THERE is a certain symmetry about the best team at the World Cup lining up against the planet’s best player in Sunday’s showpiece in Rio’s iconic Maracana Stadium.
At a venue widely considered to be the cathedral of the global game, millions of fans world-wide will be hankering for some football from the gods to gild a month-long tournament which has flirted with greatness, without quite being described as a truly great competition.
Whether they get it is another matter.
The final pits Argentina and Lionel Messi against Germany’s golden generation and something must give in each heavyweight footballing nation’s all-consuming quest to re-establish themselves as the pre-eminent footballing power in the world. Time will tell who will come of age.
For coaches Alejandro Sabella and Joachim Low, notions of greatness are incidental to sating the mass expectancy of their respective nations by lifting the cherished prize – perhaps only Brazil’s desire to emerge victorious on July 13 was equal to that of Argentina and Germany at the tournament’s outset.
Sabella was a player renowned for his flair and finesse when he briefly showcased his talents in Yorkshire at Sheffield United and Leeds United in the late Seventies and early Eighties, but style is likely to be a distant second to substance when it comes to Sunday’s final.
His Argentinian side have been pragmatic as opposed to polished so far, with complaints emanating from many sections of La Albiceleste’s vast support during the course of the tournament, Messi even going public to criticise Sabella’s tactics in the narrow opening game win over Bosnia-Herzegovina – the side switching to 4-3-3 at half-time.
The Buenos Aires journalists have also been vocal, although expect them to lionise Sabella if the diminutive 59-year-old leads Argentina to glory on Sunday, propelling him to the status of ‘little big man’ along with Messi.
Victory would see him join the pantheon of revered Argentinian managerial greats alongside Cesar Luis Menotti and Carlos Bilardo as he seeks to do something which proved elusive for two former managers in the country’s greatest son Diego Maradona and their other World Cup-winning captain thus far in Daniel Passarella, who Sabella served as assistant over many years at a number of clubs.
Given the unbridled scenes of joy among ecstatic Argentinian fans at the end of their penalty shoot-out after 120 tense minutes against the Dutch in the semi-final in Sao Paulo, marks for artistic merit will have to wait, although maybe Argentina and Messi are saving the best until last.
It was against the Germans – then playing under the banner of West Germany – in Mexico City’s Azteca Stadium in 1986 that Argentina enjoyed their finest World Cup hour along with the win over the Dutch amid the ticker-tape of Buenos Aires eight years earlier.
Arguably their lowest point – and definitely most infamous – arrived against Sunday’s opponents in the final loss at Italia ’90, with Argentina seeking to rewrite history and, hopefully, right a few wrongs this time around.
That showpiece in Rome just under a quarter of a century ago saw both Germany and Argentina contrive to produce what was almost certainly the worst World Cup final of all time, a late penalty from Andreas Brehme winning it for the Germans in a game which saw Argentinian pair Pedro Monzon and Gustavo Dezotti both sent off.
Like in the semi-finals in 1990, penalty shoot-out heroics saw Argentina through to this Sunday’s final with Sergio Romero’s exploits in denying Ron Vlaar and Wesley Sneijder in the 4-2 win providing a delicious rewind to the efforts of Sergio Goycochea in blocking efforts from Roberto Donadoni and Aldo Serena, with the frenzied celebrations of both at the end almost identical.
The Argentine press hailed Romero’s “Hands of God” after his game-breaking efforts and many pundits expect divine inspiration to be required to topple the German juggernaut as Low attempts to end their 18-year wait for a major trophy – and shed the bridesmaid’s tag.
Die Mannschaft’s low-key celebrations following Tuesday’s staggering 7-1 dismantling of Brazil spoke of a thoroughly single-minded and focused approach and the sense of a job only being half done.
Their lack of tangible success since 1996 to a nation where winning is pretty much everything in the footballing sphere has represented a stain.
The message from all and sundry was one of calm, with German players only interested in being garlanded with victory on Sunday – with four being the magic number, not seven, as they chase their fourth World Cup success to afford them legendary status alongside the likes of Matthaus, Beckenbauer and Breitner.
Greats of both footballing powerhouses will be watching intently on Sunday.