For Argentina, it always comes back to Diego Maradona.
A mercurial talent from the last days of myth in soccer—when the World Cup meant seeing players you'd only heard about for the first time—Maradona, the "Barrilete Cósmico" (Cosmic Kite), stole the spotlight (and a goal) at 1986 World Cup with his combination of individual flair and irrepressible desire while leading Argentina to their second title. In the final, a 3-2 victory over West Germany, it was Maradona, while surrounded by four German defenders, who played the inch-perfect one-touch volleyed pass to set up Jorge Burruchaga for the winner.
Four years later, West Germany claimed their revenge besting Argentina 1-0 in the World Cup final. For Maradona, things had already begun to turn. There were rumors, rumors of drug use, of ties to the mob, of an illegitimate child. Then came the 15-month ban for a positive cocaine test. Maradona's expulsion from 1994 from World Cup (the result of another failed drug test—this time for ephedrine) ended his international playing career. In 2010, Germany's 4-0 quarterfinal thrashing of Argentina effectively ended Maradona's international managing career. As FIFA's Player of the 20th Century (a title he shares with Pelé) fell from grace, so did his national team.
Argentina haven't won a major trophy at the senior level since 1993's Copa América. For a country that consistently produces more elite attacking talent than any other place on earth, this barren spell has been something of a national tragedy.
On the other side, Germany have played the role of bridesmaids in the last three World Cups — finishing as runners-up, third, and third, respectively. Like Argentina, today represents a chance to break their streak of near-misses and claim only their second major trophy since reunification (and their first World Cup as a unified Germany).
Germany enter play on the back of a staggering demolition of hosts Brazil. The question looming over Germany since the tournament began was whether manager Joachim Löw could find the right balance with his team. Against the tournament hosts, the question was answered in the most resounding way imaginable.
Restoring Philipp Lahm to his natural position at right back solidified the German back line while also allowing Bastian Schweinsteiger, Sami Khedira and Toni Kroos to reunite in the midfield. In their second game back together, the German midfield trio combined for three goals including a Toni Kroos brace—the fastest back-to-back goals scored by a player in tournament history. Thomas Müller had a field day filling in the space vacated by the vastly overrated Marcelo, and took advantage of the Brazilian defender's untimely choice to go on a walkabout. Müller should face a much stiffer test in Marcos Rojo, who, despite some errant crossing against the Dutch, has been one of Argentina's defensive stalwarts.
Argentina enter play with the notable distinction of having never trailed—even for a minute—at this World Cup. Going against stereotype, it is defense that has carried Argentina thus far. The combination of Martín Demichelis and Ezequiel Garay—neither of whom are fleet of foot—has proven surprisingly effective. Moreover, the mop-up work of defensive midfielder Javier Mascherano—who tore his anus (yeah, you read that right) while making a match-saving tackle against Arjen Robben—has been essential in keeping clean sheets. Argentina haven't allowed a goal since the group stage.
For all his other tactical failings, manager Alejandro Sabella should be credited with building an Argentina team that plays to their strengths. They sit back, win possession, find Messi, and let him create. It's shockingly simple: make no mistakes, wait for a moment of genius. So far so good.
Still, Germany are the favorites and rightfully so. Even though Argentina aren't as defensively naive as Brazil, they still have to contend with a German side that can create chances in a variety of ways. Germany should hold the advantage on set pieces and should trouble Argentina during the run of play with a combination of situational midfield pressing and methodical possession. A good game by Enzo Pérez—who should cut in from the wing to offer support in the center of the park—will be essential if Argentina hopes to hold their own in midfield. Both teams are playing their seventh game in less than a month, but Argentina is a day less rested and wear the additional miles of a 120-minute semifinal.
The Germans can also fairly expect the support of every single Brazilian citizen. Germany may have served up a colossal beating but nothing compares to the potential shame of arch-rivals Argentina lifting the trophy at the Maracanã. For Brazilians, it would be like watching the Red Sox win the World Series at Yankee Stadium (and yes, I know it's not possible for the Red Sox to win a World Series at Yankee Stadium).
That said, the narrative of this game is about a team, "the team", Die Nationalmannschaft, against a man. Lionel Messi, a player whose greatness has stood up to the scrutiny of consistent global exposure, has a chance to stake his claim as not only Argentina's greatest ever player but the greatest ever player in the history of the sport. Messi may never be loved like Maradona, but if he wins, he and his team will no longer stand in Maradona's shadow.