By Julian Linden
RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - Germany are champions of the world again after snatching victory against Argentina in the soccer showpiece with a superb extra-time goal from baby-faced Mario Goetze to lift the trophy for the first time since 1990.
Hatched from the agony of their recent near-misses, Germany's triumph secured a fourth World Cup title - their first since the country was reunited 24 years ago - with a nail-biting 1-0 win in Sunday's final at the sprawling Maracana.
The win, sealed by substitute Goetze's brilliantly taken strike in the 113th minute, marked the first time a European country had won the sport's greatest prize in the Americas, although this World Cup was ultimately a triumph for all.
"We have been together for 55 days but the work started 10 years ago with (former national team manager) Juergen Klinsmann," said Germany coach Joachim Loew.
"We did everything to experience this day. The team really deserved it. No one deserved it more than us."
The Argentina team, their homeland still recovering from a crippling debt crisis, were brave in defeat and with a bit more luck might well have won the greatest prize in sport.
They squandered a string of chances but lost no admirers in a match that was full of end-to-end action and unrelenting tension over two hours.
"I am very proud. The boys played an extraordinary World Cup," said Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella.
"Over and above the pain of a defeat, they can look each other in the eye, they can look in the mirror and know they gave their all for Argentina."
Hosts Brazil did not make the final, finishing fourth as they buckled under the weight of expectation with two humbling losses, including a 7-1 semi-final thrashing by Germany, but never has the samba nation shone so brightly on the world stage.
Magnanimous in defeat, Brazil proved all the doubters wrong by delivering a World Cup in which some breathtaking action on the pitch was matched only by the contagious carnival atmosphere that infected everyone in the country from the favelas to the golden sands of Copacabana Beach and the jungles of the Amazon.
Brazilians put aside their complaints about the $11 billion price tag by embracing the month-long tournament, welcoming thousands of visitors to their home in a spectacular dress rehearsal for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
The finals set a host of records for global television audiences and social media activity, with even the United States President Barack Obama getting swept up in the excitement, tweeting about the tournament from Air Force One after watching the Americans qualify for the second round.
The U.S. did not go any further but their time may come. More than any other World Cup, the tournament in Brazil was a massive hit in the Land of the Free, whose irreverence to the global game is now a thing of the past.
Americans were among the biggest and most enthusiastic supporters of an event that saw almost 3.5 million spectators come through the gates, including A-List celebrities LeBron James, Tom Brady and his wife Giselle Buendchen, Mick Jagger, David Beckham, Ashton Kucher and Rihanna.
On the pitch, the outstanding tournament produced 171 goals to equal the record set at the 1998 finals in France.
While teams like Costa Rica, Colombia, the U.S., Belgium and Algeria all made the knockout rounds, the new kids on the block will have to wait for glory, with Sunday's final producing a showdown between two of the game's traditional powerhouses.
Germany and Argentina were meeting in the final for the third time, with the South Americans winning 3-2 in Mexico City in 1986 then the Europeans triumphing 1-0 in Rome four years later in what was their last appearance as West Germany.
Germany went into Sunday's final as strong favorites after demolishing Brazil in the semi-finals but had to shed blood, sweat and tears to see off a resilient Argentina side that was left to rue at least three golden opportunities to score.
Striker Gonzalo Higuain shot wide when gifted a chance by a careless header towards his own goal from Toni Kroos and also had a goal disallowed for offside in the first half.
Argentina captain Lionel Messi missed the target in the second period with an angled shot from inside the box.
Substitute Rodrigo Palacio then misdirected his lob in extra time over the head of advancing Manuel Neuer, who won the Golden Glove as the best goalkeeper of the tournament.
Messi won the Golden Ball as the best player at the finals but it was scant consolation for missing out on the big prize.
"Bitterness, sadness. We deserved a bit more after the match we played," said the Argentina captain. "We are hurting because we had chances. Even if they had more possession, we had the clearest chance.
"Today was the day (to win). We didn't have luck, and we weren't able to apply the finishing touch. We had clear chances but we couldn't do it."
On being awarded the Golden Ball, Messi added: "It's a sad prize which I won, because we wanted to lift the trophy for Argentina."
Germany hit the post just before halftime from a powerful header by Benedikt Hoewedes and the match had seemed destined to go to a penalty shootout until Goetze's stunning winner.
Fellow substitute Andre Schuerrle escaped down the left and fired in a cross that Goetze controlled on his chest before volleying into the net, igniting a roar from the German fans in the stands and the thousands at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin.
When Germany's players climbed the steps to receive the trophy, with the country having lost in the semi-finals in 2006 and 2010 and the final in 2002, they filed past 10 heads of state, including Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin, the President of Russia, who will host the next World Cup in 2018.
Germany captain Philipp Lahm summed up an emotional night for himself and his triumphant team mates by saying: "It feels incredible. What we did for 120 minutes, the way we worked so hard, and the way the bench was backing us the whole time.
"You‘ve got to have the best team. We got better in each match and didn't let ourselves be distracted. It's unbelievable to have won the World Cup," he added after the world champions were showered with confetti to mark their success.
(Reporting by Julian Linden; editing by Ken Ferris)