Germany open campaign with enigmatic challenge

SAPPORO, Japan, Reuters

Germany will venture into the unknown when they challenge Saudi Arabia in their opening World Cup game on Saturday.

The triple world champions do not really know what to expect from their first opponents in group E or from the tournament as a whole.

Once among the automatic favorites, the troubled heavyweights have lost a handful of valued players in the build-up to the finals and Germany head coach Rudi Voeller has remained cautious by naming the knock-out stage as their minimal aim.

Germany captain Oliver Kahn has sounded more upbeat, saying he did not rule out a great show from a team desperate to bounce back from their disastrous campaign at Euro 2000, when they disappeared after the group stage in their worst overall performance at a major event.

“The first game is absolutely decisive because it gives the impulse for the entire tournament,” the Bayern Munich goalkeeper said.

“We must treat this as a final. In no way will we be taking Saudi Arabia lightly.”

Germany, who will then play Ireland and Cameroon in group E, have met the “Sons of the Desert” only once, beating them 3-0 in a friendly international in 1998. Saudi Arabia have improved since, as they showed by winning the Gulf Cup in January before beating three fellow finalists in their preparations for the World Cup — South Africa, Uruguay and Senegal.

“They are an excellent team and I think many under-estimate them,” said Erich Rutemoeller, the spy in Germany’s coaching staff. “They are very gifted technically and they don’t have any real weakness.”

Assistant Germany coach Michael Skibbe said his players did not share Rutemoeller’s knowledge of Saudi Arabian football.

“They don’t know what they look like,” Skibbe said. “There will be more familiar faces when we play Ireland or even Cameroon, whose players are nearly all with European clubs.”

Key playmaker Michael Ballack, who carries much of Germany’s hopes in the absence from the squad of fellow creative midfielders Sebastian Deisler and Mehmet Scholl, should start the match on the roof-covered pitch of the futuristic Sapporo Dome despite being still hampered by a bruised foot.

Voeller, whose two main central defenders, Jens Nowotny and Christian Woerns, have been ruled out of the World Cup by injury, will have to leave Marko Rehmer on the bench. The right back hurt a thigh muscle when Germany crushed a regional junior side 10-0 in their final warm-up game last Sunday.

Talented young forward Miroslav Klose, who has scored eight goals including two hat- tricks in 12 outings for Germany, should start up front alongside Carsten Jancker.

Saudi Arabia, who reached the knock-out stage on their World Cup debut in 1994 but failed to survive their group four years ago, will rely chiefly on their spectacular goalkeeper, Mohammed al Deayea, and veteran striker Sami Al-Jaber.

“Our secret weapon is the Saudi attitude — our refusal to lose,” said Prince Turki bin Khalid, head of the national team delegation.

“We consider the World Cup to be our stage to show the world our football and we have good faith in our players.”

But if they can use their physical superiority to the full and stamp their authority on the game from midfield while making the most of set pieces and high balls, Germany should have the edge.

“I am convinced that we are capable of playing at a high tempo for 90 minutes and of winning this game,” Skibbe said.