The TVs in the bar where I watched the World Cup final weren’t small, but they weren’t large either. The picture was passably crisp, but in some of the wide-angle shots, it was slightly challenging to identify the individual players beyond their blue or white allegiances. The Argentinians, though, were easy to pick out even through the mild pixelation: There was Messi, pacing languidly in the midfield as he conserved his energy for another blistering run down the flank; there was Palacio, with his rat-tail hair strand dangling in his wake. It wasn’t so easy with the Germans, though. In their posture and their attitude, they looked nearly identical.
That’s when it crystallized for me exactly why I liked them as a team. It’d be silly to say Germany doesn’t have an immense amount of talent on a per-player basis, but this afternoon it felt like you could have swapped the positions of any two players on the field (or rather, on that mildly blurry screen) and the team’s basic force and structure would have remained intact.
Many would take this as grounds for rooting against Germany: Indistinguishable players playing precise soccer can look very machine-like (plus, as Twitter observers have so eagerly demonstrated, they lend themselves to creepy historical comparisons). But there’s something charming about a team that plays unselfishly, that doesn’t direct some outsized portion of the spotlight onto any given player.
Remember when Messi had that free kick, the last shot of the game? All of Argentina’s hopes rested on what art he, their singular star and national muse, might be able to conjure up. He shanked it. Never in this tournament did Germany have to rely on one player like that.
I know, I know. Germany’s style of soccer seems boring and predictable—I heard the groans in the bar when Mario Götze ended the game with two perfectly calculated touches in the 113th minute. But it was a beautiful goal. He didn’t even let the ball hit the ground. The way that the German team’s systematic teamwork can produce dazzling plays transcends analogies to machines and robots.
Here in the U.S., much was made of Landon Donovan’s absence on the national team’s roster. When pressed about the decision, the U.S. coach, Jürgen Klinsmann, explained that he left Donovan out in part to defy the way that American sports culture so often values a single player above everyone else. And so, in a week that the decision of a single athlete dominated the nation’s sports coverage (and however artful that coverage may have been), it felt satisfying to see the tournament ended on a note of collectivism. Klinsmann (who, remember, played under and was forged by the German program) knows better than to hold out for a singular LeBron to carry us to glory. And now, at least until 2018, the rest of the world might see the value in that too.