By Mary Cunningham
The 2014 World Cup ends on Sunday with the championship game between Argentina and Germany. and as you prepare to watch at 3. p. on ESPN, you should know your level of expertise.
If you think stoppage time is a gastrointestinal condition, you’re a novice. If you follow the English Premier League sporadically, you probably grasp more than the basics. If you use terms like “pitch” or “side” or “fútbol,” you’re either an expert or not from the U.S.
Here are things to watch for on Sunday:
• Argentina has this one guy—you may have heard of him—named Lionel Messi
He’s only 27, but he has been the best player on the planet for the best part of a decade. There’s just one problem: Until this year, he has never played his best on the game’s biggest stage, the World Cup. In fact, in two previous appearances in 2006 and 2010, he didn’t even score a goal.
In Brazil, Messi has set about squashing that narrative. With a good, though hardly brilliant cast of players around him, he’s finally living up to his role as a one-man game-changer. He’s scored four goals, laid on one assist and had a hand in five of his team’s eight goals at the tournament.
Until now, he’s been kept out of the “all-time greatest” conversation, because unlike Pelé and fellow Argentine Diego Maradona, he’s never lifted the World Cup. With one moment of brilliance, he could change that on Sunday.
• Sunday’s game will determine which country gets to look down on the rest of the world for the next four years. But it will also help to resolve a fundamental question raised at this year’s tournament: What is the best way to build a winning team in international soccer?
For years, the secret to World Cup success was building a team to showcase one superstar player, from Pelé to Diego Maradona and Zinedine Zidane.
But in the past few years, collective endeavor has slowly replaced individual brilliance as the key to victory in this tournament. In 2006, Italy rode a smothering defense all the way to the title. Four years later, Spain won the trophy with a short-passing game based on fluid movement and smooth teamwork.
In Brazil, the 32 teams have been largely divided along these lines. Brazil (Neymar), Colombia ( James Rodríguez ) and Argentina (Lionel Messi) made deep runs thanks to individual talent. France, Chile and Costa Rica were well-oiled teams.
Sunday’s game, which pits Messi and 10 other guys against Germany’s cohesive unit, will be an on-field proxy for this debate.
• For all the talk about Messi, Germany’s Miroslav Klose and the other superstar forwards in Sunday’s final, the outcome of the game could hinge on a pair of less heralded players: the Argentine fullbacks.
These outside defenders have played a crucial role in Argentina’s attack. With their bursts up the sideline, Marcos Rojo and Pablo Zabaleta (at left) overload opposing defenses, creating holes in the middle of the field and crossing opportunities out wide.
Rojo’s goal against Nigeria made him one of just four Argentine players to score at this tournament.
But against Germany, attacks from the fullback position are a dicey proposition. The Germans employ a warp-speed counterattacking style of play that exploits the spaces left when these defenders step out of the back line.
Seven of Germany’s 17 goals at the World Cup have come on fast breaks launched from inside their own half of the field, including four of the seven goals in their semifinal rout of Brazil, when they ruthlessly exposed the host team’s plan to attack with its fullbacks.