If you believe in applying mythic archetypes to sports, then Lionel Messi is the soccer Odysseus. He is the modest hero exiled from him homeland, burdened by the gift of immeasurable skill and the expectations of a country that views his intent with suspicion. The World Cup final this Sunday is Messi’s chance to prove his greatness while uniting and becoming one with his country (on their biggest rival’s territory, no less). That is, if you believe in that sort of thing. 

Now back to the reality; even before their historic 7-1 victory in the semi final over Brazil, Germany have been the best team in the 2014 World Cup. The instinctual response of a side winning through defensive pragmatism doesn’t apply either, not with striker Miroslav Klose becoming the all-time leading World Cup goal scorer and Thomas Muller reaching double digits. Plus, this German side didn’t just beat Brazil – it made the side fundamentally question their entire approach to the game. Sports minister Aldo Rebelo called for modernization at the club level in an effort to retain their best players, for starters.

It’s appropriate that Germany sparked the Brazilian soul search, as they themselves underwent a similar restructuring at the grassroots level in 2003 prompted by their showing at the previous European Championships. A generation later, Germany has 28,400 UEFA B licensed coaches who double as scouts. The German Football Association divided the country in 366 regions to scout youth talent, with an emphasis on developing home grown players. On Tuesday, Thomas Muller opened up the scoring against Brazil. Toni Kroos added two in the first half, and Andre Schurrle scored the final two goals. Center back Mats Hummels scored the lone goal against France in the quarterfinals. The four players are within three years of each other. How long does it take for a revolution to succeed? For German soccer, 11 years. Perhaps Brazil will follow next.

Bayern Munich manager Pep Guardiola said that German captain Philipp Lahm was the most intelligent player he’d ever coached (consider the players Guardiola worked with at Barcelona – Xavi, Busquets, Iniesta, Messi). Lahm is the ideal modern soccer player, who not only has the requisite skill and athleticism, but controls matches from two positions. While he is the leader of the side, no two players represent the new Germany than Thomas Muller and Toni Kroos, each in their distinct way.

Muller’s lack of relative technique is well documented. In a game of step-overs and YouTube skill compilations, Muller easily lags behind his Argentine counterparts Gonzalo Higuain and Sergio Aguero. His brilliance only exists within the context of team, unlocked by Lahm, Toni Kross, and Mario Goetze’s forward runs, crosses, and diagonal passes. There, in this setting, he’s scored 5 goals thus far, including an opening match hat trick against Portgual. Muller’s instinctual play may have slipped through lightly scouted areas in the past. But 1000 part time youth soccer scouts spread across Germany can’t be wrong.     

If Muller is the symbol of the sum being bigger than the parts, then Toni Kroos is the ideal for midfield versatility, with his combination of pragmatism balanced with a perfect touch on through passes. Had Germany never bothered to fix their development infrastructure, Kroos would probably have been molded as a physical midfield presence in the vein of Paulinho or Fernandinho (maybe in 2026, the next Paulinho or Fernandinho in Brazil would play like Kroos). Regardless, this Germany side is a product a generation in the making. If they win on Sunday, it will have been by science and design.

Contrast the dominance showed by the German side (they’ve had the second highest xG differential in the tournament) to Argentina’s path to the finals. They struggled against Bosnia and Herzegovina, bailed out by a Messi goal in the second half. They struggled to break down Iran, bailed out by a Messi goal in injury time. They struggled against Switzerland in the first knock out game until Di Maria scored in extra time. Gonzalo Higuain poached an early goal against Belgium, and the team won on the crapshoot of penalty kick against Holland.

Whisper this only when no one’s around, but Argentina has more in common with Brazil than Germany. Their soccer nostalgia dilutes present reality. Whereas Muller and Kroos become emboldened by the national team system, the individual skills of Higuain, Lavezzi, and Aguero are stifled by a lack of stylistic identity. Playing without midfielder Angel Di Maria (their version of Lahm) against Holland, the side became Javier Mascherano, Messi and 9 players. But unlike Brazil, they made it to the finals. The difference is that Messi might be the greatest player in the sport’s history. That’s covering the cracks with diamonds.

Much has been written about Messi’s relationship with Argentina, a country he left when he was 13 for Spain. Argentinean fans have no memory of individual 40-yard runs at goal in domestic leagues, his impossible acceleration in person, or scoring important goals in Copa Libertadores matches. Diego Maradona was of the people; Messi’s formative years took place in a football academy in Spain. Thus, Argentineans have no “feel” with Messi.

He’s become the best player in the world, thousands of miles from home. Who does he belong to? Who is Messi? This Sunday would be a good time for Argentineans to finally understand its prodigal son. He would be Odysseus coming home after 10 years – at first, unrecognized by his people - then proving himself through sheer skill. The one tell tale sign that it’s really Messi and not an imposter? He never lost his Argentine accent.   

As Brazil found out, the lesson of nostalgia is that the past is never as good as you remember. And in the meantime, life and soccer move forward. Germany replaced their past with good coaching, good scouting, and a single-minded development program focused on technique. Its ideals are peaking right now. In this sense, it might be better if Germany wins so we can take a deep breath and move on after realizing that Messi is only a human (how many books, songs, art exhibits, and documentaries on Messi come out in the next two years if Argentina wins? The future of sports is technology and analytics, anyway). If there is such thing as methodically developing winning in sports, Germany should win on Sunday. You could go one step further and say that Germany won the 2014 World Cup in 2003. 

World Cup predictions:

For science: 3-1, Germany

For magic: 1-0, Argentina in extra time