South Africa is no place for a virtuoso this summer. Kaká, Cristiano Ronaldo, and now Lionel Messi have all left the tournament without seeming ever to have been there in the first place. The Argentinian is the current World Player of the Year, and the other two held that prize before him, but none has so much as scored a goal at the World Cup.
On a slightly more parochial level, Wayne Rooney, too, drew a blank. It says a great deal for Germany, scorers of four goals here as they were against England, that nobody can feel the tournament has been diminished by a purge of the stars. There is a joy in watching men with considerable talent work together and execute a plan to perfection.
Normally it is a troubling symptom when the manager turns into a star but only pure churlishness would deny Joachim Löw acclaim for Germany's exploits. His opposite number was left looking outdated. Diego Maradona had expended a lot of time in protective praise of Messi as he applauded the Barcelona player's work and foresaw him excelling at the critical moment.
The nature of the occasion was embodied in the third goal. Bastian Schweinsteiger, one of the defensive midfielders assigned to thwart Messi and others, had so relished the authority of his team that he reverted to his former post on the flank and went clear of the substitute Javier Pastore. The sight of a journeyman centre-half, Arne Friedrich, knocking in the cross capped Argentina's humiliation.
Maradona had no idea of how to react to this type of adversity. He is no fool, and in his heyday was the master of the shrewd pass, but he could not bring out strategic intelligence in his charges at this tournament. Pride might have taken its toll. From the opening phase, Messi stuck close to the central attackers, although that made it simple for Schweinsteiger and, in a minor role, Sami Khedira to deny him space to operate.
It could have been asked why Messi did not, say, try his luck on the flank where Jerome Boateng, usually thought of as a centre-half, was at left-back. Inconceivable as it seems, the outcome of the quarter-final may have been affected by the sheer pride that would not allow Maradona to rethink a strategy that was being nullified by Germany.
There is also need to bear in mind that Argentina held no monopoly on ability. This is a rather young, and very exciting, Germany line-up who played with style when their command of the afternoon had been established. The subjugation of Messi still left many figures to admire. Miroslav Klose may be no galáctico but, on the occasion of his 100th cap, he scored twice to take his tally for Germany to 52. One more goal would also see him equal the Brazilian Ronaldo's record of 15 at World Cup finals.
Thomas Müller, too, is occupying headline writers. After the pair against England there was, in the third minute, a further goal from the 20-year-old. Opponents are to enjoy a respite since his booking triggered a suspension for the semi-final. With Germany in this mood, however, Müller will not assume the tournament has come to a close for him.
The victors showed the potency of collaboration. It is a misrepresentation to argue that Maradona has no appreciation of that outlook but he also came as close as is conceivable to winning a World Cup single-handedly when Argentina raised the trophy in 1986. The notion that Messi would, at the very least, make the difference against Germany had not looked at all preposterous before kick-off.
Football at this level now seems a delicate matter. Spain appeared to achieve the ideal balance when winning Euro 2008. There was as much structure as panache and their passing style drained the life out of opponents while simultaneously charming spectators who could not care how gruelling it must be to play "hunt the football" against such a side.
This World Cup has brought the usual array of strategies. Brazil had looked impregnable but the trade-off between aggression and artifice was ultimately miscalculated. That was epitomised by the coarse challenge that ensured a red card for Felipe Melo in the tie with Holland that was also lost because of his hapless intervention for Wesley Sneijder's first goal.
A side has to come to an accommodation with itself. In the end, the pragmatism of Brazil was seen to be self-defeating. Germany may not have superior players but there has been an equilibrium between tenacity and style in the knock-out phase. If Löw has cause to worry it is because his side are now a prized scalp.
This is not a news report and may contain views expressed by the author which are not supported by GNM.