BY JONATHAN WILSON | Posted: Wed Jul. 9, 2014
SAO PAULO — A bad week for Brazil just got worse. There’s not much that could make the humiliation of Tuesday’s 7-1 defeat to Germany feel even grimmer, but Argentina winning the World Cup at the Maracana would be unbearable. The holiest of the holies has already been defiled once, by Uruguay in 1950, but that would be nothing to the desecration of seeing Lionel Messi and his side celebrating there on Sunday.
Whether that’s likely is another matter. Argentina will go into the final as the underdog, and understandably so, given the respective performances in the semifinals, but it will not capitulate against Germany as Brazil did. This may be a limited side, but it is one with great character and spirit, a cold-eyed willingness to get the job done.
Its performance in the semifinal could hardly have been a greater contrast to that of Brazil a day earlier. Brazil had played brainlessly in a frenzy of emotion; Argentina, with every reason to be emotional, retained its discipline and its nerve. Its semifinal was far from a classic, but on Argentina’s national independence day, few in blue and white cared.
At the end, its fans danced bare-chested in the rain, spinning the Albiceleste shirts above their heads and singing the song that has become the anthem of their tournament. To the tune of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising,” it asks Brazil how it feels to have their “daddy” in the house (daddy in this context meaning superior) while recalling Claudio Caniggia’s goal against Brazil in the 1990 World Cup and insisting Maradona is better than Pele.
Even better for Argentina fans, since Tuesday they now have a new way to taunt their Brazilian rivals, waving seven fingers at them, while changing “siente” in the opening line of their song to “siete.” Asking Brazil how it sevens might not make much sense, but mockery doesn’t need to, For all the glee after the final whistle, these have been a difficult few days for everybody connected with Argentinian football.
As well as the passing of Alfredo Di Stefano, it has had to deal with the death of a second journalist in a car crash in the tournament. Jorge Lopez, probably the reporter among the Argentinian pack to whom Messi was closest, was killed on Tuesday evening, reportedly after the taxi in which he was traveling was hit by a vehicle fleeing police. The team wore black armbands in the first half to mark Di Stefano’s death – and there was a badly orchestrated attempt at a minute’s silence – bit many would also have been more directly affected by the loss of Lopez.
Argentina manager Alejandro Sabella dedicated the victory to his memory. Messi himself, tightly shackled first by Nigel De Jong and then by Jordy Clasie, gave his most subdued performance of the World Cup, so much so that the first time he touched the ball in the Dutch box was when he converted his penalty in the shootout.
Comparisons with Diego Maradona and his virtuoso domination of the tournament in 1986 seem a little facile now; the closer comparison may be with Maradona in 1990, when he produced occasional flashes of genius to drag Argentina to the final. Messi’s presence alone, though, can have an influence.
Opposing sides are terrified of what he can do to them; as he showed against Iran and against Belgium, to give him space once in a match is once too often. The whole Dutch approach was based around stopping him, which, coupled with Argentina sitting deep to counter the threat presented by the pace of Robben, led to a stand off, both teams wanting to play on the break and neither especially interested in taking the initiative.
Argentina did probably just about have the better of the game, with Ezequiel Lavezzi getting behind Daley Blind repeatedly in the first half and Rodrigo Palacio thwarted by an awkwardly bouncing ball having been laid through in extra time. Its outstanding player, though, was Javier Mascherano, who patrolled the area in front of the back four with tenacity and intelligence.
Whether he should have been allowed to continue after suffering a head injury in the first half is debatable, but in having done so he was superb. In the final minute of normal time, after Wesley Sneijder’s flick had laid in Robben, he somehow found the best of pace to catch the quickest player in the tournament and make a perfectly judged tackle.
“Mascherano is a symbol, an emblem,” said Sabella.
Then, in penalties, it was Sergio Romero who was the hero, making a routine save on Ron Vlaar and an excellent one on Sneijder. Many had criticized Sabella for relying on him, rather than turning to, say, new Manchester City signing Willy Caballero, but his form throughout the tournament has been vindication.
For all his caution and seeming indecisiveness, Sabella keeps on being vindicated. Finding a way to stifle Germany, though, will be the ultimate test, particularly as the majority of local fans at the Maracana will desperately want Argentina to fail.