History Hobbles German Soccer

Tuneup match with England was scrubbed; will defending World Cup champs be ready?

HISTORY is hampering the German national soccer team as it gears up to defend its World Cup title, but officials say the team will be ready when the play begins.

The month-long World Cup Finals, the world's most watched sporting event, will be played in the United States beginning June 17 with a match between Germany and Bolivia at Chicago's Soldier Field.

The German team's World Cup preparations suffered a setback earlier this month when the English national team backed out of a tuneup match that had been scheduled for April 20 in Berlin.

The reason for the cancellation: April 20 happens to be the anniversary of Adolf Hitler's birth, and English officials said they feared the game would spark extremist violence involving neo-Nazis and anarchists.

``The risks of the match becoming an unnecessary flashpoint were too great for [it] to be played,'' said Graham Kelly, head of the English soccer association.

German officials lamented the English decision, saying the cancellation would only encourage right-wing extremists in Germany. It also forced the German soccer team to scramble to schedule a replacement match that would provide players with some needed game experience.

The best Germany could come up with was a match against the United Arab Emirates, scheduled for April 27 in Abu Dhabi.

Although England failed to qualify for this year's World Cup finals, it is considered a perennial soccer power. Thus, the English national team would have provided a much better test for Germany than the UAE, which also failed to qualify for the finals.

``Of course we would have preferred to play England,'' said Wolfgang Niersbach, a spokesman for the German Soccer Association in Frankfurt. ``But this [UAE match] is still a serious game, giving us, the team, and the coaches the possibility to test the strengths and the weaknesses of various players.''

German national team coach Berti Vogts said the UAE match will be useful for his players because the Arabs' style resembles that of South Korea, which along with Bolivia and Spain will be a first-round World Cup opponent for Germany in June.

A lack of pressure-packed tuneup matches during the run-up to the Cup finals has some German soccer aficionados concerned that the team may be underprepared for its title defense. It won the 1990 World Cup tournament, played in Italy, with a 1-0 victory over Argentina.

As the defending champion, Germany automatically gained a berth in this year's 24-team soccer tournament, while other teams had to go through a grueling qualifying round to reach the finals. The US, as the host nation, also received an automatic berth.

Besides the UAE game, Germany has three other soccer ``friendlies'' scheduled before the World Cup begins - against Ireland, Austria, and Canada.

Germany is considered one of the co-favorites to win the World Cup, along with Brazil. The championship game will be played July 17 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif.

The German team's roster hasn't been finalized, but is sure to feature many of the stars from its winning 1990 campaign. The defense will be anchored by Lothar Mattaeus, the 32-year-old team captain. The offense will be propelled by Juergen Klinsmann, another veteran of the 1990 Cup campaign. By contemporary standards, many of the top players on the German squad are considered old. But the veteran makeup of the team has German soccer officials predicting that Germany will rise to the occasion once the finals begin.

``It is hard to win against us,'' Niersbach said.

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