In 2006, Argentina and Germany held a civilized contest that ended ignominiously in penalties, and then, even more ignominiously, in a full-on on-field brawl. Two Argentinians and one German were punished. The coaching staffs stayed on message with them fightin' words, but there seemed to be no disagreement on who started the fight - the Argentinian players were catcalling the German penalty takers, and it unraveled from there.
Many national teams, year after year, have the same peculiarities. These go all the way back to the playground where 5-year-olds kick a ball around, to the local clubs where 8-year-olds do the same, but in cute uniforms. These peccadilloes make their way to the junior competitions, and eventually, to the World Cup. Italians defend and overact. Germans play as a team at the expense of the individual. The Argentinians hustle.
The hustle is an integral part of the game in Argentina. Argentinian players are the ones crossing the line way beyond what the rulebook allows, because the believe it is worth the risk. They will mob the referee if they think it will get them somewhere. Do you think the infamous Hand of God is the only time Maradona changed the course of a World Cup game? Get a load of this puppy (4:08, then slow-motion replay at 4:44):
Even this year's multi-talented, pretty team is not above hustling. Maradona hustles for them off the field. The players, hustle on field, as they did against Mexico. Messi has not had to, but if the stakes are high enough, you know he will.
Does Germany have an antidote to the Great Argentine Hustle? Not really, but they do have tactical superiority. The new Germany, reinvented by Jurgen Klinsmann in 2004, was based on utter tactical genius, and Joachim Loew has taken over that torch. How many times has Germany been able to jump out to a quick early lead before a game even gets going, like they did against England last week? Also vs. Portugal in '08, vs. Sweden in '06. The opponent comes in expecting the Germans to attack a certain way, but they get tricked - no German player is where he is expected to be, and a goal is scored. When the opposition adjusts to this change, there is more musical chairs, and another goal is scored. It is as close as any team gets to Total Football today.
This Germany will certainly test Maradona's coaching mettle. The raw talent of this squad and its ability to hustle up a goal or two when necessary will likely not be enough to make up for Germany's tactical strength. To truly get ahead, Argentina will need something from Messi that he has not yet unveiled. He'll need to drop Magnum on us. Will he? I have my doubts.
So, the prognosis is Germany in 6