The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Germany taps feet for opening whistle

Wilkommen in Deutschland. Bienvenue. Buongiorno. Buenos dias. Bom dia.

Welcome to a Germany which is primed and ready. So, hopefully, are most of the coaches, the players and the teams. Escape from the World Cup is impossible in the host nation.

Enter even the smallest restaurant in some far-distant corner of the largest nation in western Europe and the ravenous diner first must unfold a serviette which carries a football design and words of welcome in six languages.

The German fan in the street appears somewhat schizophrenic. He or she is excited by the arrival of the world’s greatest sports event, impatient for the opening whistle and an end to the phoney war of injury concerns, gossip and incessant speculation.

On the other hand, those same fans parade little confidence in their own team’s prospect of carrying off that solid goal statuette in Berlin’s remodelled Olympic Stadium on July 9.

This is worrying. Every World Cup needs the host team to build a competitive momentum and carry the tournament on wings of local enthusiasm deep into its last week. The exit of a host team invariably punctures the bubble of delight.

Ronaldinho kisses the ball during training. Brazil will face Croatia on June 13 in Berlin. (AFP)

This is where Brazil comes in. The record five-time champions are clear and proper favourites. Seizing World Cups demands winning matches and that demands goals ' and no team is better equipped in attack than Brazil with an embarrassment of riches from among Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Kaka, Robinho and Adriano.

Other managers have problems of fitness and form. Nothing as complex as those issues for Brazil boss Carlos Alberto Parreira.

Indeed, the only slight cloud where morale is concerned is a religious affair. Nine of the squad of 23 are evangelical Christians and the others Roman Catholic and they differ over the precise content of their team prayer before a game. This is not, of course, likely to affect them out on the pitch.

The only concern about Brazil is whether an always-vulnerable defence can hold together in reasonable fashion now that the likes of Lucio, Roque Junior and Roberto Carlos are four years older than when they celebrated (in prayer, out on the pitch) their record-extending fifth World Cup win back in Yokohama four years ago.

Other managers will look at Brazil and wish they had merely such problems.

France comes to Germany intent on expunging memories of their first-round debacle in Korea and Japan. But serious injury to Djibril Cisse and the nerves displayed even by Zinedine Zidane in skying a penalty in the warm-up against China do not bode well.

Manager Raymond Domenech, already savaged by his domestic media over his offbeat attitude to public relations, recalled the likes of Zidane, Claude Makelele and Lilian Thuram to seal qualification.

All three had pensioned themselves off after the European Championship in 2004 when France slipped out in the quarter-finals. Whether they can raise their game one last time appears questionable, particularly while goalkeeping remains another hot, and crucial, issue.

The top goalkeeper in France for the past few years has been Lyon’s Gregory Coupet who was furious when Domenech handed the top jersey to the notoriously erratic Fabien Barthez, a gamble on World Cup-winning experience over better form.

Italy, of course, plays under the cloud of the match-fixing scandal back home.

Coach Marcello Lippi and captain Fabio Cannavaro were among those interviewed by prosecutors before flying off to Germany which was hardly the sort of tactical talk they had planned.

Lippi believes much depends on the fitness of the mercurial Francesco Totti. But that is taking optimism to a supreme degree.

Totti’s big-event track record is poor. He was sent off in the infamous defeat by South Korea in 2002 and suspended for spitting at an opponent at Euro 2004. Big events and pressure do not sit well with the Roma captain.

The problem and/or fascination of this World Cup is that, after Brazil, any one of a bunch of nations are potential winners as long as their young tyros rise to the occasion.

For Argentina that means the Barcelona teenager Leo Messi, for England it means the prospect that Wayne Rooney can join the fray at some stage down the line and for Germany it means Lukas Podolski proving he has what it takes.

The setting for Podolski could not be better. He will lead the hosts’ attack against Costa Rica in the opening match in the Arena stadium in Munich, which is likely to be his club home next season with Bayern Munich.

Transfer talks, of course, have had to be set aside on the orders of national trainer Jurgen Klinsmann while “Poldi” concentrates on the World Cup.

Indeed, Klinsmann is letting nothing disturb the focus of his players.

Newspapers have been banned so the team can read nothing critical, agents have been banned from talking business and even the fans are being held at a respectful distance from their heroes whenever they venture out beyond the walls of “Fort Klinsi” in Berlin.

High-profile footballers are often criticised for being out of touch with reality and out of touch with their fans. But on seeing them at a World Cup, it’s easy to comprehend the problem. These modern-day gladiators are prisoners of their own fame and public expectation. So, let battle commence.

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