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FIRST LOOK

Final Will Be Study in Contrast

June 27, 2002|GRAHAME L. JONES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

YOKOHAMA, Japan — Conspiracy has been an oft-used word at this World Cup, but now comes a match with some truly intriguing plots and subplots.

Brazil versus Germany for all the marbles--the brightly colored ones that have characterized the South Americans' sparkling play and the opaque ones that have kept the true depths of the Europeans' hidden.

Astonishing as it might seem, Brazilians and Germans have never lined up opposite each other on a World Cup field. They have played 170 matches in the quadrennial world championship, but never against each other.

Making that even more remarkable, either Brazil or Germany has reached every final but one since World War II, but still they have never met.

(For those keeping score, the exception was 1978, when Argentina defeated the Netherlands in the final in Buenos Aires.)

The Brazilians have samba'd their way through Korea/Japan '02, even though the Turks once again made for an uneasy dance partner Wednesday night in Saitama, Japan, before Coach Luiz Felipe Scolari's team finally prevailed.

The Germans, in contrast, have barged into the championship game, with Coach Rudi Voeller making the most of what is essentially a physically powerful but limited side without the quality of past German teams.

Resolute, obdurate, dull, plodding and stolid are all descriptions that have been applied to the men in black and white.

The headline in the Times of London (admittedly not the most impartial observer) after Germany had ousted South Korea, 1-0, in Seoul on Tuesday night was a typical reaction: "Voeller's Ruthless Army Marches On."

Brazil won its semifinal by the same score over Turkey, but the same newspaper reserved nothing but kind words for the men in yellow and blue.

Perhaps it's the music and the bikini-clad women who accompany the Brazilian team wherever it goes that warps the journalists' outlook.

But look at the records. There really isn't much to choose between the teams as far as bare statistics go.

Brazil comes into Sunday's final unbeaten at 6-0, having scored 15 goals and giving up only four. Germany comes in unbeaten at 5-0-1, having scored 14 goals and giving up only one.

Sure, the Germans banged eight past the hapless Saudis, but the Brazilians hammered five past the not-quite-as-hapless Costa Ricans.

Voeller's men were taken to the wall by Ireland in their only tie, but Scolari's team has twice been stretched to defeat Turkey. Both teams have an unfinished look. Germany lacks the sort of midfield that can open up a game, Brazil lacks the sort of defense that can close it down.

And so the questions begin to pile up ahead of the final:

* Can Germany's Oliver Kahn justify his standing as the tournament's top goalkeeper by foiling not only the "Triple-R" line of Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho, but also the likes of Roberto Carlos, Cafu and Denilson?

* Can Brazil's defense cope with the high balls that are going to be floated into the penalty area for Marco Bode, Miroslav Klose, Oliver Bierhoff and Carsten Jancker to redirect past goalkeeper Marcos?

* With reliable playmaker Michael Ballack suspended, who is Voeller going to start in his place? Voeller on Wednesday called Ballack (three goals, four assists) irreplaceable, but will have to choose between untested Lars Ricken and defense-minded Jens Jeremies.

Chances are it will be the latter, as Germany tries to contain Brazil's high-octane attack and hope for a goal on the break or for the final to go to penalty kicks. The Germans have prided themselves on shutting down World Cup opponents.

"We gave up one goal in six games," midfielder Dietmar Hamann said. "That says everything."

Ballack said Germany, which had to beat Ukraine in a playoff just to qualify for the World Cup, is stronger now than it was a month ago.

"The team has gathered so much self-confidence that nothing can throw it off balance now," he said.

"The team has managed to accomplish an incredible feat. In the world, very few people would have placed much money on us going through to the final, and so it's satisfying for us to prove them wrong."

As columnist Simon Barnes pointed out Wednesday in the Times of London, however, the Brazilians' self-belief is immense.

"We expect a lot from Brazil and tend to chuck logic out the window when we read the name, read the surname-free players, see them run out in canary yellow shirts," Barnes wrote. "But it's not just us. Brazilian players do it as well.

"Brazil [is] at the World Cup, so every player thinks, 'Ah, yes, this is the competition we win. We win because our footballing culture is better than anyone else's. I am Brazilian, I play for Brazil, therefore I must be one of the best footballers that ever drew breath.' "

It's a sentiment that is reinforced almost every time Brazil takes the field. It has been reinforced at this tournament, even though this was where the Brazilians were supposed to fail.

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