Championship games have a habit of ending a season in an anticlimactic fashion. The zaniness of March Madness is rarely replicated in the NCAA title game. While the Super Bowl has offered some excellent contests in recent years, it just as often gives us a blowout finale like this year's version.
With all of the hype, all of the pressure and all of the wear and tear that teams endure to reach a championship final, the game itself often falls flat. But such wasn't the case at this year's World Cup final between Germany and Argentina.
Far from it, in fact. When you look at this year's World Cup title closely, Germany's 1-0 win over Argentina reflected the tournament as a whole. Everything that defined the past month in Brazil transpired out on the pitch of the Maracana on Sunday.
No, the final wasn't as open and full of goals as many of the games we saw in the group stage. To be fair, the knockout phase always provides cagier, more defensive games—with so much to lose, teams play cautious, defensive football.
But you could hardly say that the game was boring. The first half in particular was an open, exciting and often end-to-end display. Neither team was unwilling to take chances. Neither team was without plenty of opportunities to score a goal. This was dramatic, intense, quality football, especially late in the contest.
And in general, this year's World Cup was one of late drama, of winning goals right at the death, of amazing finishes. There were unlikely heroes and substitutes who completely changed the game upon their insertion into the match. Consider the following tweets, from Paul Carr of ESPN:
2014 #WorldCup had eight extra-time games, tying 1990 for most at a single World Cup.— Paul Carr (@PCarrESPN) July 13, 2014
22 goals were scored in the 90th minute or later at this World Cup, 9 more than at any other #WorldCup.— Paul Carr (@PCarrESPN) July 13, 2014
31 goals were scored by substitutes at this World Cup (including Götze's winner), 7 more than at any other WC.— Paul Carr (@PCarrESPN) July 13, 2014
One man, Mario Goetze, covered all three of these trends. The substitute scored the game-winning goal in the 113th minute, a fitting winner for a tournament that often saved its best moments for last.
Who could ever forget John Anthony Brooks' late winner against Ghana for the United States? Or Silvestre Varela's game-tying header against the Americans a match later?
Surely you'll remember the late penalties that helped the Greeks beat the Ivory Coast and the Dutch break Mexican hearts. And who could forget Algeria holding Germany scoreless for 90 minutes, only to concede twice in extra time?
Switzerland will never forget Lionel Messi's pass to Angel Di Maria, nor will Iran forget Messi's game-winning shot. Ecuador will never forget losing to the Swiss in extra time. The United States will never forget the dam finally breaking against Belgium. Costa Ricans will long remember losing to the Dutch on penalties. The Dutch will long remember the same happening to them a round later against Argentina.
Yup, this World Cup had drama. And yup, so did the final. Goetze's goal won't soon be forgotten.
And goodness, what a goal it was. If you haven't seen it, ESPN FC shared it on their Twitter account:
This is the 2nd latest goal in World Cup final history. Mario Gotze. WATCH » http://t.co/04jemM69lc— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) July 13, 2014
Quite the stunning finish, eh?
And that was another trend of this year's World Cup—all of the beautiful goals. Who could forget Robin van Persie's header against Spain?
ICYMI: Robin van Persie went all Flying Dutchman and scored the goal of the tournament thus far. http://t.co/EGPLbChCuI— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) June 14, 2014
Or Tim Cahill's volley against the Dutch?
Or James Rodriguez's stunner against Uruguay?
ICYMI and even if you didn't: James Rodriguez's INSANE goal is still amazing. WATCH » http://t.co/MBS6dnwhPm— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) June 28, 2014
Those are just a sampling. Jermaine Jones' rocket against Portgual will always hold a special place in American hearts. David Luiz's free-kick extraordinaire against Colombia was something to see. Arjen Robben's blistering runs against Spain ended an era. Xherdan Shaqiri's hammer blow against Honduras deserved to be accompanied by Ray Hudson screaming "Magisterial!"
Add Goetze's fantastic finish to the array of golazos we saw in Brazil.
After the game, it was unearthed that German manager Joachim Low had quite the words of inspiration for Goetze. Bleacher Report UK passed along the excerpt:
It certainly wasn't Messi's finest game, and some (perhaps harshly) would argue he wasn't at his best at this tournament. FIFA didn't agree—they awarded him the Golden Ball as the World Cup's top performer, somewhat surprisingly—but Messi couldn't do enough to lead Argentina to a World Cup title.
And though it's ridiculous to do so, for many that leaves Messi in the shadow of another Argentine great, Diego Maradona. It's absurd to define Messi's legacy by his lack of World Cup titles, but many will.
His manager won't, thankfully, per Oliver Kay of The Times:
Sabella on Messi: "As for his reputation, he is in that pantheon. But he was there before. He has been there for quite some time.” Well put.— Oliver Kay (@OliverKayTimes) July 13, 2014
In general, it was a rough tournament for many of the game's top superstars. Neymar fractured a vertebra and had to watch his teammates get embarrassed by both the Germans and the Dutch by a combined score of 10-1 in the semifinals and third-place game, respectively.
Cristiano Ronaldo seemed to be battling both injuries and the ineptitude of his own teammates, and scored a single goal as Portugal bowed out in the group stage. His various moods, however—from petulance to selfishness and every other shade of annoyance he could muster—were quite enjoyable for his many detractors.
Wayne Rooney finally scored his first World Cup goal, but it wasn't enough to save England from group-stage elimination. Luis Suarez bit again, costing himself a chance to play for Uruguay in the round of 16 and the chance to play in general until October, after FIFA justifiably slapped him with a huge punishment.
Plenty of other stars played well throughout the tournament, of course. Heck, many of them were present in the final. But in the end, it was the complete team that trumped the individual, not the other way around. As Messi glumly held his Golden Ball trophy next to Golden Gloves winner Manuel Neuer after the final, it was obvious this was not the tournament of the singular superstar.
It was also a tournament of subversion. Spain's era of dominance ended in the most abrupt way imaginable. Brazil may need to completely rethink their footballing identity after being dismantled by Germany. Greece, Algeria and Costa Rica shockingly reached the knockout phase, while Spain, Italy, England and Portugal failed to do so.
Keylor Navas became a household name, for heaven's sake.
So too were expectations confounded in the final. Messi, Gonzalo Higuain and Rodrigo Palacio blew golden goalscoring opportunities. The existence of Palacio's rat tail continued to defy all logic. Toni Kroos scuffed several attempts from the edge of his box, rare for a man known for his dangerous and accurate shot from distance (just ask Arsenal fans). The Germans failed to score on a set piece, their bread and butter, though Benedikt Hoewedes hit the bar with a header on a corner that even Benedict Cumberbatch would have buried.
Heck, Christoph Kramer started his first-ever World Cup game. How many casual fans knew who he was before the final?
Speaking of Kramer, he represented more than a few themes at this year's tournament. He only came on after Sami Khedira was injured in the warm-ups before the game began, after all. And injuries were certainly a huge part of this tournament.
Players like Radamel Falcao, Franck Ribery, Marco Reus, Theo Walcott, Rafael van der Vaart, Riccardo Montolivo, Christian Benteke and Kevin Strootman all missed the tournament altogether with knocks. Suarez, Khedira, Neymar, Di Maria and Jozy Altidore, among others, missed time during the tournament.
The World Cup was a beautiful display of the top footballers in the world, but many from that exclusive club were missing.
And quite a few were allowed to play through injuries sustained to their heads as well, one of the disappointing aspects of this year's tournament. Kramer was knocked flat on his butt by Ezequiel Garay in the 18th minute, clearly slamming his head into the defender's shoulder on a challenge. It was pretty obvious to anyone watching the game that he had been concussed, but he was allowed to continue nonetheless.
Less than 15 minutes later—and after falling to the pitch again—Kramer was substituted out of the game, glassy0eyed and incredibly lucky to not have sustained further damage to his brain.
Like many others, Matteo Bonetti of beIN Sports was outraged that Kramer was allowed to return to the game in the first place:
Pathetic from FIFA that Kramer was allowed to play. Get a damn concussion ruling.— Matteo Bonetti (@TheCalcioGuy) July 13, 2014
Kramer wasn't the only player allowed back into a game after suffering a head injury.
In Argentina’s semifinal against the Netherlands, Javier Mascherano obviously sustained a knock to the noggin but was allowed to return. Earlier in the tournament, Uruguay’s Alvaro Pereira took a knee to the head and was knocked unconscious but still returned to the game.
It's become obvious that FIFA's treatment of head injuries is about as modern as the car from The Flintstones. One imagines the governing body will be under serious pressure to make reforms after the disturbing displays seen at this World Cup.
But there was more light than darkness in this final, and the same can be said about the tournament on the whole. Germany and Argentina gave us exciting football; cagey football; quality football; scrappy football; joyful football; football running on fumes because every player on the field had given everything he had.
We couldn't have asked for anything more than that. We couldn't have asked for anything better that the tournament we got, from start to finish.
In four years, Russia will have quite a lot to live up to. There will be familiar stars there, of course, like Rodriguez and Neymar and Messi and Goetze and Thomas Mueller and Paul Pogba. The usual suspects on the international scene will do battle for the ultimate glory, too. Perhaps some new contenders will enter the fray (cough, cough, the United States, cough).
It's hard to imagine a better tournament, though, or a more compelling final. Brazil 2014 was truly breathtaking, from start to finish.