June 9, 2006

German mystery before World Cup kick-off

By Noah Barkin

BERLIN (Reuters) - Under tight security and blue skies,
Germany prepared to kick off the 18th World Cup in the southern
city of Munich on Friday amid lingering questions over the
fitness of captain Michael Ballack.

Juergen Klinsmann's team, the focus of intense media
scrutiny for months, will be hoping to silence the sceptics
with a strong start to the month-long tournament when they meet
Costa Rica at 6 p.m. (1600 GMT).

The German coach must decide whether Ballack, a gifted
playmaker and the team's leading goalscorer, is fit enough to
take the pitch in the Bavarian capital.

Klinsmann said on Thursday that a calf injury Ballack
suffered in a friendly match against Colombia on June 2 would
keep him out of the Costa Rica match, but the midfielder may
have other ideas.

"I want to play," screamed the headline on the top selling
Bild newspaper. German television and radio seized on the
story, filling their programs with renewed speculation on the
state of "the country's calf."

"We've worked on the injury intensively," Ballack was
quoted as saying in Bild. "I feel fit. I'm no longer in any
pain. Whether I play against Costa Rica is up to the coach."

Bild hinted the difference of opinion was the sign of a
rift between coach and captain, who have been at pains to
stress how good their relationship is.

Assuming Ballack does not play in the Group A opener, he is
likely to be replaced by Tim Borowski in central midfield, with
Bernd Schneider a top candidate for the captain's armband.

Germany also play Poland and Ecuador in Group A. Those two
teams will meet in the western city of Gelsenkirchen at 9 p.m.
(1900 GMT) in the only other Friday match.


Munich, which styles itself as the "capital of soccer" and
is home to perennial German power Bayern Munich, was buzzing
with excitement ahead of the match.

German and Costa Rican colours dominated the central
Marienplatz square, which thumped with festive football tunes.
Tourists and locals tucked into Bavarian wurst and beer under a
cloudless sky.

"It is a bit like Christmas for a child," said Bavarian
Interior Ministry spokesman Rainer Riedl.

"The preparations have run for five years. Now the tree has
been decorated, the table set, and we are just waiting for the
presents, for this wonderful event to start."

Still, the buzz of helicopters overhead and formidable
police presence on the streets of Munich were a reminder of the
security concerns surrounding the tournament, which is expected
to attract 1.5 million foreign visitors.

Many still associate the city with the massacre of Israeli
athletes by Palestinian guerrillas at the 1972 Olympic Games
and German police have put a massive security net in place to
ensure a smooth start to the world's most-watched sporting

NATO AWACS radar aircraft will patrol the skies throughout
the tournament and 250,000 police are on duty around the
country. A comprehensive intelligence-sharing network has been
set up with a 24-hour unit in Berlin at its nerve center.

"Everyone can come, shout until they lose their voices,
have a great time and feel at home with friends but the message
to any hooligan or trouble maker is clear: security will
function and we are not here to joke around," Riedl said.

Defending champions Brazil are favorites in the tournament,
which includes 32 teams and will be played in 12 cities across
Germany. The final is set for July 9 in Berlin.

(Additional reporting by Annika Breidthardt and Kevin Fylan
in Munich, Mark Trevelyan in Berlin)