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There is nothing like the World Cup final. No, really. When the whistle blows to open the final game of South Africa 2010 at Soccer City in Johannesburg this Sunday, the global audience watching on television will run into the hundreds of millions and far exceed the number that saw this year's Super Bowl. Held only once every four years, the World Cup final is the one true Big Game, the Hope Diamond of sports. "Winning was something amazing—you never think you can get to that level of emotion," says former France midfielder Patrick Vieira, who won one final on home soil in 1998 and lost another in Germany in 2006. "But when you lose, you don't sleep. In '98 you touch the sky, and in '06 you are on the ground."
"If you win, everybody will remember you," says Carlos Alberto Parreira, who coached Brazil to the 1994 title. "But in Brazil if you are second, it's the same as if you were last. You have to win."
For better and for worse, the World Cup final will define careers, providing first-paragraph obituary material in the space of a mere 90 minutes. In 1958 a 17-year-old boy named Pelé scored twice in Brazil's 5--2 victory over host Sweden and cried like a baby in front of the cameras; 12 years later he sealed his legacy with a goal and a glorious assist to Carlos Alberto in a 4--1 win against Italy in Mexico City. In 1986 Diego Maradona capped the finest individual World Cup in history by leading Argentina to a 3--2 win against West Germany, again in Mexico City; four years later the Germans ended his quest for a repeat, prevailing 1--0 in Rome. More recently, the years 1998 to 2006 were the era of Zinédine Zidane, the majestic French midfielder who scored twice with his head in the '98 final, a 3--0 triumph for the hosts over Brazil, and eight years later was sent off for slamming his head into the chest of Marco Materazzi in the '06 final in Berlin, won by Italy on penalties.
Reggie Jackson once said, "When we lose and I strike out, a billion people in China don't care." Well, they do care about the World Cup final. On Sunday a new champion will raise the 13-pound gold trophy and change the sporting history of his country forever. Was it to be Germany, the three-time winner that obliterated Argentina 4--0 and England 4--1 on the strength of a youth movement led by 21-year-old midfielder Mesut Özil and 20-year-old forward Thomas Müller? Or perhaps Uruguay, the tiny nation that added a new chapter to its rich World Cup history (titles in 1930 and '50) with its first semifinal since 1970? Maybe, at long last, it would be time for the first World Cup triumph of a classic soccer nation. The Netherlands has had legendary players (Johan Cruyff and Marco van Basten) and memorable teams (the losing finalists in 1974 and '78), but after riding Wesley Sneijder's two goals to a 2--1 upset of cofavorite Brazil in last week's quarterfinals, the 2010 edition of the Oranje was hoping to achieve what none of its predecessors had done. Indeed, the chances of having a first-time Cup winner were the highest in years, after Spain, soccer's most maddening underachiever, reached the semifinals with a 1--0 victory against Paraguay. The Spaniards' soul-patched sniper, David Villa, may have scored five goals to lead the tournament at week's end, but their run was less the product of individual brilliance than of mesmerizing passing (orchestrated by midfield conductors Xavi and Andrés Iniesta) and surprising grit. (Defender Gerard Piqué had been bloodied no fewer than three times.)
But as Al Gore and John McCain can tell you, winning the Big One is what matters. It's strange: In a sport that has such small margins of victory, a sport in which the less-deserving team often triumphs, the World Cup final has held remarkably true to form. Only seven nations have won the 18 World Cup finals: Brazil (five), Italy (four), Germany (three), Argentina (two), Uruguay (two), England and France. Why the absence of upstarts? Says Vieira, whose '98 France team remains the only new winner since Argentina in '78: "Countries like Brazil, Germany and Argentina produce most of the talented players. When you do it once or twice, you get used to winning and know what to do to win it again."
And when you do achieve sports immortality, the emotions can be overwhelming. Last week SI asked four World Cup winners to describe their favorite moments of that historic day, and each one grew animated as he traveled back in time with his memories. Gerd Müller, the German striker known as Der Bomber, scored the winning goal in the 1974 World Cup final, a 2--1 victory against the Netherlands in Munich. Last week he closed his eyes and raised his fists skyward, recalling the sound of the final whistle and the realization that Germany had won the Cup on home soil. "I was falling down on the ground," Müller said. "You forget everything. We were thinking one thought—that we needed to win—and then we were running around the field celebrating with our fans. If you win at home, you've got all your friends there. It was something special."
Mario Kempes scored the decisive goal in the final of World Cup '78, Argentina's 3--1 triumph over the Dutch in Buenos Aires. He remembers the thousands upon thousands of papelitos—little strips of paper—that blanketed the Estadio Monumental at the end of the game. But the scenes he most treasures took place outside the stadium. As the team bus made its way through the streets to and from the final, "all the people were celebrating, chanting, '¡Vamos Argentina! ¡Vamos Argentina!' " says Kempes, now a broadcaster for ESPN Deportes. "But the most beautiful part was after the game. Everyone was partying. Everyone went to celebrate at the obelisk" in the center of the capital.
It's that moment of transcendence, frozen in time, that remains in Vieira's mental hard drive from the 1998 victory: the scene of two million French citizens on the Champs-Élysées engaging in the wildest celebration in Paris since the Liberation, in honor of a multiethnic team that reflected the diversity of modern France. "That is when you realize that football is bigger than sport," Vieira says. "You could see all the people being brought together."
For Parreira there was no greater joy in '94 than sharing the World Cup title with the Brazilian fans who had waited 24 years to appear in the final again. After Brazil had prevailed in a grueling penalty-kick shootout against Italy at the Rose Bowl, Parreira carried the World Cup trophy through a horde of Brazilian fans to the field. "I said, 'Please, touch it! It's our cup! Touch it!' " he recalls. "In that moment I wasn't thinking about anybody or anything. This was for me the great moment of my career."
So many elements need to come together to win a World Cup, even for the most storied soccer nations. The two finalists in 2006, Italy and France, failed to survive the first round in South Africa. There are so few chances at glory that once the initial adrenaline rush subsides it can take years for the full significance to set in: I won the World Cup. "The older I get, the more feeling I have for it," says Kempes, 55. "You think of how beautiful it was."