After more than 20 years away from the highest heights of the World Cup, Argentina is back among the world's best, and now stands one step away from a third World Cup title.
Not since Diego Maradona’s Argentina fell short of repeating as champions by dropping the 1990 final to West Germany has the nation breathed the rarified air of the World Cup’s final stages. Over the next 20 years, and the five tournaments that followed, Argentina could never pass the quarterfinals. (To make matters worse, archrival Brazil has lifted the World Cup trophy twice during that span, reaching the final three times.)
WORLD CUP: Beautiful people in Brazil | Final USA MVP rankings
That has all changed in, of all places, Brazil. The Argentines exorcised the demons of the past two decades in a perfect penalty shootout victory over the Netherlands. Maxi Rodriguez’s winning attempt sent the fans in white and light blue at Arena Corinthians into a state of euphoria as Brazilian fans in attendance cringed at the thought of their archrivals lifting the World Cup on Brazilian soil.
That would explain the tears shed by Argentina captain Javier Mascherano on Wednesday. He knows all too well about the 24-year wait for a similar moment, and the anguish Argentine fans have felt during that time.
This Argentina team was supposed to be about Lionel Messi and attacking soccer, but on a night when Messi was shackled and the Netherlands played impeccable defense, it was Argentina’s organization and patience that helped the South Americans control much of the match and play the better soccer over the course of 120 minutes.
What Argentina did lack Wednesday night was the killer instinct in the final third, and the final play to find a goal and put serious pressure on the Dutch. This night was made for Messi to star, but he failed to make much of an impact. Some credit for that goes to Netherlands manager Louis van Gaal, who shadowed Messi with Nigel de Jong and multiple defenders.
Despite that extra attention, Messi should have been able to impose his will on the match, but he failed to deliver. As the match reached its final stages you could see him looking tired. Argentina fans in attendance could see it too and tried urging him on by chanting his name. It wasn’t as if Messi didn’t put in work. He wore out Dutch left back Bruno Martins Indi, who left the match at halftime, and De Jong, who lasted 62 minutes before being replaced.
On Wednesday, Argentina needed other players to help lift the team as Messi drew the lion’s share of attention. Mascherano was the heart and soul of Argentina’s performance. He looked like he might not make it out of the first half after clashing heads with a Dutch player and stumbling to the ground. As much as he looked as though he had suffered a concussion, and as much as FIFA once again was made to look bad by letting players continue despite clear head injuries, Mascherano returned to the field and went on to play an outstanding match, squashing the most promising of the Netherlands’ attempts at creating something offensively.
Argentina didn’t exactly throw caution to the wind and attack in waves. Neither team did, which left you wondering whether both teams were wary of suffering the same fate of Brazil, which tried attacking Germany from the onset only to be overwhelmed and embarrassed on the way to a 7-1 defeat.
Both teams Wednesday played it safe to some degree, but Argentina was the team that made the best attempt at trying to score goals and win the match before penalty kicks.
The Dutch looked like a far cry from the squad that attacked Costa Rica in waves in the quarterfinals. On Wednesday, Van Gaal’s men looked content to sit back and defend and hope for some magic from Arjen Robben, who very nearly found some magic only to be denied by a crucial block by Mascherano in the second half.
The Dutch defended, and defended extremely well, with Ron Vlaar delivering one of the best defensive efforts of the tournament, but overall the semifinal was not the Netherlands’ finest hour and it was a rather disappointing effort from a team that had showed a willingness to attack throughout the tournament.
As lackluster as the Dutch attack was, the Netherlands very nearly pulled out a victory. But Argentina proved up to the task in penalty kicks, with goalkeeper Sergio Romero making two saves and all four Argentine penalty takers (including Messi) converted their kicks.
Argentina will need to play significantly better in Sunday’s final against Germany if lifting a third World Cup has any chance of becoming a reality. The defense will need to play at the high level it has produced in the past two victories, and Messi must make the type of impact he did in the group stage. Anything less will likely be insufficient to beat a German squad that looked unbeatable against the Brazilians.
As much as this World Cup has already felt like a triumph for Argentina, knowing it can win it all has made Sunday’s final vitally important. Not only because it would snap a 28-year drought without a world title, but also because winning on Brazilian soil would make Argentina’s third World Cup title that much sweeter.
Sunday's final can wait for now though, as Argentina fans descend on this city to enjoy a great night of celebration they have waited more than two decades to enjoy again. Celebrating not only Wednesday's victory, but Argentina's return to true world power status.