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Germany vs Messi: The World's Best Country Beats the World's Best Player
(*Originally published in White Cover Magazine...)
I sat there, semi-dumbfounded but also sorta expecting it. Because we've seen it before, when one team has the chance to win or, at the very least, go out with guns a'blazing, and they instead retreat. They suck back into their own end. They let the play come to them. They let the other team off the hook, and they play conservatively – maybe they're playing for overtime, or maybe they're playing for the shootout. They're not really trying to win, they're just trying to survive as long as possible.
This is understandable if you were a boxer in the 60's and you were facing Muhammad Ali. It's understandable if you were this year's New York Rangers, tossed into the fire of the Stanley Cup Final against a take-your-pick-but-beware Western Conference opponent, which turned out to be the vastly superior Los Angeles Kings. It's understandable, basically, if you have no business hoisting the trophy.
But it was inexcusable yesterday, and unacceptable for Argentina.
The pain on Lionel Messi's face said it all. He didn't look necessarily sad, just pissed off. Because he knew his team beat itself as much as it lost to Germany – and really, it just folded.
When extra time ensued, the Argentinians didn't look like a fitting challenger. They instead looked like your nerdy friend who wins the first five hands in Hold 'Em, and he spends the rest of the time just folding whenever he's not big blind, hoping that (maybe) everyone else will just beat themselves and go broke before they have a chance to wipe his temporarily large stack of chips away from him.
But that guy's problem is a problem he can't correct in the middle of a game. That guy's problem is a corrosive problem and a permanent problem – the problem of having no control over your own destiny, the feeling that you're always overmatched.
As soon as that absurdly large Hublot clock ticked into the World Cup final's 91st minute, the cocky and blisteringly fast and confident Argentina side that turned up the temperature on Germany for the first two halves disappeared, replaced by a team that was afraid to lose and, maybe, afraid to win.
Sure, Germany dominated possession. But Argentina had dictated the pace.
Sure, the Germany had the best chance, with a header from Benedikt Howedes that cranked off the post but stayed out. But Argentina continually looked more threatening, with two chances blown by striker Gonzalo Higuain – first, a miss off a giveaway from German Toni Kroos, then when he ran offside by a clear two metres and had his first-half goal called off. Lionel Messi had several electrifying rushes. He put his own best chances wide or just off the mark, and whenever he attempted to make his teammates better, they just looked a clear two or three seconds behind him.
Don't get me wrong – Germany deserved to win.
That was what this game was really all about anyway. You had a champion country in Germany, and a champion player in Lio Messi. The champion country should always win that matchup.
Unless, of course, the challenger plays correctly. The challenger has to be realistic about its chances – it has to know it's the David, not the Goliath, but it can't let that knowledge contaminate its confidence. It's important to be honest with yourself, like when Rocky tells Adrian he can only go the distance with Apollo, or when Boston rolled over the Canucks in 2011 because they knew they'd have to beat them up not dance around them.
Confidence is key. Delusion is catastrophic.
And Argentina could have won. But they took their foot off the gas.
Maybe they just didn't see what we were seeing. Maybe, when the whistle blew down after the 90th minute, the glass shattered. The clock struck midnight, but at 11:15. Maybe they thought, "Okay, that was our chance to win. We didn't, and now we have to play for penalties."
Fair enough. You know what, any fan watching might have thought the same thing. But... if you're in that game, how can you leave as much on the field as Argentina left yesterday?
When they started off, Messi and Co. came out running almost as if they knew they were the underdogs, but like they didn't care. They looked pissed off, like they had something prove – not just to Germany, not just to Europe, and not even just to Brazil, but to the world.
After all, the country has to play with a tremendously insulting backhand compliment always rotting away at their ego. And the elephant in the room is their best player, Lionel Messi, because you won't find anyone who hasn't once thought, "Well, Argentina's good because they have the world's best player." So how would you feel if you were one of the country's several other superstars, knowing you'll always be playing in the shadow of the guy right next to you? Would't you be pissed off, if you couldn't win a damn game without everyone thinking there was only ONE reason why?
(That phrase of faint praise – 'Argentina is good because they have Messi' – is like hearing a scout say a hockey player is good because, "He's a two-way forward." All that means is, he's too unskilled to score, but he's not a total idiot so he's acceptable in his own end. All it means is, he'll never be an All-Star, but don't be too mean to him, okay?)
The Germans came into yesterday's final riding a 7-1 rout of Brazil. Argentina came in like a steady train, having won a 0-0 draw over the Dutch, pulling out the victory in penalties.
They scored one goal against Belgium, just another one against Switzerland – and that one didn't come until the game's 118th minute. And, of course, it was a goal from Angel Di Maria that sealed it – but all the credit went (rightfully so) to Messi, who had the tournament's most brilliant assist in its clutch-est moment.
Argentina scored two goals in its final four games. They left nothing on the field.
Sure, they played safe and strategically and that clearly worked for their first six games – all wins – but it's a dangerous game to conclude with. Because if it doesn't work out and if you lose, you can't walk away saying you gave it all you had. You can't leave Brazil proud of your performance, because you'll always regret not going for it on 4th down, or in the 116th minute, or even in the 2nd minute.
Remember, this isn't a round robin match against Nigeria or a semifinal against the high-flying Dutch. This is the World Cup FINAL. There's nothing coming after... you have to give it everything and all of it. You have to be exhausted. You have to play for the loss, not the tie.
And don't give me that garbage about how, "Well, what if you push too hard offensively, and then Germany comes back and scores on a rush?"
So what? Would you rather lose that way, or lose the way Argentina lost on Sunday, how they sorta just watched Germany beat them? Would you rather be in the audience or on the field?
Hopefully, they'll remember that in 2018. If they can, maybe Messi won't look so pissed off when it's all over.