Yesterday, Germany beat Argentina in extra time to win the 2014 World Cup, and the only surprise is how many onlookers thought their victory was anything but inevitable.
It should go without saying, but winning a World Cup is incredibly hard. A nation needs a long list of things. It needs a gaggle of superstars. It needs a great manager. It needs a stout defense. It needs a roster packed with fit, capable players who can last seven matches in a month against the best competition in the world, competition that only gets stronger as the tournament progresses. And just as important, it needs luck.
And yet, it wouldn't be quite right to say that Germany had a lucky World Cup. The world champions' conquest seemed it would end before it even started. Marco Reus, Die Mannschaft's most fearsome, dynamic attacking player, rolled his ankle badly in a tuneup before the tournament, and had to miss it. Their midfield depth was ravaged when Bender twins Sven and Lars were both ruled out, as was Borussia Dortmund midfielder İlkay Gündoğan. Gündoğan's club teammate, left back Marcel Schmelzer, also missed the tournament to injury. Before the tournament, the world got word that starting forward Mario Gómez would miss the tournament, leaving the team with only one true center forward in 36-year-old Miroslav Klose. German captain Philipp Lahm, goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, and starting holding midfielders Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira were all recovering from nagging injuries heading into the Group of Death. In the final against Argentina, Khedira was injured in warmups, and his replacement Christoph Kramer had to be subbed out after he took a blow to the dome in the 17th minute. All of this bad luck felt devastating as it happened. None of it, it turned out, even mattered. The 2014 World Cup has been called, rightly, the greatest, most competitive tournament of all time, and the Germans walked the whole damn thing.
This World Cup was so competitive because it was a tournament in which, for a while, anyway, tactics threatened to trump superstars. One of the biggest stories of the competition—outside of Luis Suárez (God bless him) and clearly concussed players being allowed to play on as if their brains hadn't just bounced around inside their skulls—was the triumph of stout, pragmatic defense. We saw minnows and meh squads like Costa Rica, Algeria, and Greece shock and advance through to the knockout stages because of their defense alone. In the round of 16, we watched flabbergasted as teams like the United States, Switzerland, Algeria, and Chile drew world powers after 90 minutes, and forced Belgium, Argentina, Germany, and Brazil, respectively, to the brink of extra time and penalties. Costa Rica almost Did It against the Dutch in the quarterfinal. Argentina were fielding a flawed squad with a high-powered offense and presumably suspect defense. But even after the goals dried up, La Albiceleste continued to advance through the tournament after a month of solid, stingy, disciplined defensive displays.
It was proof of what we'd already known. The world's greatest game, which reached every corner of the world through 20th-century globalization and conquest, had finally collapsed upon itself. Much of the world's best talent is monopolized and centralized in Western Europe. Before Spain won in 2010, European teams couldn't win outside of Europe, it was thought, because of the physical toll of a month-long tournament in warmer climates. But players now are superhuman, better conditioned and trained, and used to grueling seasons while playing for the world's top teams.
Game-changing tacticians are now on every sideline, everywhere, because ideas are shared and poached faster today than ever before. Dutch Total Football had been taken over by Spain, and then the Germans stole it from them. The old German style—big guys playing long balls—had been appropriated by, of all people, the Brazilians, while the Colombians best represented jogo bonito.
The tournament opened as a high-scoring, thrilling affair, but as it advanced, matches turned into tight, gritty ties between favorites and underdogs who realized that they didn't have to win as long as they didn't lose. Many thought the tournament devolved from the group stage, but it actually evolved into something better, something more, as we saw the world's best nations solve the problems their rivals represented. In the end, everyone failed but the Germans.
The Germans were the best, best-coached team. At no time was this more obvious than just after fouls or balls rolled over the endline, and Die Mannschaft converged on dead balls and dug deep into their play books to capitalize on a set piece.
The world didn't really take note of Germany's ingenuity until their round of 16 match against Algeria, where they tried a play and failed hilariously, when FC Bayern's Thomas Müller approached the ball to strike, stumbled over, got up, ran past the ball, and then sprinted beyond the Algerian wall of defenders. Bayern teammate Toni Kroos then tried to chip it over the defense, but he couldn't, and the highlight made for one of the funniest bloopers of the tournament.
In the replay, however, watch at all the players and all the movement around the ball. Look at Schweinsteiger. It was a scripted play, one meant to surprise and confuse, like a fake punt on fourth-and-12 in football. It's rarely seen on this big a stage because a lot of things have to go right for it to succeed, and so most nations don't even bother designing a play that will probably blow up anyway. But the Germans decided fuck it. They were having fun! This was just one more play in the deepest set-piece catalog of any team at the World Cup.
They had such a deep catalog to choose from, because they weren't pulling from just one source. Many of these players also feature on club superpower Bayern Munich, widely considered the world's best, best-coached club team. Managed by ex-Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola, Bayern won the German double last year, and were favorites to win the Champions League until they were shocked in the tournament semifinal by Real Madrid.
Bayern's core also made up Germany's. Bayern are so dangerous because of their ruthless execution, and so it followed that when the Germans won a free kick, they'd probably be devastating as well. They were.
While other nations are at the mercy of the club calendar, able to practice and prepare as a unit only during international breaks, many of these Germans are working on set pieces all year round. As a result, they had more set plays than any other team, and performed them better.
Germany didn't concede a goal on a set piece all tournament, but they scored on them in an astounding five of seven matches. Centerback Mats Hummels scored on a header off a corner in the team's first match of the World Cup, when they pummeled Portugal, 4-0. The next match, Klose scored the tying goal against feisty Ghana, after a ball was flicked from the front post to the back off another corner. The elements themselves conspired to keep the Germans out of the net against the United States in the flooded city of Recife, but Müller scored the only goal of the match on a rebound after a short corner kick. Germany bested France in the quarterfinal when Kroos curled in a free kick outside of the box on to Hummels. In the Germans' now-historic semifinal smackdown against Brazil, Müller scored the first of five first-half goals following a corner kick in which Miroslav Klose threw a pick on Brazilian defender David Luiz. And in the final against Argentina, defender Benedikt Höwedes almost converted just before half on a corner kick, but his free header clanged right off the bar.
These were six plays against prepared, capable competition, and time and time again, defenses were caught grabbing for air as Germany registered open shot after open shot. Part of this is because most of the Germans, from centerbacks, to their "dainty" midfielders, to Klose up top, are humongous men, the smallest of whom are taller than six feet. But it's also because they had so much more practice. Bayern played nearly 50 games last season. This shit was unfair.
We should've seen this coming, really. In 2010, Spain won the World Cup just as Barcelona had firmly cemented themselves as the no-question greatest team in the world. While most nations were all-star teams, stitched together, Spain had continuity from club. In the final against the Netherlands, Spain started seven Barcelona players (six La Masia products and David Villa, who'd signed with Barça the month before the World Cup).
The gap between the haves and the have-nots in international soccer is shrinking. More and more nations are enlisting managers—and players, for that matter—from abroad to help them catch up with longtime international giants. With the sport becoming more and more equal, continuity becomes a new, deciding factor in international tournaments, one that can even make up for bad luck.
Germany started yesterday's final with six FC Bayern players, and in the 88th, Bayern starlet Mario Götze joined the fray in place of Klose. Twenty-five minutes later, in extra time, Götze guided a cross into Argentina's side netting from a narrow angle to win the World Cup. Ironically, were it not for all of Germany's injuries, it's likely that Bayern's influence wouldn't have been quite as prevalent at the final whistle.
One bullshit narrative we're hearing today is that "Messi choked/isn't that good." This, it must be repeated, is bullshit. But that narrative is being sallied about because it's sexier and, honestly, easier than "Messi, Agüero, Higuain, and a healthy di María are four of the most devastating attacking players in the world, and Argentina depended on any two or three of them throughout the tournament to do magical things as an isolated, outnumbered unit while the other seven or eight Argentines shored up the defense, and since these guys play on four separate clubs, they never really figured out quite how to work intricately together the way the Germans did."
No one wants to read that, but it's in line with what we're seeing in international soccer these days. It's no coincidence that Barcelona's reign as the world's best team between 2008 and 2013 coincided directly with Spain's rise and fall as the world's best nation, which it turns out ended with a 3-0 defeat to Brazil in last year's Confederations Cup— the same year that Barcelona were thumped 7-0 over two Champions League legs to FC Bayern.
Bayern are ridiculous. This surprisingly young German side have turned their domestic league into a joke, a one-horse race every year where they compete to see not whether they can win the title, but how quickly. Last year, they won the German Bundesliga by 19 points, with a goal differential of 71 and only two losses all year.
The best soccer in the world is played in Munich, and so it would follow that the Bayern-heavy side could take on the world's best, and emerge relatively unscathed. Even though they were pushed to extra time against Algeria and Argentina in the knockout rounds, they never had to endure the coin flip of penalty kicks, and they dominated every team they played. Next year, Bayern will be favorites to win the treble, as they did in 2013. In 2016, the German national team will compete for the honor of the best team in Europe. Let's just place our bets now.
Photo Credit: Getty