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Goal Digger

Germany's Birgit Prinz doesn't look like elite athlete, but she leads the World Cup in scoring

October 10, 2003|Grahame L. Jones | Times Staff Writer

The thing about Birgit Prinz is, she just doesn't look the part. Or sound the part.

Sure, she's tall. Listed at 5 feet 9, she looks taller. And, sure, she's powerfully built, but she's not tanned and toned like so many athletes. "Cut," as the saying goes, she is not.

In fact, Prinz easily could pass for just another 20-something European tourist, making the rounds of Southern California's attractions, which is what she and her German teammates were doing earlier this week.

Her voice too does not match her accomplishments. There is no brashness to it, no swagger. She is soft-spoken, polite, almost reserved, and she's diplomatic to a fault.

And yet Birgit Prinz, just two weeks shy of her 26th birthday, is the leading goal scorer in the fourth FIFA Women's World Cup and the likely winner of the golden boot as the tournament's top striker.

That would place her in the same company as 1991 winner Michelle Akers of the United States, 1995 winner Ann Kristin Aarones of Norway and 1999 co-winners Sissi of Brazil and Sun Wen of China.

By Sunday afternoon, if Germany defeats Sweden in the final at the Home Deport Center in Carson, Prinz will be able to call herself not only a national champion and a European champion but a world champion too.

Her seven goals in five matches have helped propel Germany to within 90 minutes of its first title. To be the last team left standing was a target she had set for herself and her teammates even before the tournament began three weeks ago.

"You can't set out for a World Cup without aiming to end up as world champions," she said earlier this year.

Twice already, Germany has come close. Prinz, at 17, was the youngest player in the tournament in Sweden in 1995, when the Germans were beaten, 2-0, by Norway in the final in Stockholm.

Four years later, in the U.S. in 1999, Germany fell to the eventual champion Americans in the quarterfinals in Landover, Md.

One year after that, the Germans again came close, winning the bronze medal at the Sydney 2000 Olympics after losing to Norway in the semifinals.

So there is plenty of incentive for the Germans on Sunday.

Not that Prinz has been deprived of honors. Since making her debut for Germany as a 16-year-old in 1994, she has helped her country win the European Women's Championship in 1995, 1997 and 2001.

But the ones that got away still rankle.

"The problem is, I hate to lose," she said. "I'm too competitive sometimes."

That fire made her Germany's player of the year in 2001 and 2002, and she also was runner-up to U.S. star Mia Hamm as FIFA's women's player of the year in 2002.

Throw in countless league and cup championships with her German club team, FFC Frankfurt, and it is clear why the Women's United Soccer Assn. made her a prime target in 2002.

When she was signed by the Carolina Courage, former U.S. national team coach Lauren Gregg called her "clearly one of the elite players ever in the women's game."

She was not long in living up to that accolade, leading the Courage to the WUSA title in her first season, with a dozen goals in 15 games.

On Thursday morning, Prinz told a television interviewer that, "I don't know if I have something special [planned] for the final. I think I was doing OK. I was not playing my best soccer. I think there's some room for improvement."

That modest comment runs counter to what she has accomplished.

The seven goals place her within striking distance of Akers' career record of 12 World Cup goals, and she could make the record hers in 2007, when the next Women's World Cup is scheduled for China.

"I was not thinking about it [winning the scoring title]," she said. "It was not the thing I was trying to get to. But when I see how many chances I miss, I'm surprised to be at the top of the scoring leaders.

"It's good [to have seven goals], but I couldn't make the easy ones."

Like the titles, it's the ones that got away that rankle.

*

Staff writer Lisa Dillman contributed to this report.

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