No two nations have done as much World Cupping as today's semi-finalists, Brazil and Germany. This edition's hosts are the only side to play at all twenty competitions; the Germans have missed only two. Brazil have won it five times and played 102 matches in the process; while their European opponents have only lifted the trophy on a mere three occasions, they've actually played 104 games at the finals. And yet, when they meet later today in Belo Horizonte, it will be only the second time they've met at a World Cup.
The first and only previous encounter came in the final of the 2002 tournament, when Brazil took advantage of Michael Ballack's suspension and a rare mistake from Oliver Kahn to win their fifth World Cup, and Ronaldo laid to rest the ghosts of the 1998 final, scoring both goals. But since then and before then, despite the fact that no two teams have spent so much time at the tournament, they've spent absolutely no time in each other's company.
Germany demolish Brazil to reach final
Germany booked their place in the World Cup final with a record-breaking 7-1 demolition of tournament hosts Brazil.
Which is, well, a bit weird. By way of illustration, Germany (we're including West Germany here and ignoring East, as seems to be the general convention. Sorry, communism) have played Italy, the team with the third-highest number of World Cup appearances, three times (and that seems low) while Brazil have played the Italians five. Or looking at this another way, until the semi-final kicks off, Brazil will have played Germany in precisely as many World Cup matches as they have Wales.
There have been a few near misses before. In 1970, the Brazil of Pele, Jairzinho and Wilson Piazza beat Italy in the final, inventing the colour yellow in the process, to win their third tournament. But it was Germany who'd lost out to the Italians in the semi-final, a 1-1 draw that became a 4-3 loss after extra-time. Similarly, in 1958 Germany again lost in the semi-finals, this time going down 3-1 to Sweden, who went on to get tonked by a much younger Pele and friends in the final.
But look at the wider history, and there's a vaguely peculiar trend at work here. In 1934 Brazil lost in the first round while Germany advanced to the semi-finals; in 1938 the roles were reversed. 1954, Germany's first victory, saw Brazil eliminated in the first knockout-stage, while the opposite happened again in 1962, Brazil's second title. In 1966, when (West) Germany lost to somebody or other in the final, Brazil had been kicked out of the group stage.
The pattern breaks down a touch in 1974, 1978 and 1982, as the introduction of a second group stage instead of quarter- and semi-finals makes things a little tricky to assess and both teams inconveniently do various shades of well. But then it re-emerges again in 1986, when West Germany make it through to the final and Brazil go out in the quarters, and then remains all through the 1990s. As Germany won the thing in 1990, Brazil were exiting in the quarters; as Brazil reached two finals in 1994 and 1998, winning the first, Germany were making amusing/shocking early exits at the hands (and diving, balding heads) of first Bulgaria and then Croatia.
Beyond 2002, the great anomaly, even 2006 and 2010 saw mild repetitions, as Germany made two semi-finals while Brazil crashed out grumpily in two quarters. In essence, what we're suggesting -- no, hang on, what we've sensationally uncovered -- is this: when Brazil do well, Germany are often a bit rubbish, but when the opposite is true, then the opposite is true. A bit. Sort of. If you ignore a few tournaments and squint a bit. And that's why they never (hardly ever meet). Despite the pursuit of early-stage geographical diversity, seeding, which has been around in one form or another for most of the tournament's history, has kept them apart in the group stage, and this strange double-helix-like relationship does the rest.
We could perhaps suggest, if we were feeling a bit overheated, that this oscillation of fortunes between (arguably) the two greatest World Cup sides from the two strongest footballing continents is, in its own way, emblematic of the World Cup itself, and the struggles for the soul of football itself. The old world opposing the new, European traditionalists against the South American improvisers, the Volkswagen versus the samba. Cliches, yes, but then cliches are insistent, persistent things, even where facts disagree. Brazil may not have been Brazil for years now, but they're still Brazil.
Maybe there's something more modest at work, that strange social fear that comes when two people meet fairly regularly yet never quite seem to have gotten around to asking one another's name, and it's far too late now. Maybe these two teams spent so much time hanging around at the early tournaments without ever being properly introduced, and now it's just too embarrassing. One or other always feels the need to make an early exit, lest they end up trapped in a corner having to exchange stultified pleasantries. Perhaps that's why Oliver Kahn spilled the ball so limply in the 2002 final. He was completely overwhelmed by the awkwardness of the situation.
Or maybe it's just a weird anomaly, a quirk in the fabric of the World Cup. (Somebody, somewhere, is about to shout "small sample size." Stop it.) There are rules to this game, after all. Germany and Brazil never meet, Mexico never get past the last sixteen, and England always play Sweden, even when one or other hasn't qualified. And in any case, as of this afternoon-slash-evening, it will be a former statistical quirk. They'll have played each other twice, and that's no good to anybody. Ah well. It was fun while it lasted. Now, when do Brazil next play Wales?