The only previous World Cup meeting between the world powers, in 2002, matched two teams of stark contrast.
Brazil, beaten by host France four years earlier in the final forever tinged by a strange illness that befell star striker Ronaldo, had marched through its opposition and were billed as most deserving of a title. This was the Brazil of Cafu and Roberto Carlos and Rivaldo and Ronaldinho and Ronaldo; it had won all six of its games by combined scores of 16-4, and though not regarded as equal to the great 1970 team led by Pele, it certainly evoked more romantic images than the 1994 squad that had prevailed in Pasadena.
Germany had impressed almost no one, including its fans and most journalists and broadcasters covering the team. Goalkeeping heroics by Oliver Kahn had backstopped 1-0 victories over Paraguay, the USA, and South Korea. The latter triumph cast the Germans as ogres; the world had been mesmerized by seas of red-clad fans that had swarmed into stadiums and public plaza to watch their courageous team coached by Guus Hiddink.
It seemed impossible the two powers hadn’t already met in the World Cup, yet somehow had they had avoided each other. In 1966, Brazil -- as two-time defending champion -- staggered home after the group stage and West Germany went all the way to Wembley, where in extra time it lost to England, 4-2, by virtue of Geoff Hurst’s hotly disputed winner off the bottom of the crossbar. During Brazil’s back-to-back triumphs in 1958 and 1962, West Germany reached the knockout rounds, but lost in the semifinals and quarterfinals, respectively. Italy knocked out West Germany, 4-3, in an incredible 1970 semi that featured a record five goals in extra time, then lost the final to a brilliant Brazil, 4-1. And so it went until finally their paths converged a dozen years ago.
A World Cup final doesn’t need any supplementary subplots to brighten its magnitude, yet knowing the 2002 final would be a classic confrontation did just that. Never before had the South America-Europe dichotomy been more sharply divided both by tradition and circumstance. The divide filtered down through all levels of the sport, and could be seen clearly in the media center and press areas at Yokohama Stadium.
Brazil’s beautiful game clashed rudely with Germany’s dour efficiency, and the thousands of “journalists” covering Brazil clad in jerseys, scarves and colorful caps couldn’t have been more different than their German counterparts, many of whom wouldn’t be bothered to see their team lose and weren’t hesitant to tell you exactly that.
The romantics had their day in Yokohama. The revived Ronaldo, on his way to the Golden Boot award as top scorer with eight goals, netted twice. The cruel, contrarian nature of soccer emerged to cast Kahn as the goat; he’d been flawless until the final but in the 67th minute he fumbled a low shot from Rivaldo despite getting his body behind the ball. It squirted a few yards away and as he scrambled desperately to corrall it the Brazilian bomber pounced to push it into the net.
A dozen minutes later he struck again. Kleberson’s low cross from the wing ran past Rivaldo’s shrewd dummy and Ronaldo duly powered it past Kahn. After another dozen minutes, the bald, imperious Italian referee Pierluigi Collina sounded the final whistle. Kahn still won the Golden Ball as MVP, but Brazil had conquered the world.
Since they met that day neither team has been back to the final though Germany reached the semifinals in 2006 and 2010. The only player returning from the 2002 game is German striker Miroslav Klose, who is on the brink of breaking Ronaldo’s all-time World Cup record of 15 goals. In the 2002 final, he started but came off for a sub in the 74th minute.
Klose also started last Friday in the quarterfinal against France, but played a tepid game and was replaced. At 36, he’s in the waning days of his international career yet if given a chance in the semi Brazil had best monitor him intently. Savvy scorers like him have a knack for coming through in the biggest moments.
Luiz Felipe Scolari was Brazil’s coach in 2002 and agreed to lead his country again as World Cup host. In this competition, his players have teetered at times under the crushing burden of expectations and so far his team has not been the best. Brazil failed to win the 1950 tournament as host, and for 64 years its people have anxiously waited for redemption.
The Germans, who are favored by
some to beat a Brazil missing Neymar and Thiago Silva, will be unfairly regarded as ogres again if they silence the exuberant Brazilian populace. The hosts, so close
to such a coveted prize, face a destiny of unfathomable importance.
The 2014 meeting is not the final, yet the stakes are just as high for both men and both teams, and a spectacle for the world to savor.