Germany And Argentina To Finish Up World Cup

Mike Pesca of Slate.com and NPR's Arun Rath discuss Sunday's World Cup final match between Germany and Argentina, and why luck plays an outsize role in soccer.

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

You're listening to NPR News. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm a Arun Rath.

(SOUNDBITE OF MIKE PESCA THEME SONG)

RATH: That triumphant fight song means it's time to talk sports with slate.com's Mike Pesca, host of the podcast, The Gist. Hi Mike. Good to talk to you.

MIKE PESCA: Triumphant, yes.

(LAUGHTER)

RATH: So what a day for soccer fans - the World Cup final this afternoon, Germany vs. Argentina. Pitting one of the best players in the world, Argentina's Lionel Messi against a German team that been playing, well, kind of frighteningly well through the whole tournament. But before we pumped up to watch that game, let's take a moment to sympathize with Brazil. They lost the consolation game to the Netherlands yesterday 3-0, which hurts, but maybe not as much as that 7-1 loss to Germany in the semi-finals.

PESCA: Yeah, so I'm going to give you an analysis that doesn't have a lot to do with soccer. So picture cartoon dog and he gets sprayed with a cab and he's covered in mud. And he blinks twice and then he turns to the right and immediately steps on a rake. That rake was the consolation game. They fell behind early. They weren't really that competitive and the mood in Brasilia was just dower. But I have to say, this was a wake-up call for Brazil. They do really have to reorganize their national team and their national team structure. And they came in to favorites just kind of based on inertia and the fact that they had the home-field advantage. Now they've lost twice at home for the first time since like ever, so yes, Brazil - poor Brazil. Let's go onto the teams that could actually win this thing.

RATH: Well, I would have to say, you know, just going back just briefly to the Germany game, you know, what stood out with that 7-1 was the final number of goals. I mean, that's a lot. Isn't soccer - the complaint is it takes forever to get that many points.

PESCA: Yeah, unless you are disorganized, like the Brazilians were, and dispirited. And we really saw the emotions coming through. I mean, the whole thing was framed as shame or humiliation for the Brazilians. And that's why maybe if they had beat the Dutch, they could have said, hey, look everyone can have a terrible game at once. But this just showed that their team is not as good as some of the other best teams in the world for a number of reasons.

RATH: So do you think that means that Germany - we're not going to see that many goals today?

PESCA: I do think so. A couple reasons- one, you never see seven goals. I mean - but the other thing is that Argentina, even though they do have Lionel Messi, the best in the world, their offense just seems to be, we'll have Messi do one thing great a game. I mean, they scored in the 90th minute against Iran and they scored late goals all along the tournament. And they had these amazing comebacks. But their defense has been stout and their defense has been solid. Now, they haven't faced a team with the firepower of the Germans. The Germans' last game was that 7-1 win against Brazil and their first game was that 4-0 defeat against Portugal. Germany is currently ranked second in the world. Spain still occupies the top spot. And so the two other teams I mentioned are three and four. They killed the Portuguese and they destroyed the Brazilians and now Argentina's ranked five. I mean they're just beating everyone and handling.

RATH: So we probably won't see eight goals, but do you think there's a clear edge to either Germany or Argentina?

PESCA: Yeah, I would say that the betting markets have Germany as the favorite and I would certainly agree with that. The advanced statistics that I've seen have Germany as about a 2-to-1 favorite. Now, a lot -- I do have to say favorites in soccer do not win nearly as often as favorites in other sports. And the reason for that is that there's just a tremendous amount of luck at soccer at the highest level. There's - in a game of soccer - football - you can do 10 things right in a given play and still not score. And again, like basketball if you do one or two things right, or even just do two things not wrong, you do score. So a basketball score, for instance, is more reflective of the overall skill level, where even experts who've looked at this - and this seems inexact - but they say soccer at the highest level is 50 percent luck and 50 percent skill. So I think if Argentines could keep it - knowing that - could keep it tight and keep it to 1-1, 0-0, get the penalty kicks. They could win on penalty kicks.

RATH: So who do you think Brazil roots for? I mean that long and kind of bitter rivalry with Argentina but it's hard to imagine them rooting for the Germans after all that?

PESCA: Yeah, I know. And there's sometimes a little bit of continental pride kicks in. And this would be - if Germany won, it would be a first-time or European has ever won in this hemisphere. And the same thing hasn't happened the other way - European teams in the World Cup win in Europe and South Americans win in South America or North America. But, you know, the Italians did go to penalty kicks once against Brazil and so they almost won. It's maybe a little bit misleading. Who's Brazil going to root for? I think they'll just be licking those wounds from the rake in the face.

RATH: Finally, I'll point out, I haven't this but I'm confident in saying, this is the first time in World Cup history that a current pope and an emeritus pope has been an opposite sides, when it comes to the final match.

PESCA: Yeah and I'll add to Catholic angle. You ready? The team with the most World Cups ever is Brazil and that country has the most Catholics. And the team in second, that Germany could tie with the most World Cups, is Italy. And that country has the most popes ever.

RATH: Excellent. I can't wait to see what happens. Mike Pesca of slate.com, thank you.

PESCA: You're welcome.

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