Apart from Germany, the Champagne fizz has suddenly gone flat at a World Cup that was being hailed earlier as the best in recent memory. Goals that seemed to pour from a spigot have now slowed to intermittent drips.
The Netherlands once led the tournament with 12 goals, but it has not scored since the Round of 16. In Wednesday's semifinal loss on penalty kicks to Argentina, the Dutch produced one shot on target. It was the lowest number for the Netherlands in a World Cup match since record keeping began in 1966, according to the Opta statistical service. (Latin American reluctantly rallies behind Argentina against Germany)
Lionel Messi has scored four goals and has rescued Argentina with late heroics, but he has not found the net since group play. As Wednesday's semifinal went scoreless through regulation and extra time, he did not touch the ball in the penalty area until he set it down for a penalty kick, Opta reported. (Related: Argentina fined for flouting FIFA rules ahead of final)
"We didn't see Messi," said Louis van Gaal, coach of the Netherlands. (Rio braces for Argentina fan frenzy)
With a current average of 2.69 goals a game, this World Cup could be the highest scoring since 1982. But, aside from Germany's stunning 7-1 victory over Brazil in Tuesday's semifinal, the knockout rounds have been miserly and increasingly cautious after such group-phase eruptions as the Netherlands' 5-1 romp over Spain and Germany's 4-0 rout of Portugal.
"If you exclude the Brazil-Germany match, the five matches in the quarterfinals and semifinals produced a grand total of five goals, the sign of a tournament running out of steam," Paul Kennedy wrote on Soccer America's website.
So what kind of final can we expect Sunday at Estadio do Maracana in Rio de Janeiro? If recent history is any indication, something strange and compelling will occur. Something wholly unexpected, and perhaps wretched, for the biggest stars in a moment of unrelieved pressure.
There was Roberto Baggio of Italy, ballooning his penalty kick in the 1994 final and dropping his head like the blade of a guillotine. And Ronaldo of Brazil having some sort of panic attack or seizure before the 1998 final. And Zinedine Zidane head-butting Marco Materazzi in the 2006 final, diminishing France's chances against Italy and his own lofty reputation.
Perhaps Sunday's hero will be a quiet player who brings loud celebration, as Andres Iniesta did with his extra-time goal to give the World Cup to Spain in 2010. Or a lesser-known player like Sergio Romero, the Argentine goalkeeper, who struggled for playing time at Monaco in the French league but saved two penalties against the Netherlands, kissing his gloves and pounding his chest.
"I taught Romero to stop penalties, so that hurts," said van Gaal, who coached Romero in the Dutch league at AZ Alkmaar from 2007 to 2009.
Let us hope that Sunday's final will be more engaging than the last time Argentina and Germany met to decide a World Cup: a corrosive affair in 1990 in Rome.
It was a fitting conclusion to a World Cup that alternated between high drama and cynical dreariness. Dubious records were set for low scoring (2.2 goals a match), first player sent off in the final, first team to go scoreless in the championship game.
West Germany won, 1-0, on a penalty kick in the 84th minute by Andreas Brehme after a disputed foul. Argentina entered with four suspended players, lost two more to injury in the first half, then had two red-carded later. Argentina took one shot and tried to drag the game to a shootout. Afterward, rules were changed to spur the attack and discourage the flatlining tactics of wasteful, aimless defense.
"We played an excellent game," Franz Beckenbauer, then the German coach, said after the match. "Too bad Argentina didn't participate. They tried to destroy the game. They played a nongame."
In defeat, Diego Maradona wept, wondering whether his World Cup career had come to an end, not having scored a single goal in the tournament. (Four years later, he would be banished from the 1994 World Cup for failing a doping test.)
"I cry for my people, I cry for my daughters and I cry for me," he said.
No, let us hope Sunday's final summons genius from an Argentine or a German that is remindful of a different Maradona, the one from 1986 in Mexico City. In a quarterfinal, he scored two of the greatest goals ever in the World Cup, slaloming through the England team for one and punching the ball into the net for the other, furtively assisted by what came to be known as the Hand of God.
In the final, after West Germany erased a 2-0 deficit, Maradona made a pass to Jorge Burruchaga that created a 3-2 victory for Argentina.
Nearly 30 years later, Germany again faces the best player in a World Cup final. A secret plan is being implemented to contain Messi, as the Dutch did, Hansi Flick, a German assistant coach, said Thursday.
"We have to come up with a few surprises of our own," the German forward Miroslav Klose told reporters. "I am looking forward to an exciting game, which will be marked by tactics and a bit of trickery."
And, we can only hope, a bit of inspiration.
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