Rio de Janeiro has spent the last few days before the World Cup final in a state of rather clunky pathetic fallacy. As is often the case at this time of year Brazil’s beach-front capital has been drenched with Atlantic rain storms, as though – and here the music begins to swell, the berimbau strings to plonk poignantly – reflecting the tears of a nation, the day the samba died. The salt-water caipirinha of that 7-1 semi-final thrashing by Germany in Belo Horizonte, a result that has, in reality, been accepted with a gasp and a bemused shrug of the shoulders.
It is always tempting to look for wider patterns in sport. As Germany and Argentina prepare to contest their own final at Brazil’s gaudily trailed Copa Das Copas there is a natural urge to find a broader story, to gouge some more fulsome narrative out of how and why these two teams have ended up contesting the last match of a spectacular and hungrily consumed World Cup. The first time these nations met in a World Cup final in 1986 the match resembled in outline a kind of sporting parable: systems and team play versus a lone spike of individual genius, the ballad of el Diego against the machines. It would perhaps be tempting to see something similar here. There is no “i” in Deutsche Fussballmannschaft, but there is a “me” in Messi and much of the pre-match hype will centre on the possibility the world’s most alluring attacker can provide some decisive spark of individualism in a match contested otherwise by two measured teams: Argentina’s mix of subdued attack and worthy defence and Germany’s supremely gifted crop of processed modern footballers. As ever sport tends to defy this kind of analysis. In the event the 1986 World Cup final was decided by a set piece header plus goals from two European-based players, with Diego Maradona in controlled mode, picking off a slightly ragged West Germany at the death. Similarly the urge to see this final as a meeting of Mannschaft-spiel and Messi-spiel overlooks perhaps the final’s most intriguing pre-match detail.
This is not so much South American brio versus European refinement, as a meeting of two expertly tended, state-of-the-art generations. Much has been made in the past few days of Germany’s golden crop, the 2009 Uefa Under-21 championship team, of which six members are now likely to line up in the World Cup final. It is an extraordinary progression en masse from junior to seniors, given the usual level of natural wastage.
They are, though, not alone in this. In a genuinely rare moment of footballing symmetry Argentina’s own receding golden crop will also be present in Rio, with Alejandro Sabella’s team likely to contain six members of the fabled 2005 world under-20 champions. Messi, Sergio Agüero, Fernando Gago, Ezequiel Garay, Lucas Biglia and Pablo Zabaleta all played for Argentina in the Netherlands almost a decade ago, with Messi, aged just 17, top scorer and player of the tournament.
And so here we are: two generations that genuinely deserve to be called golden will meet in a brilliantly intriguing final, while a World Cup billed in its early rounds as a triumph of individualism, a pop star-ish affair of the celebrity No10s, has been pared down at the last to something more structural. Never mind the narrative, forget for now the random accident of individual genus: welcome to the jogo colectivo!
There are of course still considerable differences between these two final crops. Not to mention equally poignant levels of fear and anxiety. Germany are probably favourites to win this World Cup, just as they should probably be favourites to win every tournament given the supremely well-resourced and productive youth system put in place by an eminently sensible football association. And yet the burden of such riches is tangible at times. For the united Germany this is only a second World Cup final in six attempts, whereas between 1954 and 1990 the now subsumed entity known as West Germany reached six finals out of 10. German football had become fretful before this tournament, deflated by successive semi-finals, troubled by the sense that this bottle-fed generation of players is proficient but nice, brilliantly schooled but missing that vital quality of desperation, what Lothar Matthäus (who would probably know) has called “the really nasty players”.
Perhaps that stunning, unrepeatable semi-final victory has also raised the vague prospect of another Maracanaço on Sunday evening – this one Euro-flavoured: a Maracan-alemaço perhaps – as like Brazil in 1950 Germany have come scooting through at the last on a surge of attacking success. Back then Brazil had also just won 7-1 and faced a final match against a stodgier looking Uruguay. And, while Bayern Munich’s Champions League win in 2013 confirms the calibre of these players, uncertainty from here will tend to centre now on Joachim Löw, who has the manner, the frown, the chat, the roll-necked jumpers of a footballing genius, just not the medals.
If there is a pressure on Germany to capitalise on its superabundance of talent, the pleasant discomfort of an embarrassment of riches, Argentina’s own anxieties are more about disappearance and dwindling away. Right now the current team look like a last breath of the superbly fecund youth systems put in place by José Pékerman during his time as coach of Argentina’s youth teams in the mid-1990s. In the Pékerman era Argentina not only won four under-20 world titles (the last that 2005 starburst), but clubs in the domestic top tier were inspired to rearrange their own coaching systems to replicate and feed into the Pékerman vision of small perfectly balanced ball-players and a style based on rapid “vertical” attacking movement.
Pékerman, who coached Colombia here, has had no involvement with his homeland’s national teams since the World Cup quarter-final defeat by Germany in 2006. Since when, the argument goes, his systems have been increasingly neglected by a domestic league more focused on TV rights money. And certainly there appears to be a gaping talent vacuum beneath the class of 2005: just look at the current squad, in which 13 out of 23 players are within the class of 2005 age group, and only Marcos Rojo is under 25. This is not the Argentinian way. There is a blockage here, a sense of riches to be cashed in now before the thin times to come.
There is another strand to this generational clash of systems in Rio on Sunday. What are we left with here? In a certain light this first South American World Cup final in 36 years already looks like a distinctly European affair. Of 46 players available to be selected, 43 play in Europe, while of Argentina’s possible starting XI only Rojo has been there less than seven years (he has been in Moscow and Lisbon for the past three). Even Messi was seen for many years in his own country as a quasi-European, a semi-Catalan, a creative player whose talents, and indeed personality on the pitch had been refined by Barcelona into something not obviously recognisable as Argentinian: more academic and orderly, a “cold” European-style creative star. It could be argued, pejoratively of course, that a first European World Cup win on South American soil is a certainty whatever the score, either in name or by proxy.
Which brings the pre-final whirl back, once again, to systems. The death of tiki-taka has already been proclaimed at this tournament (including by this writer, albeit without suggesting anybody at this World Cup kept the ball well enough to claim tiki-taka even came here in the first place). Either way, it turns out possession football isn’t dead after all. In fact it’s very much alive and present at the Maracanã on Sunday. This is the thing about coherent, refined generations of modern footballers: they tend to keep the ball. Under Löw, Germany play a variant on the Barcelona style, albeit with more emphasis on the speed of passing. Löw has been known to put a stopwatch on the time his players take to release the ball, urging them to trim another tenth of a second off the team average, a style that is perhaps not so much tiki-taka as quicki-taka. This Argentina team, meanwhile, is pegged out around Messi and Javier Mascherano, Barcelona royalty in the wonder years, and both proteges in their own way of the absent spectre at this feast of a World Cup final, the current king of European systems-based football, Pep Guardiola.
Oddly enough, without ever managing a national team Guardiola has managed to become a hugely potent background figure, not just at this World Cup final, but at the last one too. Not only is Guardiola’s peak Barcelona style, as adapted at Bayern Munich (with a lineage going back through Heynckes-Van-Gaal-Cruyff) still a dominant influence, he is also the current coach of six of Germany’s starting XI, was coach of seven of Spain’s winning players four years ago, and is the coach who took Messi in off the wing and made him a goalscoring phenomenon.
Teams, systems, groups of players schooled in the same well-ordered habits: this has been the message of the late stages of Brazil 2014, and will be the lurking theme of Sunday’s delicious-looking World Cup final whatever shape the match itself takes. And more broadly this has been the trend here after the early stirrings of star player-ism – that now-distant James Rodríguez, Messi, Neymar mini-era – a tendency for the more coherent, more organised nations to progress. Costa Rica’s quarter-final place was a triumph of expert administration, Holland are Holland (and Belgium are the new Holland), while Brazil, who essentially have no system, whose players emerge from a fertile chaos and decamp across Europe as soon as possible, appear to be in a state of some disarray.
Similarly, if England look to be some way off world football’s elite it is as much in the mental as much as technical aspects, the obvious intelligence and tactical acuity of the best players this World Cup. At half-time in their opening match against Bosnia-Herzegovina a delegation of Argentina players approached Sabella and asked to switch to the 4-3-3 that changed the game in the second half. In England this would have been a scandal, a mutiny. For Argentina it was a sign of strength, of engaged and properly schooled players, and of that team spirit forged not through flag-waving or nebulous national pride, but through a camaraderie of method and an international adolescence spent together.
Messi was reportedly the leader of that delegation, and he remains the centre of Sunday’s final, if not as a lone creative spark, then as a central conduit for the various forces at play. In a way Messi’s more minimal presence last season at Barcelona and at this tournament, the strolling, deep-lying No10, finger always hovering over the nitrous oxide button, is an adoption of a more traditionally Argentinian style. It has worked well at times, albeit Messi was shunted to the fringes in the stalemate against Holland. For the neutral there is always a hope that with the final now in his grasp Messi might revert to the style of his earlier years as a relentlessly scurrying false 9, the all-action Messi who seemed the perfect fusion of imagination and athleticism and that deadly cold “European” temperament. Sunday in Rio would be the perfect moment to lift those tired legs one last time.
Either way, it is already a genuinely fascinating final, not so much a clash of styles as a meeting of methods, and a moment of coronation for at least one of modern football’s great golden crops.
• This article was corrected on 11 July 2014 to reflect the fact that a united Germany did reach the 2002 World Cup final