World Cup - Nick Westby: Respect for Germany but genius of Messi holds final key

Diego Maradona
Diego Maradona
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PREVIEWING the 1986 World Cup final between Argentina and West Germany, the highly-regarded sports writer for the Observer, Hugh McIlvanney, ultimately allowed his heart to rule his head.

His head told him that the powerful West German team led by coach Franz Beckenbauer would emerge victorious in the scorching sun of the iconic Azteca Stadium in Mexico City.

McIlvanney, like many, looked on in admiration at the ruthless efficiency of the West German machine, led by Lothar Mattheus in a deep-lying midfield position, supported by Hans-Peter Briegel in defence and supplemented by Karl Heinz Rummenigge and Klaus Allofs up front.

He wrote at great length of how they would stifle Argentina, particularly their maestro Diego Maradona, squeezing the life out of their South American opponents before settling the final in their favour.

But his heart said otherwise, and after that long narrative on the strengths of West Germany, McIlvanney’s emotions took over as he finished his essay with this wonderful line.

“But I hope Diego tears them apart. Where genius is concerned, some of us are unashamedly prejudiced.”

Twenty eight years later, as Argentina and Germany prepare to meet in the World Cup final again, McIlvanney’s words continue to resonate.

For Maradona, think Lionel Messi; and for Mattheus, Briegel and Rummenigge, read Mats Hummels, Sami Khedira and Thomas Muller.

The Argentina of 2014 are very much dependent on the glorious gifts of one man while this current German crop are a well-drilled, remorseless and talented outfit.

Argentina have not been dragged into the final as they were 28 years ago by their little magician.

Messi did score four goals in the group stages, but he has been largely shut down in the knockout stages – Argentina’s defence, if anything, securing their passage to the final.

Maradona, by contrast, scored four of his five goals in 1986 in the quarter-final and semi-final.

He provided the ying and yang of World Cup goals in the space of just five minutes in the last-eight tie with England; that most audacious act of cheating when he punched the ball beyond Peter Shilton followed by his breathtaking slalom through the England defence that began in his own half.

The picture of him faced with five Belgian defenders in the semi-final is one of the World Cup’s enduring images.

Fast forward to the present day and the German team that take the field at the Maracana tomorrow night have arguably been the best team at Brazil 2014.

They have bookended their passage to the final with their best two performances, a thrashing of Portugal in the opening game and that complete annihilation of the hosts in Tuesday’s semi-final, a result that will have far-reaching consequences for Brazil, whose status as the world’s most treasured football nation is surely now under threat.

Joachim Low’s side have been 10 years in the making.

Since being knocked out of the group stages at Euro 2004, Die Mannschaft have reached every tournament semi-final, and this is their second final.

With Khedira running midfield, Muller and Miroslav Klose racking up goals that defy World Cup records, and their high-intensity pressing, they appear to have the tactics and personnel to beat anyone.

Only an Algeria side with nothing to lose and high on adrenalin, and Ghana when their future in the competition looked in doubt, were capable of making Germany look ordinary by running into gaps down the flanks and supporting attacks from midfield.

Even in goal, Germany have the tournament’s No 1 shot-stopper, and Manuel Neuer does a hell of a lot more than just stopping shots.

More often than not he can be found tearing out of his area to act as the team’s sweeper, leaving opponents to contemplate how to outmanoeuvre 11 outfield players. To look at his ‘heat map’ suggests the movements of a central defender.

Germany have all the hallmarks of the complete team.

But to borrow a line from a great writer, I hope Lionel tears them apart. Where genius is concerned, I’m with McIlvanney – unashamedly prejudiced.