- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 29, 2002

Germany and Brazil are in the World Cup championship final, so what's new? Well, after 72 years, the gods in a curious turn have allowed us to finally see the historic giants of soccer play each other in a World Cup game.
It wasn't meant to be this way. Both teams struggled in the qualifying process and weren't expected to do well in Asia. Brazil lost six games in qualifying unthinkable in earlier times while Germany got thumped 5-1 by England in Munich.
For what it's worth, the pundits at Sport Illustrated didn't even have Germany advancing from the opening round, and Brazil was predicted to fall in the quarterfinals. But here we are at the close of the 17th World Cup with the flawed brilliance of the Brazilians up against an enigmatic German team.
I'm underwhelmed. The beginning of this tournament was so exciting with all those upsets. I've been left twiddling my thumbs through the last couple of games. Let's hope the final tomorrow is a classic, but I'm skeptical. I have horrid visions of a dreaded penalty kick shootout.
These two teams pale in comparison to the great German and Brazilian teams of old, when Pele, Jairzinho, Zico, and Romario wore those yellow jerseys and Franz Beckenbauer, Gerd Muller and Juergen Klinsmann led the Germans.
Brazil's Ronaldo has shown flashes of brilliance in scoring six goals, but it's obvious he's still not fit. Imagine what he would be like if he hadn't missed two years with knee injuries?
Rivaldo, who rarely passes when in sight of the goal, no doubt will try to sneak a shot by brilliant German goalie Oliver Kahn, leaving the ever-smiling and talented Ronaldinho wide open and begging for the ball.
Roberto Carlos inevitably will step up to take the free kicks. He has scored only once on a free kick for Brazil in five years, and that was against Costa Rica earlier this month. Better late than never, I suppose.
Can Germany, minus the inspiring but suspended Michael Ballack, add a fourth star to its white shirt, or will Brazil win its fifth title? One thing is certain: The South Americans will have the majority of the Japanese fans behind them in Yokohama tomorrow. Brazil and Japan have a unique relationship when it comes to soccer. Many Brazilians play in Japan's J-League, and Brazilian-born Alessandro Santos, who became a Japanese citizen in November, played for Japan in the World Cup.
Brazil is the obvious favorite, but I would suggest you hold off your bets. I remember Germany coming from 3-0 down in 93-degree heat at RFK Stadium in 1993 to tie the Brazilians 3-3 at the U.S. Cup. Ah, but that was when Klinsmann, Lothar Matthaeus, Stefen Effenberg, Matthias Sammer and Andy Moller graced the turf.
The Brazilians had such fun in the first 45 minutes of the RFK thriller that the talented Careca juggled the ball on his foot 10 times before making a back-heeled pass to a teammate. I bet you won't see that in Yokohama.
Bad luck Ballack You have to feel for German midfielder Michael Ballack, who scored the goal against South Korea to get his team into the final but now must sit out the biggest game of his life. Ballack was suspended after he received his second yellow card in the knockout phase just before scoring the key goal.
Ballack has been the key to Germany's success. He has played every minute of its six games and has recorded three goals and four assists, including the only goal against the Americans in the quarterfinals. Ballack had a total of 19 shots on goal, just four fewer than Brazilian striker Ronaldo, who leads the tournament with six goals. That's not bad for a defensive midfielder who had scored only six goals in 22 previous games for his national team. Germany will miss his long speedy runs and brilliant passing.
Ballack earned the suspension with a sacrificial tackle after a fellow defender failed to make the professional foul on an attacking Korean player who looked likely to score.
"He has so much class that you just can't replace him," said German coach Rudi Voeller.
It has been a tough season for the 25-year-old, who has been compared to German legend Franz Beckenbauer. His club, Bayer Leverkusen, has been the choke artist of the season. Bayer came up the loser in the final of the Champions League to Real Madrid and the German Cup to Schalke. The team also blew a five-point lead to lose the German Bundesliga title race to Dortmund in the last game of the season.
"Perhaps the fact that I will not be in the final is a good sign," said Ballack, who grew up in East Germany.
French and Manchester United defender Laurent Blanc knows how Ballack feels. Blanc had to sit out the 1998 final due to suspension, but at least he saw his team down Brazil 3-0.
Unlike England's Paul Gascoinge, who openly wept on the field after a similar experience in the semifinal of the 1990 World Cup, Ballack saved his tears for the locker room.


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