23, respectively; making the quarterfinals at this World Cup is already overachieving for each nation.

And neither team has made a final before, which would make this the first World Cup final since the second World Cup in 1934 to have two first-time finalists. The novelty defies comparison: Would this be like Boise State playing Louisville for a national title, or the Mariners playing the Nationals in the World Series?

One problem, though: Hoo boy, the uniforms for this game. Costa Rica's may be worse than either nation's, but the Ticos actually wouldn't clash with anyone, while this game would be unavoidably ugly.

3. Colombia vs. The Netherlands

Combined World Cup titles: Zero
Combined Pyrotechnic Potential: 2.000
Uniform rankings: Netherlands No. 2, Colombia No. 21

The other conceivable matchup that would produce a new champion is slightly better, and not just because these are the only two teams to have scored multiple goals in every game so far, because they have the best combined Pyrotechnic Potential, or because there would be approximately 83 scoring chances in it. This would be South America's sleeping giant against Europe's only true lion to never take the throne, with the added bonus of both teams playing fun, fierce football. Only one matchup would make Brazilian fans madder, and there isn't a better one that isn't purely comprised of South American squads.

2. Colombia vs. Argentina

Combined World Cup titles: Two
Combined Pyrotechnic Potential: 1.571
Uniform rankings: Argentina No. 5, Colombia No. 21

The billing is easy: The best player in the world plays for Argentina, and perhaps the best player in this tournament plays for Colombia. No, Rodríguez and Messi would not spend much time marking each other, and yes, there's a chance that James and his sensational-so-far Colombian side would simply aerate the porous Albiceleste, but the potential for superlative individual play is great in this game.

And while this is the lesser of the two finals that would feature two South American sides, it does have the two South American sides that are not Brazil, and this final happening in the holiest cauldron of Brazilian football would be the funniest possible outcome of this Cup.

1. Brazil vs. Argentina

Combined World Cup titles: Seven
Combined Pyrotechnic Potential: 1.308
Uniform rankings: Argentina No. 5, Brazil No. 12

Funny, though, pales in comparison to epic.

This is the final that a lot of casual fans probably wanted to see as soon as groups were announced and Brazil and Argentina were slotted into separate halves of the potential knockout bracket. It would pit the two modern South American soccer powers against each other in the first World Cup in South America in 36 years. It would be a vindication of CONMEBOL, which produced five knockout round participants, four of which had to vie for one spot in the semifinals.

From any of many perspectives, it would be a seismic clash — but none more so than the one in which Lionel Messi could go from all-time great to immortal god by scoring to slay Brazil in the Maracanã. Soccer is a game consumed by legacy, and quality, and no other possible lightning bolt from this World Cup would sear itself in the collective consciousness of the soccer-watching population quite like a game-winning Messi strike.

Lionel Messi could go from all-time great to immortal god by scoring to slay Brazil in the Maracanã.

Of course, one more probable alternative to that is the team left standing at the end of the World Cup more often than any other finally hoisting the trophy at home, on their most hallowed ground.

Certainly, the play of both Brazil and Argentina to date in this tournament doesn't exactly suggest a final between the two teams would be classic. But on that stage, with those stakes, I wouldn't be surprised by anything — and that potential is immensely tantalizing.

  1. Fun facts: The tackle that elicited the first red card in World Cup final history was on Jurgen Klinsmann ... and Vecsey's final few paragraphs are devoted to wondering whether Franz Beckenbauer might leave his German team to coach the United States. Everything old is new again.

  2. Belgium is the second-youngest team at this World Cup, but Colombia's average age is powerfully skewed up by Faryd Mondragón, 42, and captain Mario Yepes, 38, the two oldest players in this World Cup. The other 21 Colombian players are all under 30, and their average age is under 27 — more than a full year younger than the team's average age with Mondragón and Yepes included.

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