When Mario Gotze was chosen to start for Germany in their World Cup opener against Portugal, it came as a surprise to many. The 22-year-old had had a difficult first season at Bayern Munich, showing class in spurts but only playing the full 90 minutes on 13 occasions.
Marco Reus' injury in the Nationalmannschaft's final pre-tournament friendly left room for Gotze in the starting lineup, although the in-form Lukas Podolski and the efficient Andre Schurrle were more obvious options. Both were at least more reliable scorers than Gotze, a natural playmaker whose abilities may have been superfluous in the presence of Mesut Ozil and only Thomas Mueller to whom to give service.
The story of Gotze's World Cup rather paralleled his season at Bayern. He was Germany's best player against Portugal when the match was scoreless, winning the penalty that put Low's men ahead. He also scored the opener against Ghana in the next match. But after the early minutes of the Portugal game, there was no consistency from Gotze.
Although one of his longtime favorites, Low must have realized that Gotze wasn't yet ready. The Bayern man played just 14 minutes against the United States, half of the Algeria game and seven minutes against France. The fact that Low brought on Julian Draxler for his first minutes of the World Cup in Germany's 7-1 hammering of Brazil, keeping Gotze benched throughout, perhaps was a wake-up call for his golden boy.
When the final came, Low showed his true colors. He kept Miroslav Klose in the game for as long as the 36-year-old could last, 88 minutes. Then with injury time beckoning and Schurrle having already been introduced, Low called upon Gotze to deliver. The Dortmund academy graduate did not disappoint, scoring the only goal of the match with a finish the skill of which perhaps only he among Germany's squad could so coolly deliver in such a high-stakes situation.
After the match, Low revealed that Gotze's goal was no mistake. Per ESPN's Gabriele Marcotti, he gave the youngster a pep talk during the interval between the two halves of extra time:
"I told him to go and show the world that he is better than [Lionel] Messi and that he can decide who wins this World Cup."
Low was not finished. He then explained why, despite all the abundant class Mueller and Schurrle had shown in the matches prior, he had put so much emphasis on the role of Gotze:
"We have good players. [Muller] and [Schurrle] work hard and can attack the space behind. But Gotze, well, he's our wunderkind. He has incredible technical ability. He can decide matches."
Indeed, he can and did.
Gotze has always been one to rise to the big occasion. Even as an 18-year-old in his first game against Bayern Munich, he assisted two goals in Dortmund's 3-1 win. In his second match against the Bavarians he scored the only goal of the match; in the third, his goal salvaged a draw. Nothing in his career prior, of course, compared to his finish on Sunday.
A goal like Gotze's is a career-defining moment. Many great players go an entire career without scoring in a World Cup final, even when given the opportunity. Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Gonzalo Higuain, Arjen Robben, Robin van Persie, Wesley Sneijder, David Villa and the entire current German team apart from their young prodigy are all stars of recent years who had a chance to score in a final but couldn't hit the target. Scoring the winner in the World Cup final could mark a turning point in Gotze's career.
Gotze has a long way to go if he is to cement his place in the history books as a legend of the game. But time is on his side. Some, like Bastian Schweinsteiger and Philipp Lahm, have had to wait the majority of a career to win the World Cup. Gotze did it in his first try and it was he who scored the winner.
In all likelihood, Gotze will never score even nearly as many goals as Messi. But aggregate goals aren't the only benchmark to success in a career; there's something to be said for scoring when it matters most and winning titles. On Sunday, Gotze repaid Low's faith in him and did something that Messi may never do. Few players can say that. Still 22, he has so much more to show the football world in the coming years.