June 9, 2006

Hosts Germany kick-off World Cup

By Annika Breidthardt

MUNICH (Reuters) - Under the gaze of over a billion
television viewers worldwide, Germany kicked off the 18th World
Cup against Costa Rica on Friday without captain Michael
Ballack but hopeful of success on their home turf.

Coach Juergen Klinsmann's team, the focus of intense media
scrutiny for months, is aiming to silence the skeptics with a
strong start to the month-long tournament, which is being
played in 12 cities across Germany.

But the national team started their quest without Ballack,
a gifted playmaker, who has yet to fully recover from a calf
injury suffered in a friendly match last week.

Ballack is expected to return for Germany's second match
against Poland on June 14. Poland and Ecuador, the other team
in Group A, will meet in the western city of Gelsenkirchen at 9
p.m. (1900 GMT) in the only other match on Friday.

"We are hoping for beautiful matches, many goals and fair
play," German President Horst Koehler told a cheering crowd of
some 65,000 in Munich's new Allianz Arena. "I declare the FIFA
2006 World Cup officially started."

Over one billion television viewers are expected to tune in
to the opening match and a cumulative audience of nearly 30
billion will watch at least part of the 64 game schedule which
culminates on July 9 in Berlin.

Ahead of the match, a spectacle of dancers in lederhosen
and straw-skirts banged on drums and rang giant cow bells under
clear blue skies as an emotional crowd waved flags from the 32
countries taking part in the World Cup.


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

German and Costa Rican colors dominated the central
Marienplatz square, which thumped with festive football tunes,
as 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 noise 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 world champions Brazil, led by magical Barcelona
playmaker Ronaldinho, are favorites to win the tournament