It took three perfect touches for Germany to become the first team to score on Argentina in 486 minutes of play. And I mean perfect.
Perfect touch No. 1: After clunking most of his post-halftime touches, André Schürrle threaded a perfect cross between two Argentinian defenders.
Perfect touch No. 2: Mario Götze not only got his chest square on the ball, but dumped it slightly forward, which caused Sergio Romero to instinctively take a step forward, reflexes telling him to chase after a loose ball.
Perfect touch No. 3: Now with an angle at the far post and no time to hesitate, Götze slings his left foot at the ball, which hasn't touched the ground since it left Schürrle's foot. It sails past Romero's left arm and into the goal.
Four-hundred-eighty-six minutes between conceding in their final group stage match against Nigeria and that Götze goal. You can almost fly from Buenos Aires to Miami in that time, and this is a team that entered the World Cup with a bit of a "great offense, shaky defense" reputation. But in the end, the 322 minutes (and counting) since Argentina's last goal ended up mattering more. Gonzalo Higuain scored in the eighth minute of the quarterfinal against Belgium, and La Albiceleste almost won the World Cup without scoring another. Almost.
Lionel Messi scored four goals in seven matches and helped to lead his team to its first World Cup final since 1990. He won the tournament's Golden Ball for his efforts. That's a hefty accomplishment in a career full of them. Judging greats on World Cup success is a generally silly exercise; it depends equally on both skill and location of birth, but this past month allowed for him to check a few more boxes on the accomplishments list.
The World's best
The World's best
When Argentina were routed by Germany in 2010 World Cup, it was supposed to be a stain on Messi's record. You know, the same one that includes 243 goals for Barcelona, 42 more for Argentina, and four FIFA Ballons d'Or, awarded annually to the world's best player. But his record now includes a finals appearance, a player-of-the-tournament award ... and this errant bomb of a last-second free kick.
Legacies are strange things. They show us whatever we want to see. If we want to hate, we'll find a reason to hate, whether the target is Messi or Michael Jordan.
Messi is still only 27, by the way. His playing style could allow for graceful aging and at least one more World Cup appearance. Here's hoping for a few more Nigeria-esque free kicks in key moments, just to make it even harder for haters to hate.
Germany's soccer culture fascinates me. The youth program produces more depth than any other country, and the only (not-so-legitimate) requirement is that young stars end up with Bayern Munich. The Bundesliga's best club is the home for seven members of Germany's 23-man roster. Borussia Dortmund has four (plus Marco Reus, who would have been a starter if not for injury), all other Bundesliga teams have five, and all other leagues have seven (Arsenal has three).
In the semifinals and third-place match, Brazil allowed nine goals in 96 minutes. During their 2002 and 1994 title runs, they allowed seven in 1,290 minutes.
After creeping by in the knockout rounds with a one-goal win over Colombia and a shootout win over Chile, and after losing Neymar to injury in the quarterfinals, the Selecao were humiliated in a way that had never happened before. Quietly bowing out to Chile in the round of 16 would have been more dignified and turned up fewer questions about the direction of the country's program as a whole. But the questions now are legion, and it will take years to answer them.
Photo credit: Dean Mouhtaropoulos, Getty Images
In the last eight World Cups, since the introduction of the current format (group play, then a 16-team single-elimination tournament), 16 countries have reached the semifinals, six more than once (Germany six, Brazil four, Argentina three, France three, Italy three, Netherlands three).
This is reasonably impressive parity. If you look at the NCAA men's basketball tournaments from each World Cup year, you find 24 Final Four teams and five repeat achievers*. Considering there have been 64-68 NCAA Tournament teams in those years (albeit with a higher number of completely overmatched teams), and considering the early rounds of the NCAA Tournament are ripe with upsets, one would expect a higher number.
Teams like Uruguay (2010), South Korea (2002), Turkey (2002), Croatia (1998), Sweden (1994), Bulgaria (1994), England (1990), and Belgium (1986) have found pathways to the semis. It's hard to do, but it isn't impossible.
Making the finals, however, is quite a bit more difficult. You have to win at least three matches, probably more, to reach the semifinals, but that fourth (or fifth, or sixth) win can be elusive. The semifinals are good at separating wheat from chaff, and only seven of the 16 countries to reach the semis have gone on to reach the finals. Five of the seven have done it at least twice: Germany (2014, 2002, 1990, 1986), Argentina (2014, 1990, 1986), Brazil (2002, 1998, 1994), France (2006, 1998), and Italy (2006, 1994). Only 2010 finalists Netherlands and Spain have reached just one final in that span, and they have been very much considered part of international soccer's upper crust, just like the other five. A Bulgaria can make the semis, but only a true world power makes the finals, evidently.
* In this example, I guess that means Germany is Duke, Holland is Florida, and England is ... Arkansas?
Götze is 22, Schürrle is 23, Müller is 24, Kroos is 24, Özil is 25, Boateng is 25, Hummels is 25, Neuer is 28. That's ... unfair.— Bill Connelly (@SBN_BillC) July 14, 2014
Fourteen members of Germany's 23-man World Cup roster are 25 or younger (Argentina: two). Marco Reus is also 25. So is Leverkusen midfielder Lars Bender, who has 17 caps and missed the final cut with a thigh injury. Midfielder Ilkay Gundogan is a 23-year old star for Dortmund who struggled through a back injury all season and had surgery in June. He missed the team.
That's 17 World Cup-caliber players younger than 26.
Germany lost Reus and Bender close to the World Cup and was also without the services of Gundogan and injured striker Mario Gomez. No matter. With an even younger team than expected, Germany went out and outscored opponents, 18-4, and won its first World Cup in 24 years. Even if more injuries strike in 2018, Die Mannschaft will probably be runaway favorites to repeat.
Of course, you always need some good fortune and stellar timing. Even with what was the tournament's best overall team, Germany still went to extra time with Algeria in the Round of 16 and nearly gave up a game-tying goal late against France in the quarterfinals. And as perfect as Götze's goal was, it came after 112 scoreless minutes; we were just eight minutes away from a penalty shootout, which is almost a coin flip. Germany will probably be better in 2018, but the stars still have to align for them to repeat.
Only 1,425 days until the 2018 World Cup kicks off. The 2014 tournament will be a tough act to follow, even if the fun eased up as the tension and knockout rounds wore on.
Despite FIFA's general and perceived corruption, despite what we'll politely call Brazil's internal issues (we'll let Wright Thompson use a lot more pointed words), the structure of this tournament is virtually foolproof. We will have upsets and underdogs early and heavyweight battles late. We will have brilliant goals and late-match drama. It's all but guaranteed. But this tournament was special. So many of its brilliant goals came from the game's biggest stars, so many of its early battles were wide-open and high-scoring, and its finals pitted what were almost certainly the two most consistently strong squads in the tournament. We had stunning blowouts (Netherlands-Spain, Germany-Brazil). We had thrilling upset bids (Netherlands-Australia, Costa Rica-Italy). We had offense (Algeria, Colombia) and incredible CONCACAF goal-keeping. We had late drama (Netherlands-Mexico, US-Ghana). We had early goals (US-Ghana again, Netherlands-Brazil). We had James Rodriguez and Lionel Messi and Thomas Müller and RVP and Neymar.
We had fun. We'll have fun again in 2018. Bring on the qualifiers.