In the end, it was a flash of individual brilliance that decided the tournament, albeit not from the player we all expected.
This was supposed to be Lionel Messi’s big moment, the match that would see him end all arguments and assume his rightful position alongside Pele and Diego Maradona as the greatest individuals to ever play the beautiful game.
Instead, when the 27-year-old woefully skied a 30-yard free-kick as his final contribution of the contest, it was clear that another player would be taking the glory this time around.
After scoring the only goal of a tight, tense World Cup final in the 24th minute of extra time, it was Mario Gotze—or “Super Mario,” as all Monday’s sports papers would proclaim him, temporarily stealing the moniker from Mario Balotelli—who became the unexpected hero of the hour.
It was a brilliant finish, a moment of genuine class in a game that had previously seen only nervous mis-hits in front of goal. Arriving unmarked inside the box and using his chest to bring down Andre Schurrle’s driven cross, Gotze swivelled and, leaving the ground, volleyed the ball across Sergio Romero and into the far corner.
With just over six minutes remaining, Argentina had neither the energy nor the creativity to summon a response.
"Gotze is a miracle boy, a boy wonder," Germany coach Joachim Low told reporters, via The Guardian's Dominic Fifield. "I know he’s always able to decide a match, and it was a great winner he scored."
Messi, the tournament’s best player, had been trumped by the competition’s best team—but it was another prodigiously talented individual who had delivered the knockout blow.
“It’s an unbelievable feeling, I don’t know how to describe it,” Gotze told reporters of his moment of glory, via Eurosport.com. “I just took the shot and didn’t know what was happening.”
The contrast with Messi’s emotions was stark, as anyone might have predicted.
"I just wanted to win the World Cup,” Messi noted, after receiving the Golden Ball for the tournament’s best player. “This award means nothing to me now."
Messi’s award—one that was not universally approved, to put it mildly—may end up further cementing the narrative of this match: That the greatest talent of his generation was let down by his supporting cast, and duly beaten by a better organised, more-rounded team of talents.
This is unfair. Messi was quiet for much of the final, but he was still one of three players to miss glorious openings for his team. Gonzalo Higuain and Rodrigo Palacio will likely spend a few sleepless nights wondering if they could have done far more with the clear sights of goal presented to them.
Germany, meanwhile, continued to be ravaged by injuries—a trend that has affected them with a vengeance for almost the entire calendar year. Ilkay Gundogan, Lars Bender and Sven Bender (all defensive midfielders) were all ruled out of this tournament long before it became a pressing concern, while Marco Reus—touted as the team’s best attacking threat—was injured in the team's final warm-up game.
Then on Sunday, Sami Khedira broke down in the warm-up, resulting in a first start for Christoph Kramer—who duly suffered a head injury of his own and had to go off in the 31st minute. With no other defensive midfielder left to call upon, forward Schurrle was introduced instead.
That Germany rallied enough to go on to win the tournament speaks not just to the depth of talent they have at their disposal, but the brilliance of their organisation and the mental fortitude they all possess.
“We’re going to celebrate for at least five weeks now,” Manuel Neuer, who was named the tournament’s best goalkeeper, said.
“We did it and it’s unbelievable. In the preparation we had some setbacks. We have to think of the guys not here. They are world champions now, too.”
By the time Kramer was helped from the pitch, the team was a patchwork construction, with Toni Kroos shifting deeper with every injury, Mesut Ozil dropping in to help out and Bastian Schweinsteiger covering more ground (and absorbing more painful fouls) to plug the inevitable gaps. The foundation that allowed them to pick Brazil apart at will was no longer so familiar, making it harder for them to create the flood of chances we saw in that 7-1 semi-final triumph.
Instead, it would be on an individual to deliver a decisive moment.
That would prove to be Gotze, a 22-year-old who has long been touted as a man for this sort of stage, before suffering something of a backlash in recent months.
Leaving his boyhood club, Borussia Dortmund, for Bayern Munich last summer had something to do with that, although it was more about the difficulty the forward—able to play on either flank, as a No. 10 or false nine—experienced in adjusting to the demands placed on him by a club that considers itself Germany’s most professional.
In and out of Pep Guardiola’s team, Gotze’s form was considered a concern heading to Brazil. Initially, he started for Low, but despite scoring against Ghana in a 2-2 draw, he was dropped by the time the knockout stages came around.
With two minutes remaining in normal time on Sunday, however, Gotze was finally introduced for Miroslav Klose—the veteran who had replaced him in Low’s preferred XI.
At 36, Klose was surely leaving the pitch for the last time in a World Cup. With 16 goals to his name, no player in history has scored more goals in the tournament than him. But Gotze’s second of the competition was destined to end up being more memorable than any of them.
With Argentina slowly beginning to embrace penalties as the method to decide this game, Gotze decided matters himself—the only player able to anticipate Schurrle’s incisive run and cross as fatigue began to set in.
"The pain is immense," Argentina’s midfield stalwart, Javier Mascherano, told reporters, via the Irish Independent. "We had the best chances but we didn't take them.
“We only had to last another five minutes at the end. We just didn't have that little bit of luck that you need in a final."
Germany know how that feels. Their recent tournament record has been well-documented: out in the semi-finals of the last two World Cups, a losing finalist in the one before that. Now that the "golden generation" of Schweinsteiger, Philipp Lahm et al are growing older, will the next generation be able to fare any better?
We already have an answer. Germany had finally broken through. The player long touted as his country’s future suddenly delivering them its brilliant, golden present.
"I told Gotze to show the world you're better than Messi,” the delighted Low revealed. “I had a good feeling with him."
Gotze has some way to go before he is better than Messi. For one night only, however, he made a bigger impact.
As a result, Germany are world champions for a fourth time.