The World Cup is not only a test of skill but also of physical and mental fitness. Athletes are put under enormous pressure as they play in front of billions. And in the tropical climate of Brazil, the 2014 World Cup was even more of a strain for many players who have been pushed to the physical limit.
Sunday will see the best of the best, Germany and Argentina, square off at Estadio Maracana in Rio de Janeiro. And although the match will be between the two most successful teams at this World Cup, both will be somewhat weary after a grueling campaign to this point.
Since their opener on June 15, Argentina have played 600 minutes over six games, two of which went to 120 minutes. Germany began their campaign a day later, and they have played 30 minutes fewer than Argentina due to their only having to play extra time on one occasion.
The Germans perhaps had a disadvantage of shorter rest time entering the semifinal, but they now have an extra day off before the final, having beaten Brazil on Tuesday. Argentina's semifinal was on Wednesday, and the Albiceleste needed 120 minutes and a penalty shootout to edge the Netherlands.
It would therefore appear that Germany are the less fatigued side entering Sunday's final. However, for several reasons, the fitness gap may actually be less than it seems at first glance.
Despite playing 30 minutes (5.2 percent) more than their opponents this tournament, Argentina (according to aggregated FIFA.com statistics) have actually run 6.7km less than Germany. In the context of a tournament in which both sides have covered nearly 700km (Germany stand at 690, Argentina just above 683), that isn't much of a gap—just under one percent, in fact. But it also would seem to erase Argentina's disadvantage of having played more minutes in total.
Looking more in the short-term past, however, Argentina's struggle has been concentrated during the knockout rounds over the last 10 days. Alejandro Sabella's men have played 330 minutes since the group stage, covering 375.6km. These figures are 10 percent more time and 6.3 percent more distance than the corresponding statistics for the Nationalmannschaft.
Sabella has had to overcome some serious hurdles, but he has used his team's depth more to his advantage than has Joachim Low. That could prove decisive. Among Argentina's 23-man roster, 20 players have been used, four for every minute and five for 500 or more minutes. By contrast, only 18 Germans have played, four for every possible minute and six recording in excess of 500 minutes.
Star players could be the key to victory for either side, and all eyes will be especially focused on Argentina's Lionel Messi. The Barcelona man had some struggles with injuries during the club season but has provided for his country at the World Cup, scoring four and assisting another of Argentina's eight goals.
Messi is a coy player known for walking through the majority of matches and springing to life at the opportune moment. He's so far only covered more than 10km on two occasions, those being the matches in which Argentina were forced to go to extra time. Even so, his peak of 10,702 meters in 120 minutes against Switzerland is less than the 90-minute average of five of his teammates and within 200 meters of four more.
Messi has averaged 8,157 meters per 90 minutes during the tournament and put in 10,495 against the Netherlands. By contrast, Lucas Biglia put in 15,013 meters—almost 50 percent more. Suffice to say, Messi will not be fatigued entering the final. Nor will Gonzalo Higuain, who was substituted after 8,909 meters against the Netherlands.
On the other side, Germany's most important attacking options have more reason to be fatigued. Thomas Mueller has played all but seven minutes at the World Cup, covering over 68km with an average of 10,901 meters per 90 minutes. His tally is only exceeded by Sami Khedira and Bastian Schweinsteiger among German players who have featured for more than half the tournament's minutes, and his aggregate distance covered is superlative among the tournament's finalists. The fact that Mueller is an attacking player and therefore forced to cover more ground at high speeds makes his distance covered figure even more impressive.
Mueller nonetheless is a great athlete who is used to running his socks off. He and Messi will be especially motivated by the chance to lift their respective countries to World Cup glory. They and their teams will surely be bolstered by a surge of adrenaline on Sunday, with the stage and opportunity too great to let fatigue play a factor. With all things considered, Germany and Argentina's fitness should be roughly the same. May the best team win.