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World Cup final features best team versus best player

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World Cup's best team, Germany, takes on the best player, Argentina's Lionel Messi, in title game
Germany is seeking its first World Cup title since 1990, Argentina its first since 1986

After 31 days, 63 games and 170 goals, this World Cup finally will be decided Sunday in the tournament's most compelling matchup.

Over the last month, players have had their shoulders bitten and their backs broken. Unsung players such as Colombia's James Rodriguez and Costa Rican goalkeeper Keylor Navas have stepped up and hugely overrated teams — you know who you are Portugal and Brazil — collapsed.

It has been a World Cup of farce and tragedy, drama and intrigue. How fitting, then, that the final (noon PDT, ABC) should feature the World Cup's best team versus the world's best player. And both will be chasing more than just a title. They'll also be playing for their place in history.

For Germany, the tournament's best team, the final is an opportunity to erase two decades of frustration. The Germans, the only team to reach the semifinals in four consecutive World Cups, haven't won a championship since 1990, the country's longest title drought since World War II.

For Argentina's Lionel Messi, the world's best player, the final is a chance to fill in the only missing gap on an otherwise unparalleled resume.

It's the ultimate team versus the ultimate individual for soccer's ultimate prize. And for both, a victory would also erase some painful history.

Germany has won a record 20 World Cup games since 2002, but none in a final. Sunday's result, then, will go a long way toward deciding if this era in German soccer will be remembered as a dynasty or a disappointment.

The game is also a referendum on the decade-long remake of German soccer. Under former coach Juergen Klinsmann and Klinsmann's hand-picked successor, Joachim Loew, the German approach has changed from a plodding, physical one to a fast-paced attacking style.

And although that has made the German game more exciting to watch, it hasn't paid off with any major trophies. Yet, midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger, one of the Klinsmann first recruits, says the pressure of Germany's failures doesn't weigh heavily on this team.

"I don't think that we have any pressure," he said. "We have a lot of players who have played finals at the top level. We know how to deal with the situation.

"We think of one thing: to get the job done. When the whistle blows, the head will only have to think about playing football."

Then there's the fact a victory would make Germany the first European team to win a World Cup in the Americas, which Loew says it's not an insignificant milestone.

"Regardless of what has happened in the past, it is a matter of winning now and we know we can write history," he said. "And why not? It would be an extra joy for us if we were able to win the title on South American soil."

But Messi and Argentina have a chance to make history too.

Less than a month past his 27th birthday, Messi has won six Spanish league titles, three Champions League titles and two club world championships. In 2012, he scored a record 91 goals in a calendar year. And he's the best-paid player on the planet and the only man in history to win four consecutive world player-of-the-year awards.

But without a World Cup he'll never be able to claim the one title he most desires: greatest player of all time. With Brazil's Neymar, Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo and Uruguay's Luis Suarez having gone out in the quarterfinals or before, Messi is the one player left who can make this World Cup his own.

And he did most of the heavy lifting to get Argentina this far, scoring half his team's eight goals, including the game winners in the first two games. It's unlikely that a solo performance will be enough to get Argentina past Germany, though, so Messi is going to need some help from his friends if he is to cement his legacy in this World Cup.

If he fails, he'll likely have another chance four years from now. But given that Argentina has gone 24 years since its last World Cup final — where it played Germany, losing on a penalty kick in the 85th minute — this is an opportunity neither Messi nor his teammates want to let get away.

And, fittingly, they have a chance to rewrite history here as well.

"We want to write a new story," defender Jose Maria Basanta said, referring to the 1990 final. "It was very painful. We know what happened.

"We have been touched by a magic wand. We have to enjoy it."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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