In World Cup's Final Weekend, Messi Bears Brunt of Argentina's Hopes

Melissa Block talks to NPR's Tom Goldman about the final two matches in the World Cup: Brazil against the Netherlands in a fight for third place, and Argentina against Germany in the final.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

After a month of riveting soccer and global passion and, yes, some serious interest here in the U.S., the World Cup wraps up this weekend in Brazil. Tomorrow, the host country will try to gain a bit of redemption in a third-place match against the Netherlands. And Sunday, the main event - Germany plays Argentina in the final at hallowed Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro. NPR's Tom Goldman will be there. And he joins me now for a preview of this weekend's matches. Hey, Tom.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Hi, Melissa.

BLOCK: And let's start with the final on Sunday - Germany rolling in after it's infamous, 7 to 1 thrashing of Brazil earlier this week. What do you think Argentina can do against a team that has been playing so spectacularly?

GOLDMAN: You know, there is that Christ the Redeemer statue that looks down on all of Rio. And I'm sure the Argentines have looked up there for some guidance. But, actually, what they need to do and what they've probably already done is pop in a tape of the Germany-Brazil match and do the exact opposite of what Brazil did. Do not attack willy-nilly, and thus open yourself up to Germany's punishing counterattack. Try to keep control of Germany's potent midfield. Keep your defense organized and not in an absolute shambles as Brazil's was. And, you know, Argentina has a very good defense. They've not allowed a single goal since the round of 16 began, other than the shootout penalty kicks in the semi-final win over the Netherlands. And finally, Argentina has the player considered by many the world's best offensive star, Lionel Messi. They've got to take better advantage of him.

BLOCK: But it's interesting, Tom, because Lionel Messi, in the last few games, has been pretty much shut down by the other teams.

GOLDMAN: Yeah, he has. That's a good point. He's been quiet. He started well. He scored in all three of Argentina's group stage games. But teams have really caught on to him. They've defended him aggressively. In the Netherlands semi-final there were often three, maybe four defenders near him, ready to put the squeeze on. Now, a Brazilian newspaper quoted Messi's father as saying about his son, "he is exhausted and feels as if his legs weigh 100 kilos each." That's 220.462 pounds each, Melissa. Those are heavy legs.

BLOCK: (Laughing) Very heavy legs.

GOLDMAN: So Messi's teammates need to pick up the slack individually and do a better job of getting him ball where he can do damage, or at least try to, against a very good German defense.

BLOCK: And, of course, that's what Argentina's fans are going to be hoping for. And we've been hearing on the program about this huge influx of Argentines flooding into Rio for this final game.

GOLDMAN: Yeah, to cheer on their team and to rub the host country's nose in the fact that Brazil isn't in the final. You know very well, Melissa, Argentina and Brazil are archrivals on football and all other matters. And they've been downright nasty. They've been singing about seven goals. They've been raising plastic spines in the air and chanting, olay, olay, olay, we have Neymar's spine - a nasty nod to Brazil's Neymar, obviously, who was knocked out of the World Cup after a player broke a bone in Neymar's back. So they have been tart, to put it mildly.

BLOCK: And Tom, a brief mention of the third-place game - the forgettable third-place game - Brazil against the Netherlands tomorrow. The Dutch coach has said he doesn't think this match should even be played. It has nothing whatsoever to do with sports, he says.

GOLDMAN: (Laughing) I know - unless you're Brazilian and on the Brazilian team. If Brazil wins, and if Brazil plays well in the process, that can take away some of the sting. Of course, if Brazil loses - and it will, unless it changes its tactics and shores up its defense against a very good Dutch team - it will be a complete downer of an ending - two straight losses instead of just one.

BLOCK: OK. NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman in Rio de Janeiro. Tom, have a great time at the rest of the World Cup.

GOLDMAN: Thanks a lot.

BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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