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When it was all over, Germany was a proper World Cup champion.
By Robert Wagman
(Monday, July 14, 2014) -- Sunday's final matchup between Germany and Argentina was about all one could hope for at the end of a World Cup. It was a contest featuring the two best teams in the competition and, in the end, the best team won as Germany prevailed 1-0 on a nimble volley by late reserve Mario Götze in the 113th minute, seven minutes from the conclusion at Estadio do Maracanã in Rio De Janeiro.
Quite often the World Cup championship matches and, for that matter, title games of other major competitions, are dreary affairs. Finals often feature two teams trying desperately not to lose. Both teams become conservative, and when two teams are both playing not to lose, the result often is a dismal game, such as the last World Cup championship match in Johannesburg, South Africa four years ago, when Spain defeated the Netherlands 1-0 on Andrés Iniesta goal in the 116th minute, four minutes from the end of extra time, by which time nearly everyone thought the crown would be decided in tie-breaking penalty kicks.
Yesterday's match started badly for the Germans when key midfielder Sami Khedira aggravated a calf injury in the pre-match warm-ups and was forced to the bench. He was replaced by 23-year-old Christoph Kramer, making his first competitive appearance for Germany. Kramer, himself, became a victim, forced to leave the field with a concussion in the 31st minute after an elbow to the head from Argentina defender Ezequiel Garay.
Some might have expected a defense-first theme from the opening whistle, especially in a match between two teams noted for their defenses, but this match started out very differently. Both sides tried to attack from the start. Argentina did give the German's a lot of room in the midfield, but were poised to counter at the first chance they were given.
Argentina's Gonzalo Higuaín beat defenders down the right side and sent a ball skittering through the mouth of an open German net, but no teammate could get to it. Then, Higuaín somehow missed the net completely from just 17 yards after Toni Kroos inexplicably headed the ball back toward his own goal. Higuaín rushed his shot and hit it wide of the right post.
Higuaín thought he had given his country the lead shortly afterwards when Lionel Messi controlled the ball beautifully in midfield. He fed to his right to Ezequiel Lavezzi, who floated a cross which Higuain met first time and side-footed home. No goal! The assistant referee raised his flag for offside. Replays showed that both Higuain, and his teammate Marcos Rojo, were clearly in an offside position.
It seemed about that time that both sides collectively thought, "What are we doing?!" The defenses tightened and for the rest of regulation time, and into overtime, genuine chances were few and far between. A typical championship match had broken out.
Germany dominated possession, while the Argentines were happy to absorb the pressure, defend aggressively and play to counter. The Germans best chance came in the final seconds of the first half when Benedikt Höwedes headed a corner kick off the right post from five yards.
Messi had a pair of chances after intermission. He looked befuddled when he shot wide of German keeper Manuel Neuer's net early in the second half. Later, he broke through on the right side and beat Neuer, only to see defender Jérôme Boateng clear the ball just in front of the goal- line.
After that, the burden of the six previous matches seemed to catch up with both teams and things began to slow noticeably. The extra time was even slower, until seven minutes before the end, André Schürrle, who had entered for the Kramer, powered down the left flank, beating two defenders who were simply out of gas . He floated a beautiful ball toward the near post at the corner of the six-yard box. Götze, who had come on for striker Miroslav Klose in the 88th minute, showed he had fresh legs to arrive under the ball and chest it down. He lashed it out the air with his left foot past keeper Sergio Romero for the decisive tally.
There seemed general agreement that the better team won, but some questions remained.
Foremost, given he was unable to stave off this defeat, will be the ongoing debate about where Messi, the four-time "World Player of the Year," fits in the football pantheons of greats. He was awarded the Golden Ball for the 2014 World Cup's best player. He performed well in the group stages, scoring four goals in three games against Bosnia, Iran and Nigeria, but then he faded and failed to find net against the better defenses of Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany.
Does this World Cup signal a changing of the guard with the failures of Spain, Portugal, and host Brazil, and the strong performances of Belgium, the Netherlands, Colombia and others?
This title might represent the pinnacle of Germany's "Golden Generation," but the winning goal was scored by a 22-year-old, midfielder. Christoph Kramer is 23 and Germany has a host of other young players, such as Ilkay Gündogan and Marco Reus, who missed out on the squad because of injury. Then there are players like Julian Draxler, Matthias Ginter and Shkodran Mustafi, who found their opportunities limited in Brazil. Germany manager Joachim Löw has suggested Germany can dominate the international game for years to come remembering, that Mesut Özil, Schürrle, and Thomas Müller from this team have good years ahead of them.
Ohterwise, world governing body FIFA must find ways to deal with on-field head injuries. Medical experts say it should take up to seven minutes to fully assess the extent of any head injury. This is an impossible amount of time in a soccer match.
Against Argentina, Germany midfielder Christoph Kramer continued to play after a hit to the head and collapsed several minutes later. One suggestion is a temporary substitution of a player suffering a head injury. Once the injured player was cleared, he could re-enter the match.
Avoiding penalty kicks to decide the World Cup final left fans, except maybe Argentines, satisfied with the outcome. In four years, the Cup moves to Russia.
Robert Wagman is SoccerTimes senior correspondent.
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