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Africa bids adieu

Suddenly, like the vanishing spray at free kicks, Africa is gone. Apart from an interloper or two from Central and North America, the regional duel for omnipotence remains the traditional Europe vs South America.

African interest, four years ago, extended to the quarter-final with Ghana. Indeed, but for the cheating cynicism of Luis Suarez — him again! — the Black Stars would have reached the semi-finals. But he punched Gyan Asamoah’s shot off the goal-line at the end of extra time and Ghana lost their nerve and the subsequent shootout.

This time, at least, Africa did progress two teams from the group stage. Not fancied Ghana and Ivory Coast but Algeria and African champions Nigeria. The Nigerians were first to go, beaten 2-0 by France, so the pride of Africa was in the hands of Algeria and Les Fennecs, the Desert Foxes.

So much pride was at stake for them against Germany. Famously, at the 1982 finals, Algeria had beaten West Germany 2-1; infamously, a week or so later, West Germany and Austria conspired at a result which sent them both into the second round while sending Algeria home.

Different days, different times. Back then, African nations were granted little respect. This time, in Brazil, it has been different. Indeed, Germany might have even been upset again. Algeria began brightly and took Joachim Low’s discomfited team all the way to extra time before losing first their legs and then the tie by 2-1.

Germany go on to face France in Maracana in the quarter-finals. This is a repeat of the quarter-final of 1986 in Mexico. The Germans won that one.

Michel Platini, now president of Uefa but then French captain, told this writer years later: “I knew we were in trouble at the coin toss when one of the linesmen wished me ‘Viel Gluck’ (good luck) in German. He was Austrian.”

The ability of German teams to go all the way to the final whistle is legendary. Former Manchester United goalkeeper Edwin Van der Sar once remarked, after a nerve-tingling defeat by Bayern Munich, that “German teams are never beaten until they are back in the bus on the way to the airport.”

So it was against Algeria. The German defence wobbled in the face of the Algerian assault. When Germany did find their attacking feet, late in the second half, the likes of Thomas Muller, Bastian Schweisteiger, Mesut Ozil, Mario Gotze and substitute Andre Schurrle were all defied by keeper Rais Mbolhi.

Hence it took extra time before the Algerians had to surrender to a 2-1 defeat. France will have been delighted. Not only did the Germans have to play later in the day but they had the hassle of extra time which, in a short-term tournament such as the World Cup, is physical pressure indeed.

Germany established themselves as one of the World Cup favourites with the decision and determination with which they opened their campaign in a 4-0 defeat of Portugal. Since then, however, their performances have offered not more reasons for confidence but an increasing number of reasons for doubt.

They were happy to escape with a 2-2 draw against a Ghana side who were on the route to first-round elimination, then they were run almost off their feet in a hard-earned 1-0 victory over their old team manager Jurgen Klinsmann’s US.

On performance, France are favourites to reach the semi-finals.

Germany have one of the finest goalkeepers in both the world and the World Cup in Manuel Neuer. A magnificent athlete, his athleticism sets a new standard for far-ranging sweeper/keepers. In midfield, captain Philipp Lahm is a little metronome while Bastian Schweinsteiger and Real Madrid target Toni Kroos provide dynamism and perception.

Up front Thomas Muller, with his elusive running, is always a danger even when he appears to have faded from the game; he is merely biding his time for a fatal run on goal.

But Germany possess too many demonstrable weaknesses to become champions of this demandingly high-standard tournament. The defence is about as resilient as a cream sponge. Per Mertesacker is vulnerable to pace, wing or centre back Jerome Boateng lacks a commanding presence.

In attack, Ozil appears to be still suffering a hangover from a first tough English season with Arsenal while Gozte remains player of potential rather than demonstrable achievement.

In the last European Championships, in Poland and Ukraine, the Germans reached the semi-final and then collapsed against Italy because Low got the tactics wrong. This time around, Germany will do well to reach the semi-finals at all.


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