When Germany and Argentina play in the World Cup final on Sunday, it will be the fifth time in the past eight World Cups the two teams have met in the knock-out stage. Argentina beat Germany in the 1986 final and Germany reversed the result in the final four years later.
In 2006, Germany eliminated Argentina on penalty kicks in the quarterfinals. In the 2010 quarterfinals, Germany routed Argentina 4-0.
One would think that the 2010 rout is the most, and maybe the only, relevant one of these matches. After all, eight players who appeared for Argentina that day and nine who appeared for Germany are likely to play on Sunday.
However, I’ll argue below that the 2010 contest is a poor guide to what to expect, and that Sunday’s match is more likely to follow the model of the 1990 final, which Germany won 1-0.
First, let’s summarize the four matches mentioned above.
1986: Argentina 3, West Germany 2
Led by Diego Maradona, playing as well as anyone ever has in a World Cup, Argentina was the superior team. West Germany, as it tended to do in those days, stumbled early in the tournament (losing to Denmark) before picking up steam in the knock-out stage. But the team never seemed like the equal of Argentina.
In fact, Brazil and France were considered the main threats to Argentina. But France defeated Brazil in a grueling quarterfinal that went to penalty kicks, and didn’t have enough left in the tank to cope with Germany in the semifinal.
In the final, Argentina went up 2-0, but Germany fought back to level the match with goals in the 74th and 81st minute. Just three minutes later, though, Maradona set up the winning goal in one of the most memorable World Cup finals ever.
1990: West Germany 1, Argentina 0
This match was one of the dullest finals ever. The Argentinians were mediocre other than Maradona who, though still a superstar, wasn’t playing at his 1986 level.
Argentina limped through the group stages and were equally uninspiring in the knock-out stages. They beat Brazil 1-0, Yugoslavia on penalties after a 0-0 draw, and hosts Italy also on penalties after a 1-1 draw. Argentina’s approach was to negate the other team as an attacking force (through fouling when necessary); rely on Maradona to produce a moment of magic to win the match; and if he didn’t, win the shoot-out.
The young West German team of 1986 had matured and added an excellent striker named Jurgen Klinsmann. It romped through the group stages and survived a shoot-out with England after a 1-1 draw to reach the final.
Argentina’s tactics ensured that the final would be a dreary affair. They succeeded in stifling West Germany even after an Argentine defender was sent off in the 64th minute for a foul on Klinsmann.
The deadlock was only broken when, with five minutes left, West Germany was awarded a penalty kick for what probably was not a foul. Argentina had another player sent off in the dying moments. They also became the first team, but hardly the last, not to score in a World Cup final.
2006: Germany 1, Argentina 1 (Germany advances on penalty kicks, 4-2)
Neither team was among the elite at the 2006 World Cup in Germany. The Germans featured a rebuilt team coached by Klinsmann. Argentina was a mixture of old mainstays like Ayala and Crespo and up-and-comers like Messi (age 18) and Tevez. They needed penalty kicks to get past Mexico in the Round of 16.
The quarterfinal was a cagey, defensive affair. Argentina scored shortly after half time due to a marking error by Klinsmann’s young team on a corner kick. Late in the match, Klose (who will likely play on Sunday) scored the equalizer on a cross from Ballack (the ubiquitous ESPN analyst in Brazil this year).
Both sides seemed to be going through the motions in extra time. The match proceeded to spot kicks with little incident other than Maxi Rodriguez (who may play on Sunday) diving in the penalty area following minimal contact from Lahm (who will definitely play on Sunday).
Jens Lehman, the Arsenal goalkeeper was the hero of the shoot-out. He appeared to receive instruction on Argentina’s penalty shooting tendencies from his backup, the great Oliver Kahn, whom he had replaced as Germany’s Number 1 and with whom he supposedly was barely on speaking terms.
After the match, members of the two teams squared off. Things were that contentious.
2010: Germany 4, Argentina 0
Heading into this match, these two teams were the most explosive at the World Cup. Germany had hammered England 4-1 in the Round of 16. Argentina had won its three group stage matches by a combined score of 7-1 and defeated Mexico 3-1 in the Round of 16.
Coach Diego Maradona had his team playing all-out attacking football via the four-headed monster of Di Maria, Messi, Higuain, and Tevez. And he reportedly had told them not to worry about tracking back on defense.
As a result, Germany overran the Argentine midfield of Maxi Rodriguez and Mascherano, and carved up the back four. Muller scored in the third minute. Schweinsteigger and Klose (with two goals) were the other main German heroes.
Maradona was replaced right after the 2010 World Cup. The current coach, Sabella, is the anti-Maradona. Using basically the same players, he has sacrificed offense to create the best defensive team in the tournament.
Di Maria and even Higuain track back conscientously, and at times Sabella has inserted Perez and Lavezzi into his front four primarily, it seems, because of they track back religiously.
For this reason, I don’t expect Sunday’s match to resemble the 2010 encounter. If anything, the situation reminds me much more of 1990.
Just as back then, this Argentina team focuses on shutting down the opposition and relying on its superstar (then Maradona, now Messi) to produce the one goal they need. Just as back then, Germany looks like the best team in the tournament, but has struggled to score against determined defenses.
Will we see a repeat of the dire 1990 final? I hope not, but it’s a distinct possibility.