Best player vs. best team
RIO DE JANEIRO - The most entertaining World Cup in a generation comes down to a final match that pits the planet's best player against the tournament's best team.
Lionel Messi will lead Argentina out against Germany at Maracana Stadium on Sunday for a game that will define careers, cement legacies, and be watched by a global audience of about a billion viewers.
And it's a matchup that means more to both sides than just a chance to lift one of the most hallowed trophies in sports.
For Messi, it's a chance to firmly make his case for being perhaps the greatest ever to play the world's most popular game. For Germany, it's an opportunity to make up for a number of near-misses over the last decade and reestablish itself as the dominant force in international football.
And then there's the matter of settling a historical score. Argentina and West Germany played each other in two straight World Cup finals, in 1986 and '90, games that are well remembered in the sports psyche of both countries. Diego Maradona and Argentina won the first, the Germans took the second. So call this game the tiebreaker.
"At this point who is favorite, who is not, it doesn't make a difference," Argentina midfielder Maxi Rodriguez said. "Both teams feel a responsibility to go all the way."
Most would name Germany as the favorite, especially after its astounding 7-1 drubbing of host Brazil in the semifinals. Argentina reached the final only after eking out a penalty shootout win over the Netherlands following a 0-0 draw through 120 minutes.
Germany also dismantled Argentina, 4-0, in the 2010 quarterfinals in South Africa.
"Germany is a great team. What happened to Brazil could happen to any team," Argentina forward Sergio Aguero said. "[But] we have players who can create danger up front. We're in the final for a reason."
One thing speaks against Germany, too. No European team has ever won a World Cup played in the Americas. Whether that's because of the climate, the fan support, or something else, Germany thinks it can buck the trend.
"We are looking forward to playing a South American team in South America, but we hope the Brazilian fans will be supporting us," Germany assistant coach Hansi Flick said. "We know the Argentina team very well, we've played often against them. We know what to expect."
Dutch coach Louis Van Gaal is trying to motivate his players for the third-place match against Brazil by giving them the mission of becoming the only Dutch squad to finish a World Cup unbeaten in regular play.
Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari is just hoping Brazil can finish on a high note in front of the home fans following the devastating 7-1 loss to Germany.
After being eliminated by Argentina on penalties, the Netherlands has the chance of ending the tournament without a loss in seven matches.
The Dutch won their first four games, then tied Costa Rica, 0-0, in the quarters and Argentina, 0-0, in the semis.
Van Gaal had been saying the third-place game was pointless and that he would rather not play it, but on Friday he changed the tone a bit, saying that going out without a loss would be a good reason to stay motivated.
"We are realizing that there is something else we need to defend and we have to go for it," Van Gaal said through a translator. "Never a Dutch team returned home unbeaten, and that has to be the next target."
Scolari said the third-place match will be important to give Brazilian fans some reason to celebrate in the team's final World Cup appearance at home.
"We already know that we can't reach our main goal anymore," the coach said. "But we still have the third-place game and we want to win so we can give at least some happiness to the Brazilian people."
Scolari said he is expecting to make two or three changes to the lineup that played against Germany, but didn't give any hints.