Slate's soccer blog.

July 12 2014 4:53 PM

Messi Is Great. Germany Is Great. They’ll Still Be Great No Matter What Happens Sunday.

Lionel Messi is great. Germany is great. There should be no debate about either of these things. And yet, in the minds of many, Sunday’s World Cup final will answer a pair of questions that nobody should bother to ask: Can Messi truly be a legend if he’s missing a “signature World Cup moment”? And is this German national team, the one that crushed a reeling Brazil, really all that great?

Let’s begin with Messi.

“It would be beautiful to be five seconds him.”

It’s not notable that someone would say such a thing about the greatest player in soccer. It is notable that the words came from Messi’s Argentina teammate Javier Mascherano.

Mascherano has been the defensive anchor of an Argentine team that conceded just three goals on its way to the World Cup final. Much more so than Messi, the holding midfielder was the hero of Argentina’s semifinal victory over the Netherlands—he made the brilliant tournament-saving, anus-tearing tackle that prevented Arjen Robben from scoring the game-winner in the dying minutes.

It wasn’t just that amazing, beautiful, perfect tackle. Mascherano is one of the finalists for the “Golden Ball” award, the tournament’s MVP trophy. He has more recovered balls than any of the other finalists, including vaunted German defenders Philipp Lahm and Mats Hummels. He’s fifth in the tournament in blocked shots, fifth in interceptions, and No. 1 in total passes.

And this is not Mascherano’s first rodeo. He has been a regular starter as Messi’s teammate at Barcelona, including on the 2010-2011 team that was one of the greatest club sides in history. He has also won two Olympic gold medals with Argentina.

Keep all of that in mind when you hear that Mascherano, in a new docudrama about Messi’s life, says that it would be a beautiful thing to experience the game through Messi’s eyes for a few moments. It’s as if Scottie Pippen sang “Be Like Mike” in a Gatorade commercial.

None of this is to say that Mascherano is some kind of lackey for Messi. He’s not. It’s just to emphasize the esteem that Messi’s otherworldly talents inspire, especially among his teammates.

Messi’s achievements have proven worthy of such admiration. His genius and vision on the pitch are undeniable. At the World Cup he has been the focal point of every game he’s played. He’s scored, assisted, or otherwise set up seven out of Argentina’s eight goals. He’s also forced teams to alter their game plans to neutralize him. In Argentina’s group stage opener at the Maracanã, the site of Sunday’s final, Messi caused the opening own-goal by Bosnia-Herzegovina with a dangerous free kick into the box. He then scored the game-winner with a stunning run through the Bosnian defense.

In the next match, he saved Argentina from an embarrassing 0-0 draw with Iran by scoring in injury time with one of the best goals of this World Cup.

In the next match against Nigeria, he scored a brace that ensured that Argentina would finish top of the group and avoid facing France and Germany in the first two knockout rounds and instead play the much tamer Switzerland and Belgium. Against the Swiss, he made another game-changing run in the 118th minute before laying it off to Ángel di María for the match-winning score. In Argentina’s 1-0 victory over Belgium in the quarterfinals, it was again Messi who created the space for the team’s only goal by dancing around two defenders before finding Ángel di María, who ultimately set up the Gonzalo Higuaín score.

Belgium, who as a reminder had taken 38 shots and 27 on target in the previous game, was held scoreless on 10 attempts against Argentina. A lot of this was due to Mascherano’s leadership and the cohesiveness of the team defensively, but Belgium was also forced to alter its tactics to try to cope with Messi. I’ve heard one commentator describe Messi’s role in these latter rounds as that of a sort of nuclear deterrent, offsetting an opponent’s ability to focus resources on attack because of fear that he’ll go off.

No single player has had a bigger impact on his team at this World Cup. And that’s just this tournament. Messi’s prior C.V. includes six Spanish league titles, three Champions League trophies, an Olympic gold medal, and a record four Ballon d'Or trophies. He also has the records for most goals scored in a single year with 91 and most consecutive games with a goal (21 matches and 33 goals for Barca in the 2012-2013 season), and he has the second-most goals in the history of Argentina’s national team (a record he’s on pace to break).

Yet, there still seems to be a question in the sports press of whether Messi deserves to be placed alongside Brazil’s Pele and Argentine countryman Diego Maradona as one of the greatest players of all time. Whatever happens in Sunday’s final is supposed to determine the legacy of a player who has already achieved more on a soccer field than perhaps anyone else ever. He’s supposed to lead his team to victory over a German side that is clearly the best in the world. He’s supposed to do it having played 30 more minutes than the Germans, feeling “like his legs weighed 100 kilos” each, and on one day fewer rest. And he’s supposed to do it against a team that already has a “secret plan” to modify its tactics, as the Belgians and the Dutch have done, to hold him in check.

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Belgium's strategy versus Messi.

Juan Mabromata / AFP/Getty Images

Germany is facing an identical dilemma as Messi. The Germans are the best team in the world right now. They confirmed that with a victory over Brazil that will be remembered by soccer fans and history books as long as the sport exists. But if they lose against Messi, then they’ll go down as losers.

In reality, this German national team has already earned its place as one of the best in history. ESPN’s Soccer Power Index has them listed at No. 1 in the world, which isn’t that surprising. More impressive is that the World Football Elo Ratings—touted by Neil Paine and Nate Silver of 538.com, who declare themselves “big fans” of that rating system—rank this German team as the best in history.

If you look at the list, it’s astonishing to see them ahead of Ferenc Puskás’ 1954 Hungary team, Pele’s 1962 Brazil team, and Spain’s 2013 team that was coming off of its third consecutive major title at Euro 2012. You could look at Germany’s placement ahead of those teams and think, “that’s kind of stupid,” or at least “that’s kind of premature.” You might be right. But it should give you an appreciation for what Germany has accomplished in recent years.

This German team has been the second-most-consistent team to Spain since 2006. They finished third at the 2006 World Cup, runners-up to Spain at Euro 2008, third again at the 2010 World Cup, and as semifinalists at Euro 2012. They will finish either first or second at this World Cup, and their rating has already gotten a major bump from beating Brazil 7-1 in Brazil. That’s probably the most impressive result in the history of the sport when you consider that the Brazilians hadn’t lost a competitive home match since 1975.

And this golden generation of Germans has already achieved great things aside from rankings. The team is built from the side that won the 2009 European Under-21 Championship. Twenty-eight-year-old Manuel Neuer has been the goalkeeper of the tournament (sorry Tim Howard), while the team’s young, ultra-talented midfield has been the principal reason for its success.* Twenty-four-year-old Thomas Müller has five goals for the second consecutive World Cup. Twenty-five-year-old Mats Hummels scored the game-winner in the quarterfinals against France for his second goal of the tournament. Sami Khedira, the captain of that 2009 team, has been the guiding force of that midfield along with 24-year-old Toni Kroos (not a member of the 2009 German U21 team).

All of these young stars are bolstered by three all-time greats from the 2006 World Cup team that finished third at home. Philipp Lahm has been the team’s defensive guide since returning to his natural position at right back after the team struggled to get past Algeria 2-1 in a last 16 match that required extra time. Bastian Schweinsteiger has been a stalwart in midfield, while Miroslav Klose has merely gone and broken the all-time World Cup goal scoring record. When people describe this as the most-talented team in German history, that’s a reasonable claim. As a reminder, this is a nation that has won three World Cups and is entering its eighth final.

This German team also has one of the great national club sides of the era at its core. Like Spain’s 2010 starting 11, which featured a majority of Barcelona players, more than half of Germany’s starters come from another Pep Guardiola-coached side in Bayern Munich. Those players won this year’s Bundesliga crown in record speed.  The 2012-13 Bayern team, coached by Jupp Heynckes, also tied the record for most wins in a Bundesliga season and won a treble with the Champions League title and the DFB-Pokal crown.

Finally, at this tournament the team has six players in the top 10 of total passes, four of the 10 finalists for FIFA’s Golden Ball award, and one of the three finalists for the Golden Glove goalkeeping award. Oh, and 7-1.

But none of this will be enough to ensure Germany’s reputation as one of the great teams of all-time. To do that, they have to beat the sport’s Michael Jordan. If they don’t, then they’ll be considered a pretty good team that just didn’t have enough, like the Utah Jazz.

It’s just one game, and hopefully it will be a great one, full of Messi moments and German brilliance. But only one side can win. And the victor is supposed to decide the “greatness” of Germany and of Messi forever and ever?

This German team is at worst the second-best team of the past decade and one of the top international teams in recent history. Messi is the greatest player of his generation and one of the best of all-time. The result of Sunday’s World Cup final won’t change those two facts. Unless somebody wins 7-1.

*Correction, July 14, 2014: This post originally misstated Manuel Neuer’s age. He is 28 years old, not 23.

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July 11 2014 6:20 PM

Why Argentina's World Cup Final Appearance Is Doubly Sweet

BUENOS AIRES—I have always had trouble processing the bitterness of the soccer rivalry between Argentina and Brazil.

I can still remember my surprise at watching my first World Cup final in Buenos Aires. It was 1998 and France was playing Brazil in Paris. The Argentines I watched with were loudly cheering every single French goal as if it had been scored by Diego Maradona. I’m Brazilian, as is my dad, but my mom is Argentine so ours was always a dual-allegiance household. Sure, I’d long had more of an affinity for La Albiceleste but that was more about sibling rivalry—my older brother was a huge backer of the Seleção Canarinho.

In Argentina, the same people who spend their summers vacationing on Brazilian beaches yearn desperately for their neighbor’s defeat in soccer. Just getting to the World Cup final would have been enough to make 40 million Argentines happy. That it will take place in Brazil—at the iconic Maracanã no less—and come days after the hosts suffered a humiliating 7-1 defeat at the hands of Germany amounts to a sizable cherry on top. “My first goal is for Argentina to win the Cup. My second is for Brazil to lose,” a friend told me at the beginning of the tournament when I was complaining about anti-Brazilian fervor. It’s a characteristic I’ve become used to in my nine years of living in Buenos Aires.

The rivalry has been out in full force over the past month—and has caused plenty of skirmishes in and around stadiums—as tens of thousands of Argentines descended on Brazil singing what has become the country’s anthem in this World Cup.

Set to the tune of Credence Clearwater Revival’s Bad Moon Rising, Argentines have been taunting: Brasil, decime que se siente, tener en casa a tu papá (“Brazil, tell me how it feels, to have your daddy in your house”). It’s an ode to Argentina’s defeat of Brazil in the 1990 World Cup and a prediction that Lionel Messi will win the trophy in Rio. Even the players have gotten in on the fun. Here they are singing the taunt as a celebratory chant in their locker room after beating Belgium to advance to semifinals.

(After Brazil’s historic loss to Germany, Argentine soccer legend Diego Maradona took the taunting even further, changing siente to siete—Spanish for seven.)

Brazilians would be right to dismiss the song as ridiculous. After all, Brazil has won two World Cups since Argentina’s last World Cup final ended in defeat to West Germany in 1990. Argentina, meanwhile, last came out on top in 1986 (also against the Germans). Brazil also has five titles to Argentina’s two. Argentina has at times been considered a sort of regional little brother to Brazil, with its larger population and collection of soccer trophies. But now Brazilians face the terrifying prospect of the “daddy in your house” heckles gaining a ring of truth. The fabled Argentine arrogance that so grates on so much of Latin America could reach new heights. Brazilians are also in the position of having to root for the team that ruthlessly booted them from their own Cup. As the front page of Brazil’s sports newspaper Lance! blared the day after Argentina’s victory: “Germans since we were little children.” The subhead: “Germany ended the dream of a sixth championship for Brazil. Let them now prevent Argentina’s third championship!”

Argentines may have their song, but Brazil has also done plenty to fuel the animosity. One Brazilian beer ad, for example, tells the tale of a group of Brazilians who invited over a house-full of Argentines for a party. “Our house is open for you to come in and feel like you’re in Buenos Aires,” the seemingly hospitable Brazilians tell their neighbors before locking the door and rocketing the house off into oblivion.

In Argentina, of course, there is also pride in what the national team has achieved, and not just schadenfreude for Brazil’s failure. Part of what has been so exciting about watching Argentina in this World Cup is how much the team has grown as it moved through the competition. This new team unity started to become evident against Switzerland, only to be more on display in the quarterfinals against Belgium, and truly solidify itself on Wednesday. Proof of that is just how much the goalless Messi was pushed out of the headlines of Argentine newspapers and how what was widely seen as the team’s main liability—defense—is suddenly being seen as an asset.

Two new heroes emerged after the last game. One was obviously the goalkeeper Sergio Romero, who saved two penalty kicks. But the real hero was Javier Mascherano, who carried out an astounding, perfectly executed tackle to prevent Arjen Robben from scoring the winning goal in the game’s final minutes. “I tore my anus, that’s why I was in so much pain,” Mascherano later said after injuring himself on the tournament-saving play.

More than a single play though, Mascherano illustrated why he’s the psychological leader of the team, the one who can bring Messi’s brilliance down to earth and make sure that all of the team’s players operate as one. Never has his nickname of El Jefecito (little boss) seemed more apt than in this brief clip that shows Mascherano pumping up Romero for the penalties. Today you become a hero, he promised.

Social media has since exploded with odes to Mascherano, including pictures of him as Che Guevara and Argentine independence hero José de San Martín.

Brazilians can cheer for Germany all they want on Sunday, but Argentina has already fulfilled its goal of reaching the final in enemy territory while the hosts have to play a humiliating third-place match. They’ve done it with a team that has only grown stronger as the tournament has progressed, making it past each round without scandal or controversy to boot (not always a given for Argentina). There’s one more (very hard) step before glory can be theirs, but in many ways Argentina has already won

July 11 2014 1:22 PM

Why I Left Brazil to Watch the World Cup Final Back Home in Argentina

In 1986, I set off from my native Argentina with a backpack and a couple of friends along the coast of Brazil for a “year out.” Our aim was to get to Mexico in time for the World Cup. The beaches, I guess, and our youth, delayed us somewhat, and we ended up watching the tournament in Brazil. After the Seleção got knocked out by France, and following Diego Maradona's handball-aided victory over England, Brazilians took to manifesting their dislike of all things Argentine with huge machetes—we were ushered out the back door of bars and told not to speak, lest we reveal by our accents where we came from.

I watched the final, between Argentina and West Germany, in a hostel in Rio with three German travelers who were so stunned by the hostility of our environment that they took me out for a beer. It was a weird way to celebrate what had been an extraordinary tournament, a monthlong display of fantastic football: Among a generation of superb talent from all over the world, the genius of Maradona had stood out above the rest. It was also so very different from my memories of celebrating the 1978 World Cup in Argentina, when as an 11-year-old I had experienced both love of football and pure joy for the first time.

During this World Cup, the 2014 edition, I’ve realized that this love of football is about emotional ties that transcend the game, and emotional responses that are triggered by events on the pitch. For everyone in Argentina, memories of the glories of 1986 are about where you were in 1986, and who you were 28 years ago. And it’s the same for 1978, and that’s how it will be for 2014, too.

My grandfather was a sportswriter. In 1950, he took my great-uncle Jose Antonio, born in Brazil, to the Maracanã for the World Cup final between Brazil and Uruguay. “In those days he just took me along and smuggled me in,” Jose Antonio recalls now. “I don't know if he had a plan B should anyone have refused me entry. I was just a boy so I don't know what he would have done.” The weeping and inconsolable sadness provoked in the little boy when Brazil lost that match became the stuff of family legend. My grandfather wrote him a story, a work of fiction in which Brazil wins the World Cup at the Maracanã, dedicated with the words, “perhaps, one day, it could become a reality.”

I watched Brazil's opening game with Jose Antonio, hand on his heart and a solemn expression on his 70-something face, while he sang the national anthem. I watched Argentina's victory over Belgium, sealing their ticket to the semifinal, on Copacabana beach with a German colleague. I realized sipping my caipirinha that my own relationship to the game—my own history, my family’s, and my country’s—meant that if Argentina continued winning, I didn't want to be here. In Brazil. Again.

The Brazilians have been amazing this past month, both on a personal and national level. The football has been terrific. But as it becomes clear that a dream might become reality for an entire country—winning the World Cup, with Lionel Messi at the helm—the concept of “being there” for an event acquires a blurry quality. What would I gain by being in the stadium? What would I lose by not being home in Argentina?

The experience of the stadium is one without equal. I was on the pitch right behind the goal in Saint-Étienne when Argentina knocked England out in 1998 and 18-year-old Michael Owen’s goal became the closest thing to magic after Maradona’s epic solo run from 1986. This time, though, there was the added edge of my being there—Owen was running toward me! Argentina then got eliminated by the Netherlands in a quarterfinal in Marseille, where the Dutch master Bergkamp scored a golazo and Ariel “El Burrito” Ortega lost his cool, head-butted an opponent, and got sent off. The emptiness after the event, as the press corps improvised their packing up and going home, the scrambled departures in all directions ... I’ll remember that forever. It was also the night I took one particular road of no return in my own life. I’ll remember that, too.

Years later I met Ortega at Maradona’s birthday party—yes, that's right—and I said to him, “Are you familiar with chaos theory? Whereby if a butterfly flaps its wing in China ... ” The whole history of humanity might have been different if you hadn't head-butted that Dutch guy, I told him. Ortega just stared at me, as if I was from another planet, shrugged his shoulders, and asked me if I could introduce him to a legendary TV celebrity in her 60s who was standing nearby. When I flew out to Rio at the beginning of this World Cup, I bumped into Ortega on the plane, half-asleep, on a ridiculously early flight, both of us looking weathered and older.

Awaiting another middle-of-the night flight, this time to Porto Alegre, I lay on the floor to sleep, only to be kindly woken by José Luis "El Tata" Brown, who was concerned I would miss boarding. El Tata scored the first goal for Argentina in the 1986 World Cup final, off a set-piece that had been thoroughly rehearsed by obsessive tactician Carlos Bilardo. Years later, he told me that not a day goes by when he doesn’t think of that goal, or someone reminds him of it with gratitude. He was mocked by the press when first included in the squad: They said he was only going along to make the tea. But when it came down to it, and Maradona was annulled by a German side determined to prevent him from playing, Tata was one of the crucial pieces of the engineering that made the dream possible.

Now, we have a new crop of characters. Goalkeeper Sergio Romero, the hero of the hour, the most unlikely hero. Javier Mascherano, the natural born leader. Ángel di María, Marcos Rojo, Pablo Zabaleta ... and Lionel Messi. A huge assortment of storylines have emerged from this. How they have learned to work together, become a team of conviction and determination. How feelings of national identity and patriotism can come to the fore, as exemplified by Messi’s once questioned and now revered identification with his motherland. How the rich and the poor experience World Cups differently, as evidenced by those watching from the villas and the slums, by the backgrounds of players such as di María, who is now said to be chartering a plane so 10 of his childhood friends can watch him.

And a new installment in our own stories unfolds. “Life is what happens between World Cups,” says eminent Argentine sportswriter Ezequiel Fernández Moores, and he means it. But life is also what happens during World Cups, and in the matches themselves. I finally made it back to Buenos Aires, to watch the final “among my own,” whatever that may mean, full of pride for sharing a nationality with the young men who are busting their butts to deliver this sense of glory, and with those who have come before them. Full of emotion over the fact that “we” are in the semifinal, and that “we” may win the Cup for a third time. For reasons that are hard to explain.

July 11 2014 11:26 AM

Who Should You Root for in the World Cup Final? (Don't Worry, You Can't Do It Wrong.)

On Wednesday, after Argentina defeated the Netherlands, I witnessed a debate between two colleagues over which team to root for in the World Cup final. One made the argument that, given Germany’s dominance during the global economic downturn, it was only right to support the Argentines, whose economy is on the brink of collapse. My other coworker replied that she couldn’t help loving the German players: They play astonishingly beautiful soccer. Also, she added, a lot of them bear a passing resemblance to her husband.

They both made great points. In fact, they both made equally great points, even though Colleague A’s argument was economic and Colleague B’s was half-tactical, half-personal. That’s because there is no such thing as a bad reason to support or despise a team in the World Cup. No reason for loving Germany is too big or too small. No reason for backing Argentina is too weighty or too petty.

The World Cup is unique among sporting events in this regard. When it comes to domestic sports, Americans are usually bound by local loyalty. You don’t have much of a choice about which baseball or football team to root for; you’re born into fandom for the home team. During the Olympics, questions of international relations often arise, and so arguments about sports tend to get more interesting. But since each Olympic event has a different lineup, you’re forced to take individual sports’ and athletes’ merit into account.

During the World Cup, however, each team takes on a synecdochic relationship to its home country. As a result, any personal or political feelings you might have about a given country become fair game for evaluating its national soccer team. It is one of the few times in life when national prejudices, old psychic wounds, and superficial judgments are all equally valid.

Some have argued that there might be moral reasons for rooting for the underdog. As a letter to New York Times ethicist Chuck Klosterman recently put it, it might be “more ethical to cheer for a team whose nation would receive greater utility—in other words, greater joy—from winning.” But Klosterman responded persuasively that World Cup partisanship is 100 percent morally irrelevant. “[T]here is no ethical responsibility to be objective about fandom,” the Ethicist responded. “You can fabricate whatever flawed reason you want.”

If you, like me, are an American who doesn’t give international soccer much attention for 47 out of every 48 months, you are in a unique position to come up with all manner of flawed reasons to support either Germany or Argentina in the final.

For instance, I have a friend who always roots against Germany because of the Holocaust. Mesut Özil, Jérôme Boateng, and Sami Khedira had nothing to do with the Holocaust. They weren’t even alive during the Holocaust, and if they’re like the Germans I know, they’re deeply chagrined and horrified by it. Nonetheless, my friend’s reason for wanting Argentina to win is impossible to argue with.

But if the Holocaust doesn’t seem relevant to you when you’re evaluating athletic competitions, don’t worry! There are plenty of other acceptable reasons to want Germany to lose to Argentina. A few suggestions:

  • You think the Germans play like automatons, not like human beings.
  • You think Lionel Messi is one of the greatest players alive, and that he embodies the spirit of American individualism, whereas the Germans’ collaborative playing style embodies the spirit of socialism.
  • You’re still mad that Germany beat the U.S. in the group stage.
  • You didn’t like the way Germany ran up the score against Brazil and think they deserve a comeuppance.
  • Your family’s originally from Colombia, and even though Colombia is out, you still want a South American team to win.
  • Lionel Messi kind of reminds you of your dad.
  • You think Francis is a way better pope than Benedict XVI.
  • You have a crush on Ezequiel Lavezzi.

On the other hand, there are an infinite number of valid reasons to want Germany to beat Argentina, such as:

  • You think the Germans play the most beautiful tiki-taka the world has ever seen.
  • You think Messi dominates his team like a tyrant, whereas the Germans play together with admirable cooperation and egalitarianism.
  • Your parents knew someone who was disappeared by the government of Argentina in the Dirty War.
  • Your ex-girlfriend cheated on you with an Argentine guy.
  • Your ex-girlfriend cheated on you with Ezequiel Lavezzi.
  • Messi kind of reminds you of your dad.
  • You have a crush on Bastian Schweinsteiger.
  • Several members of the German team resemble your husband.

Personally, I want Germany to win because I spent the summer of 2010 in Berlin, where I was infected by the locals’ enthusiasm for the Mannschaft, and also because at the time I was dating a Thomas Müller lookalike of whom I have fond memories. In other words, my reasons for liking Germany are totally idiosyncratic and irrational.

And that’s OK! The political correctness and rationality that rule our everyday lives go completely out the window when it comes to choosing a World Cup team to root for. This is one of the best parts of this magical tournament. It’s rare when you can counter someone’s argument about WWII with an argument about hot bods, and everyone can be right.

July 11 2014 10:49 AM

This Is Insane: Missed Dutch Penalty Almost Went in While Nobody Was Paying Attention

Goalkeeper Sergio Romero was the hero of Argentina’s penalty shootout victory over the Netherlands, making two gorgeous saves to send the Argentines to the final. But as this newly uncovered angle of Romero’s crucial first penalty save shows, Romero was very nearly the game’s goat.

The footage above, flagged by our colleagues at Slate.fr, demonstrates just how close Ron Vlaar’s penalty came to rolling back in to goal thanks to backspin while Romero celebrated his save. It was a matter of centimeters. Had the ball rolled any farther, the tournament’s goal line technology would have presumably alerted the referee with a buzzing smartwatch.

At that point, the goal would have counted and Vlaar might have been the hero and Romero the villain. But it still would have been controversial because there was a question whether Vlaar illegally touched the ball with his shoulder on the bounce-back.

As it turned out, Romero gets to be hailed for having provided Argentina’s new hand of God moment, but with a little worse luck he could have just as easily been pilloried for his celebration of clod.

July 10 2014 3:43 PM

How “Seven Nation Army” Conquered the Sports World

The march toward musical empire began on Oct. 22, 2003, in a bar in Milan, Italy, 4,300 miles away from Detroit. Fans of Club Brugge K.V., in town for their team's group-stage UEFA Champions League clash against European giant A.C. Milan, gathered to knock back some pre-match beers. Over a stereo blared seven notes: Da ... da-DA-da da DAAH DAAH, the signature riff of a minor American hit song.

By normal pop-music expectations, the White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army" had already passed its peak. Released in March of that year, the single reached No. 1 on Billboard's alternative rock chart in early July, stayed there for three weeks, then had begun to fade out. But the members of the Blue Army, a Brugge supporters group, liked what they were hearing and began to sing along. "It's a very catchy tune," Blue Army spokesman Geert De Cang wrote in an email.

Eight years later, the riff-turned-anthem is ubiquitous and seemingly inevitable, an organic part of global sports culture. On Thanksgiving night, 71,000 fans at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore chanted the riff in unison. You'll likely hear it again when the Ravens host the Texans on Sunday, in the background of the broadcast.

But in Milan, at the beginning, it was purely spontaneous and local. Kickoff was coming. The visiting Belgians moved out into the city center, still singing. They kept chanting it in the stands of the San SiroOh ... oh-OH-oh oh OHH OHH—as Peruvian striker Andres Mendoza stunned Milan with a goal in the 33rd minute and Brugge made it hold up for a shocking 1–0 upset. Filing out of the stadium, they continued to belt it out.

The song traveled back to Belgium with them, and the Brugge crowd began singing it at home games. The club itself eventually started blasting "Seven Nation Army" through the stadium speakers after goals.

Then, on Feb. 15, 2006, Club Brugge hosted A.S. Roma in a UEFA Cup match. The visitors won, 2–1, and the Roma supporters apparently picked up the song from their hosts.

"I had never heard the song before we stepped on the field in Bruges," Roma captain Francesco Totti told a Dutch newspaper later. "Since then, I can't get the 'Po po po po po poo pooo' out of my head. It sounded fantastic and the crowd was immediately totally into it. I quickly went out and bought one of the band's albums."

So "Seven Nation Army," having gone from Milan to Bruges, marched back to Italy again. Italians call it the "po po po po" song. By the time the World Cup kicked off in Germany that June, it had become the Italian national team's unofficial theme. Sports Illustrated reported that fans had serenaded Totti with the song during Italy's group-stage win over Ghana. The Azzurri beat France in the final on July 9, and amid the ensuing celebration, "Seven Nation Army" chants popped up on the streets of Rome.

On July 11 in Milan, Italian soccer stars Alessandro Del Piero and Marco Materazzi—the victim of Zinedine Zidane's head butt—led a crowd rendition of "Seven Nation Army" from the stage at a Rolling Stones concert. Soon, Jack White himself weighed in: "I am honored that the Italians have adopted this song as their own," White said. "Nothing is more beautiful than when people embrace a melody and allow it to enter the pantheon of folk music."

"It's still hard for me to digest," said Ben Swank, an executive at Third Man Records, White's label, on the phone from his office in Nashville. Swank was present at the birth of "Seven Nation Army," in January 2002—a moment whose significance was notably lost on him.

"[H]e was with us on tour in Australia when I wrote that song at soundcheck," White told Rolling Stone in 2009. "I was playing it for Meg and he was walking by and I said, 'Swank, check this riff out.' And he said, 'It's OK.' [Laughs]."

"Weirdly enough," Swank said, "I didn't like it. I said, 'I don't know man, you can do better.' " But the finished product, the opening track on Elephant, made him a believer. "It's the directness and simplicity of it," he says. "That's the appeal of their band across the board. I feel that way about all my favorite music of theirs. It's more emotion-based than thought-out or planned."

What makes "Seven Nation Army" different from most stadium anthems is that it actually has replay value. In February 2004, it won a Grammy for Best Rock song. The Grammys aren't the ideal barometer of cool, but "Rico Suave" never won a little gilded gramophone, did it? It's not syrupy like "Sweet Caroline," or melodramatic like "We Are the Champions," or gimmicky (or performed by a horrible, horrible person) like "Rock and Roll Part II." A few years ago, the Guardian wondered if it was "the indiest football anthem of all time."

"Seven Nation Army" made a beachhead in American sports in State College, Penn. According to a 2006 story in the Harrisburg Patriot-News, Penn State spokesperson Guido D'Elia—who is still the director of communications and branding for the embattled football program—was inspired by hearing a Public Radio International story about A.S. Roma's use of the song. D'Elia, who also introduced the now unavoidable German techno track "Kernkraft 400" to Nittany Lions fans, had found something new:

D'Elia had the Blue Band try it out during the soggy Blue-White scrimmage. And he's preparing a dubbed version of Jack White's seven-note guitar lick from the song in hopes the students will start in with their own wohhh-oh-oh-oh-oh-ohhh-ohhh. If they don't, he'll scrap it. If they do, he'll keep it.

By the middle of the 2006 season, "Seven Nation Army" was a Beaver Stadium staple. (This year, as Penn State students gathered on Nov. 8 outside the university administration building, they began singing Joe Paterno's first name over the riff.)

At the same time, Arrangers' Publishing of Nashville had begun selling "Seven Nation Army" sheet music for marching bands, turning the angry one-guitar song into ensemble music. The hypnotic riff—which White reportedly produced by feeding his guitar through an effects pedal to make it sound like a bass—fit the new arrangement nicely. "The doom of it," Swank says, "makes it perfect for a marching band."

The Boston College band picked it up immediately, and the song has kept spreading. "It was very simple to play, angry, very loud, and kind of aggressive," Arrangers' Publishing vice president Jeff Hearington said. "The minute I heard it, I said, ‘We need to try to license this.' " The company has sold about 2,000 copies, Hearington said.

Today, there are few athletic venues the song hasn't invaded. "Seven Nation Army" has appeared at both Michigan and Ohio State, and also at obscure schools (check out this rendition by St. Cloud State's band). At Euro 2008, it was played and chanted incessantly at stadiums in Austria and Switzerland. It's popped up in NBA arenas and at NFL stadiums, competing with standbys like "Hells Bells," "Welcome to the Jungle," and "Crazy Train" for time on the endless loop.

This past summer, the Ravens polled fans about what song should rally the crowd into the fourth quarter at home games. "Seven Nation Army" beat out "Enter Sandman" and Joe Satriani's "Crowd Chant," among others, in the final balloting, and it is now a ritual. The Detroit Lions joined in, too, playing the song at Ford Field. In October, coach Jim Schwartz mentioned it on Twitter. "I rarely notice music during timeouts," he wrote, "but I did enjoy #WhiteStripes 7 Nation Army last night. Great response by crowd."

Swank is still bemused by the song's all-conquering success. He glimpsed the extent of its reach more than five years ago, while vacationing on the island of Formentera during the 2006 World Cup. There, on a 32-square-mile dot in the middle of the Mediterranean, he heard a group of Italians chanting the riff White had composed at that Australian soundcheck. "He accidentally wrote a folk song," Swank said. "You do the best you can, but you can't predict where it's going to go."

More from Deadspin:

July 9 2014 2:51 PM

“Dennis Bergkamp!” Argentina vs. Netherlands and the Greatest Call in World Cup History

The last time Argentina and the Netherlands faced off in a match as important as Wednesday’s World Cup semifinal in São Paulo, it was a classic. That quarterfinal game at the 1998 World Cup produced one of the most magical moments in the tournament’s history, and perhaps the most memorable moment from that year’s Cup.

With the game tied at 1–1 and about to head into extra time, Netherlands striker Dennis Bergkamp scored in the 90th minute with one of the all-time best goals the tournament had ever seen. Dutch defender Frank de Boer blasted the ball 50 yards downfield, the Arsenal star brought it down with the most delicate of touches, swiveled around an Argentine defender, and fired it past the goalkeeper to give the Dutch the 2–1 victory.

It would seem nearly impossible for a live broadcaster’s commentary to match the pure drama of that moment, but that’s what happened when legendary Dutch commentator Jack van Gelder produced what to my mind is the greatest call in World Cup history.

Van Gelder’s cries of “DENNIS BERGKAMP! DENNIS BERGKAMP! DENNIS BERGKAMP!” and the exhausted final shriek that followed became iconic in the Netherlands and soon spread to a certain type of soccer geek all over the world.* The clip of the call, which has more than 2 million YouTube views, is still popular in England, Germany, and the Netherlands 16 years later. “I got a lot of reaction afterward, but in the moment itself you’re not aware that it’s going to be a famous moment,” van Gelder tells me over the phone. “Afterwards I learned a lot of people were very obsessed about it, or told me it was their, how you say it, their ring tone on their phone.”

Van Gelder’s performance at this World Cup has not reached “DENNIS BERGKAMP!” levels of excitement yet, but back home it has still been admired. His call of the Netherlands’ 5–1 opening-round demolition of defending champions Spain has more than 550,000 YouTube views. His call of Robin van Persie’s dolphin header in that game is packed with Bergkamp-esque levels of emotion. The title of the YouTube clip is “Jack van Gelder wordt helemaal gek!!!” or “Jack van Gelder is crazy!!”

Van Gelder says he lost it after van Persie scored that amazing equalizer because of built-up tension surrounding fears of another bad defeat against a Spanish side that had beaten them in the last World Cup final. “It was a fantastic goal and tremendous tension,” he says. “I really had tears in my eyes. I can be very emotional, as you know.”

His leave-it-all-out-there style of commentary has inspired fans at home to try to get the radio commentator on to Holland’s official television broadcast as well. One fan started a Facebook page called “Laat Jack de finale doen,” or “Let Jack do the final,” to try to encourage the Dutch TV broadcaster to incorporate van Gelder’s commentary. The page has more than 84,000 likes.

“[He] is very much loved here in the Netherlands for his radio commentaries. So much so, in fact, that football viewers here in the Netherlands have asked the public broadcaster to include his radio commentary in the live feeds of the Dutch games on the broadcaster's website,” Dutch fan Gerben Segboer tells me over email. “Many people prefer listening to his enthusiastic commentary while watching the game.”

While he has had his moments at this and other tournaments, the Bergkamp call remains the highlight of his career. In that call, van Gelder says he shouted Bergkamp’s name 13 times, ran out of breath, and let out a shriek of shock and delight. In the moment, he says, he was extra-elated, because an instant before De Boer’s pass he had predicted “I suddenly have the feeling we're going to the semifinals.”

“It was just a feeling that I had somewhere. … This moment was coming so you explode,” he recalls. “I don’t know why I did it. I really don’t know. It was just, there.”

*Correction, July 9, 2014: This post originally misstated that Jack van Gelder cried, “BERGKAMP! BERGKAMP! BERGKAMP!” He cried, “DENNIS BERGKAMP! DENNIS BERGKAMP! DENNIS BERGKAMP!”

July 9 2014 8:00 AM

Is Arjen Robben a Jerk, or Does He Just Suffer From Jerk Face Syndrome?

Name: Arjen Robben

Home country: Netherlands

Known for: Cutting inside and shooting with his left foot, diving, apologizing for diving, diving after apologizing for diving, promising not to dive again, diving after promising not to dive again, inspiring memes, Jerk Face.

Why he might be a jerk: He looks like a pretty big jerk. The main manifestation of this jerkiness is the way his entire body explodes in apparent death throes every time he’s touched or nearly touched in the penalty area.

His theatrics at the 2014 World Cup have set off this year’s version of the perennial hand-wringing over diving and whether it ruins soccer. And, hey, what do you know, his theatrics at the two major international tournaments before this World Cup had the exact same effect. At Euro 2012, Eurosport’s Alex Chick called Robben and his flops “the pouting, sulky personification of the Netherlands' disastrous tournament.” Writing two years earlier in Slate, Brian Phillips described Robben’s performance in the 2010 World Cup thusly:

[Robben is the] public face of diving in this World Cup—a player whose theatrical displays of Horrible Roiling Anguish inspired an Internet meme and drove his opponents insane.

Robben continues to drive his opponents insane. The Dutch forward capped off the Netherlands’ come-from-behind 2–1 victory over Mexico by earning the game-winning penalty on a light but clumsy challenge from Rafael Márquez. After the match, Mexico coach and human GIF Miguel Herrera blamed Robben’s diving (and the referee who bought it) for his team’s defeat. Robben, who actually kind of deserved a penalty after getting hit in the box earlier in the game, then had the chutzpah to apologize for diving in the first half, but not on the game’s decisive play. This confession led some to call for him to be suspended for his cheating. He was not.

This wasn’t Robben’s first apology for diving. While playing for Bayern Munich in 2011, he accidentally stayed on his feet following a challenge in the box, realized his horrible mistake, and corrected it with a ludicrous post-recovery fall. “It was probably a penalty, but I should have fallen earlier,” he said afterward. “I shouldn’t do things like that, and I apologize.”

Robben’s history of phony repentance is nearly as old as his career. Back in 2006, when he was maybe the most hated man on the most hated team in England, the then-Chelsea player went down as if Mike Tyson had punched him after Liverpool goalkeeper Pepe Reina lightly touched his face. At the end of that campaign, he promised reform. “Next season I won't be in the headlines for diving again. That's a promise,” guaranteed the contrite Dutchman in the Guardian. “Next year you won't write about me diving again.” The following year, the Guardian was writing about Robben diving again.

Like other serial perpetrators, all of Robben’s apologies and promises to change ring hollow. He’s like Anthony Weiner guaranteeing that his Carlos Danger days are over, then getting caught with his hand in the sexting jar again, and then again.

After the cries of diver continued following the Netherlands’ quarterfinal victory over Costa Rica, a fed-up Robben called the accusations “bullshit.” He added that his team needed a penalty shootout to beat the CONCACAF upstarts because he “didn’t get the ball enough,” which leads us to the other big complaint about Robben: his ego.

Robben can consistently be seen moping, pouting, and generally looking like a cranky pants when things aren’t going his way. When he was subbed off in a Euro 2012 loss to Germany, he jumped over some on-field signage, tore his shirt off, and sulked off rather than, you know, just accept being subbed out like a normal person.

His petulance has drawn the ire of teammates and fans. After Bayern teammate Thomas Müller gestured that he was being selfish during one game, Robben grabbed the German star by the throat. “We have got to be role models and should not make such gesticulations,” Robben said to justify his actions. He shoved another Bayern teammate, Philipp Lahm, during a training session. Franck Ribéry punched him in the locker room after a dispute over who would take a free kick. His Bayern teammates gave him a special German nickname, Aleinikow, because of his selfishness. Dutch teammate Wesley Sneijder’s criticism of the “pathetic egos” on the team has also been seen as a swipe at Robben.

And then there’s Robben’s signature on-the-field move, which he does over and over and over again. No, not the dives. We’re talking about cutting inside from the right and shooting with his left foot. Phillips, writing last year for Grantland, had a perfect description of Robben’s predictability:

Arjen Robben may not actually have a right foot. His right foot may be a hologram, or a ball of tin foil attached to his shin with twine. There’s a good chance. No one would ever know, because he never shoots or passes the ball with it. If you’re defending Robben, the only thing you need to remember is to force him to use his right foot. That’s it. That’s the whole strategy. Everyone knows this. And yet his one move is so beguilingly effective that he’s scored 67 times in 119 games for Bayern. Every other game—more—his “oh hi opposing left back maybe I’ll just take the ball toward the corner for a nice simple right-footed cross HAHAHA NO YOU FOOL I AM CUTTING INSIDE YET AGAIN AND WILL NOW SURPRISE YOU BY SHOOTING WITH MY LEFT FOOT FOR THE 9,000TH CONSECUTIVE TIME” trick actually pays off. It’s mind-boggling.

Can a player’s go-to move be jerky? As others have noted, doing the same thing over and over again when everyone knows exactly what you’re going to do is the height of arrogance. And the worst part is, it works.

Why he might not be a jerk: There are two arguments in defense of Arjen Robben. The first is that he is often fouled. The fouls and the dives might happen because he is insanely fast and an exceptionally talented dribbler, and just a generally great attacking player. These fouls have led him to be injured for a good part of his career—his former manager at Chelsea dubbed him “Arjen Faint Heart” for all the time he missed. So Robben’s dives are perhaps merely a defense mechanism to protect himself from more fouls and eventual injury.

The second defense is that it’s not his fault that people are predisposed to hate him. You see, Robben suffers from a very serious medical condition. It’s called “Jerk Face Syndrome,” or JFS. While it has never been properly diagnosed, we’re not the first observer to note the condition.

What is the evidence that Robben has JFS? In the below photo you can see quite clearly an instance of SJL, Shrugging Jerk Look, one of the major side effects of JFS. Notice the obvious FLJ (Flailing Liar Jowls) and ISE (Involuntary Squint Eyes).

robben_shrug_jerk.jpg
Shrugging Jerk Look.

Photo illustration by Jeremy Stahl. Original photo Alex Livesey/Getty Images.

Here’s another case where Robben is clearly dealing with an outbreak of Jerk Face. This side effect is called MFP, or Mr. Frowny Pants. Notice the clear instances of IWF, HOD, and PSLC.

robben_frowny_pants.jpg
Mr. Frowny Pants

Photo illustration by Jeremy Stahl. Original photo Andrew Yates /AFP/Getty Images.

The instances of Robben being photographed while dealing with a bout of Jerk Face are too numerous to count. All the symptoms are there, including SJJC (Slack-Jawed Jerk Chin), SGJM (Smug Grinning Jerk Mouth), HJCS (Happy Jerk Celebration Shout), and CJMA (Concentrating Jerk, Mouth Agape).

Robben has suffered in his life because of JFS. He has been punched by teammates, had balls thrown at his Jerk Face by opponents, and been booed by his own fans. Even those close to Robben have suffered because of his JFS. After the victory over Mexico, fellow Dutch attacker Robin van Persie was berated by an obscene Mexico fan who somehow mistook him for Robben and his Jerk Face.

When considering his ailment, I actually feel sorry for Arjen Robben and his smug, grinning, diving Jerk Face. In all sincerity, I do.

Jerk Score: 2 out of 3 for style, for IPDS (Indignant Post-Dive Screams). 2 out of 3 for technique, because of RPB (Roly-Poly Ball). 3 out of 3 for consistency, because of PGLS (Predictable Going Left Syndrome). And 1 out of 1 in the category of “Kissy Face.” 8 out of 10 for Arjen Robben.

Previously on World Cup Jerk Watch:

July 9 2014 1:32 AM

Every German Goal in Its 7–1 Victory Over Brazil Made History. Here’s How.

For sheer spectacle and shock value, if not quality of play, the 2014 World Cup will go down as the most memorable in history. With three matches to play, this tournament is four short of the 1998 record for most goals scored in a World Cup. It already has a first-class villain in Luis Suárez and his teeth, and an indefatigable underdog in Costa Rica. Now, with Germany’s semifinal 7–1 humiliation of hosts Brazil, the tournament has a match that will be remembered for as long as people care about soccer. “Something like that happens every 100 years,” said former Germany captain and current ESPN commentator Michael Ballack. This was not an exaggeration.

As Germany kept scoring and the hosts kept disintegrating in one astonishing 18 minute and 27 second period, then disintegrated a bit more over the course of the second half, the record-keepers had to keep looking further and further back to find anything like what happened in Belo Horizonte on Tuesday.

When Thomas Müller scored in just the 11th minute after being left unmarked on a corner kick, you could compare the moment to Zinedine Zidane’s brilliant header off a corner to put France up 1–0 over Brazil in the 1998 World Cup final. When the Germans struck again, this time on a mesmerizing team goal in the 23rd minute, it meant that Miroslav Klose had scored his 16th World Cup goal, breaking the record of Brazil’s Ronaldo. When Germany scored its third before anyone had even a minute to process the second, it seemed like a knockout blow, the makings of a historic embarrassment worse than Brazil’s 2–1 loss to Uruguay in the 1950 World Cup final—the last time the tournament was contested in Brazil. That game, known in Brazil as the Maracanazo, or the “Maracanã Blow,” has been melodramatically described as the nation’s Hiroshima or 9/11. After this defeat, that 1950 match can finally be forgotten. It will be replaced with a new national sporting travesty, one that the country can lament for five or so decades.

But there was still a whole lot more to come. When Germany scored its fourth goal just two minutes after its third and three minutes after the second, it was the first time the Brazilians had conceded so many in a World Cup match since 1954. At that point, ESPN’s Ian Darke declared Brazil’s World Cup “surely over” … but there was still a whole lot more to come. The Germans kept pushing forward and breaking through the non-existent Brazilian defense, scoring their fifth and final goal of the half just three minutes later. It was the first time Brazil had conceded five goals in a World Cup game since 1938 and the first time any team had scored five in a World Cup semifinal since 1958 when Brazil did it to France. It was the fastest any team had reached five goals in the history of the tournament, the third time it had ever happened in one half, and the most recent instance since Haiti lost to Poland 7–0 in in 1974. (Zaire had accomplished the same dubious feat one day earlier in a 9–0 loss to Yugoslavia.)

At that point, the 5–0 margin would have equaled the largest ever for a World Cup semifinal. “Been to eight World Cups and have never seen a performance like those 30 minutes from Germany. Simply incredible,” tweeted U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati.

But Germany still wasn’t done. Brazil came out a bit more animated in the second half and forced Germany’s Tim Howard, Manuel Neuer, to make a couple of impressive saves. But Die Mannschaft struck for a sixth goal in the 69th minute, this one by 23-year-old Chelsea star André Schürrle. That goal meant that Brazil’s margin of defeat had overtaken a 6–1 U.S. loss to Argentina in 1930 and two other similar scorelines as the worst semifinal loss in history. The last time a team had scored six in the semifinals was Germany’s 6–1 victory over Austria in 1954.

When Schürrle scored his second and Germany’s seventh on a wicked left-footed blast into the top left corner, it tied the highest number of goals ever conceded in any World Cup game by a host nation, which was also in 1954. At that point, some Germany fans got a little too excited.

The game ended with a meaningless consolation goal for Oscar in the 90th minute that was only slightly less significant than the Denver Broncos’ tally in the third quarter of the recent Super Bowl. Appropriately enough, the Seattle Seahawks tweeted “TOUCHDOWN” and “...and the PAT is GOOD!” after the last two German scores. (The Broncos were oddly quiet about the game, though they did mention that Manchester United is visiting Mile High!)

But to compare Tuesday’s rout to the 43–8 scoreline of Super Bowl XLVIII is actually to do it a historic injustice.

With five previous titles and a culture that is synonymous with the sport, Brazil is plainly the greatest soccer nation in history. To win the World Cup at home was a plan nearly a decade in the making. On top of that, the team hadn’t lost a competitive match at home since 1975—that was 62 consecutive games. Largely because of its enormous home-field advantage, pretournament statistical models made Brazil a huge favorite to win the tournament. Nate Silver, who’d proclaimed that this was “Brazil’s World Cup to Lose,” has deemed Tuesday’s semifinal “the most shocking result in World Cup history.” This loss was Brazil’s worst ever, on the sport’s biggest stage. Brazil had only conceded seven or more goals once before, in an 8–4 friendly loss to Yugoslavia in 1934. Tuesday’s margin of defeat was the team’s worst-ever, tying the 94-year-old mark of 6–0 to Uruguay in the 1920 Copa América. That came 10 years before the World Cup came into existence.

So, no matter what happens in the next three matches, it would be impossible to match the historic weight of what occurred in Belo Horizonte. Maybe not literally impossible. I suppose if Messi scored five goals in a 7–6 Argentina victory over Germany in the final in Rio, or if Neymar climbed off a stretcher, revealed that he’d been wearing a Germany jersey under his Seleção yellow this whole time, and started cackling maniacally, then that might prove a suitable climax to the 2014 World Cup. But I’m guessing that when the tournament finishes up on Sunday, Germany 7 – Brazil 1 will stand as the 2014 World Cup’s defining moment.

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"Big Phil" Scolari can count to seven.

Pedro Ugarte / AFP/Getty Images

How did this happen?

From Brazil’s perspective, there is loads of blame to go around. Some will focus on the absence of Brazil’s early-stage savior, Neymar, who missed Tuesday’s match with a spinal injury that had already bordered on national obsession. Others will say that without suspended defensive star and captain Thiago Silva there to organize the too-eager-to-roam Brazilian defenders, epitomized by David Luiz, Brazil’s backline was destined to fall apart. And there’s certainly a large opening to criticize coach Luiz Felipe Scolari for his tactical decision to play a very un-Brazilian, cynical brand of soccer. Without Brazil’s foul-fests in the previous rounds, Silva might have been available to help hold the Germans to a more dignified score line.

But as the New Republic’s Franklin Foer eloquently and accurately describes, those explanations are only skin deep. Brazil’s real problems lie with a broken and corrupt domestic league that necessitates that their stars leave for more hospitable European environs before they are prepared to do so.

Even if you put aside the debacle against Germany, Brazil wasn’t even a paper tiger at this World Cup. The Seleção was more like a paper puppy dog. After conceding the tournament opener on a mortifying own goal, the team needed the help of the referee to salvage its dignity against Croatia. In the last 16 against a superior Chile side, the Brazilians twice relied on the woodwork to save their World Cup. And in the quarterfinals, Brazil took tactical fouling to a new level to get past Colombia. Brazil did not deserve to be on the same field as Germany. Home-field advantage was the only thing that allowed them to make the semifinals, and it wasn’t anywhere close to enough to save them against the Germans.

Germany, meanwhile, has seen its highly touted golden generation come of age. Klose scored his 16th goal in his fourth tournament. The opening goal-scorer, Müller, has an outrageous 10 goals and six assists in 12 World Cup matches. The 24-year-old is only the third player to score at least five goals in two different World Cups. He could have two more World Cups in him, and has a great shot at breaking Klose’s just-achieved all-time record. With one more game to play, the Germans have scored 17 goals in this tournament, the most since Brazil scored 18 in 2002. The defense, led by the sweeper-keeper Neuer and talismanic Lahm, has conceded just four goals in six games. That’s just two more than the legendary Spain team gave up in its title run four years ago. That Spanish side, considered perhaps the best of all time, won that tournament with just eight goals. In case you’ve forgotten, that’s one more than the Germans scored in a single game. Against Brazil. In Brazil.

In a tournament where the best national teams are often fly-by-night collections of all-stars cobbled together from various club sides, the Germans are a real team. Like the 2010 Spanish squad, Germany’s starting lineup boasts a majority of players from a club that’s overseen by probably the best manager in the world, former Barcelona boss and current Bayern Munich coach Pep Guardiola. While Bayern faltered in the Champions League this year, it might have had something to do with its players feeling lethargic after having wrapped up the Bundesliga title at record-breaking pace and in the midst of a remarkable 53-match undefeated streak. That Bayern core of Lahm, Neuer, Jerome Boateng, Toni Kroos, Müller, and Bastian Schweinsteiger has been the core of Germany’s World Cup squad, while Mats Hummels, Klose, Sami Khedira, and a few others have also had star turns.

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As wonderfully as the Germans played on Tuesday, though, this semifinal was as much about Brazilian frailty as it was German genius. While Die Mannschaft did well to capitalize on the hosts’ largesse, German players and their coach Joachim Löw conceded after the match that they were stunned by how easily Brazil had cracked. Coming into this game, the talk was that the tournament was wide open and that none of the teams looked like real world-beaters. That was largely because Germany had failed to replicate its 4–0 opening match destruction of 10-man Portugal, slogging through a 2–2 draw with Ghana and three difficult one-goal victories over weaker sides. (Sorry, U.S. national team!) To take its place among the all-time greats, Germany will have to confirm that the Brazil and Portugal matches were not flukes with a victory in the final.

If the Germans can pull it off, then this classic World Cup will have the classic champion it deserves.

July 8 2014 9:14 PM

Germany Scored Three Goals in 76 Seconds and Four Goals in Four Minutes

Everyone, including Slate, has noted that Germany scored five goals in an 18-minute span on Tuesday. That figure, though, understates what the Germans accomplished. For a good portion of that 18 minutes, the ball wasn’t in play because it was sitting in the back of the net and Die Mannschaft was celebrating. The ESPN broadcast made it hard to determine how fast Germany had scored in actual game time, as the copious goal replays were always butting in to the on-field action. In order to get an accurate count, I rewatched the first half using ESPN’s “tactical cam” replay, which shows the game from above and affords a clear view of each goal and the precise moment when play subsequently resumed.

Germany scored its five first-half goals in 18:27 of real time—from the 10:22 mark for Thomas Müller’s opening strike to Sami Khedira’s goal at 28:49. Soccer was being played for just 15 minutes and 10 seconds of that 18:27, so it’s more accurate to say that Germany scored five goals in 15 minutes. (To be clear, I’m only subtracting time for each of the first half’s roughly 50-second-long post-goal stoppages. This doesn’t account for time when the ball was out of play for a throw-in and other miscellany.)

It took just less than three minutes of real time—2 minutes, 58 seconds to be precise—for Germany to score goals two, three, and four. Amazingly, the ball was in play for just 76 seconds during this three-goal bonanza. That’s three goals in an average of 25 seconds each.

If you include the fifth goal, Germany notched its last four tallies of the first half in 6 minutes and 40 seconds of real time. The ball was in play for 4:06, so Germany scored goals two through five in just more than a minute apiece.

Germany scored its second goal at the 22:09 mark. Play resumed after the Germans’ fifth goal with 29:31 on the clock. During this 7 minutes and 22 seconds, the ball was in play for 4:06 and various Germans were celebrating various goals for 3:16. If you’d prefer to see that in percentages: For a good seven-and-a-half-minute stretch, people were playing soccer 56 percent of the time, and the Germans were dancing 44 percent of the time.

Add it all up, and the ball was out of play for 3 minutes, 59 seconds after Germany’s five first-half goals. At the end of the half, however, the referee added just one minute as allowance for time lost. This was a merciful decision. Given the pace at which Germany was scoring, the ref might have saved Brazil from giving up three or four more goals.

Correction, July 8, 2014: The URL of this post misstated that Germany scored three goals in 76 minutes. The Germans scored three goals in 76 seconds.

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