- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 29, 2006

HANOVER, Germany — At the World Cup, things could not be better. These finals are being called the most exciting in decades. Television ratings are up worldwide. Attendance is the best its been since the 1994 finals played in the United States, a Cup that set records that likely never will be broken.

The host German team still is alive entering the quarterfinal stage, and its exciting play and youthful coach have captivated the country. Records are being broken: Brazilian ace Ronaldo eclipsed a 32-year-old goal-scoring mark when he notched his 15th World Cup goal against Ghana.

And the 18th finals has produced a fabulous finish: Only seven nations have won the World Cup — Brazil (five times), Germany (three), Italy (three), Argentina (two), Uruguay (two), England (one) and France (one) — and all of those but Uruguay advanced to the quarterfinals.

Veteran British reporter Brain Glanville, who has covered 13 World Cups, called it a “smashing finals”.

Television ratings around the world have been very high. Ratings are up by 52 percent in Germany over the 2002 figure, according to Infront Sports. About 16.5 million Brits watched England’s game with Ecuador. Nearly 70 million fans in China — 22.3 percent of that country’s television viewers — watched the match.

In the United States, where one poll showed that only 6 percent of the population is closely following the finals, 6.7 million fans watched the Mexico-Argentina game on Univision, the most-watched sports telecast in the history of U.S. Spanish-language television.

The effect has been most electric in the host nation. Germany has been enthralled by the performance of its team and by what has been called the “Revolution of Klinsmann Enthusiasm.”

Coach Jurgen Klinsmann, a German who is based in California, perhaps has watched too many American game shows. When Germany scores a goal, Klinsmann embarks upon a wild — and very un-German — celebration. His enthusiasm, however, has caught on, and that, along with his team’s performance, has washed away the pre-tournament pessimism that surrounded the squad. People believe in “Klinsi” and his philosophy.

German flags are flying even in the Turkish sections of the major cities. Germans are feeling feel proud — even aging tennis aces somewhat embarrassed about their origins.

Boris Becker, writing in the London Times, admits that he was “sheepish in the past about being German” but now is holding his “head up high.”

Still, Germany has not beaten a world power since it downed England at Wembley in 2001, and its match against Argentina in Berlin on Friday is daunting.

“I’m very optimistic this is going to work out,” Klinsmann said. “It looks like the time to end this black series and get into the semifinals. We are absolutely on par with the top eight teams in this World Cup, and we don’t have to be scared of anyone. Argentina is one of the giants, but we will stand up to them.”

A win over star-studded Argentina would send Germany into its wildest party since the Berlin Wall came down. And Argentina is vulnerable, as Mexico showed when it nearly took them to extra time in a tight game in the last sixteen.

First-timer Ukraine, spearheaded by the talented Andriy Shevchenko, will get a crack at Italy. Shevchenko dominated the scoring charts in Italy’s domestic league with AC Milan for the past seven years, so Italy knows and fears him.

Stuttering old England, bashed daily by the critics, meets Portugal, which will play without its Brazilian-born playmaker, Deco, who is suspended.

“The important thing is that the national team can beat England,” said Deco. “It doesn’t matter who plays in my place.”

The subplot to the England-Portugal game is the rematch between England’s coach, the cool, calm, almost emotionless Swede, Sven-Goran Eriksson, and Portugal’s volcanic Brazilian coach, Luis Felipe “Phil” Scolari, a total madman on the sidelines.

England, led by Eriksson, lost to “Big Phil’s” Brazil in the 2002 World Cup quarterfinals and again two years later when Scolari coached Portugal over England at Euro 2004 on penalties after Wayne Rooney was taken off injured with a broken foot. Rooney, who has just recovered from another broken foot, looked very sharp in England’s last game.

Brazil, the consensus favorite, must face old nemesis Zinedine Zidane and France, who downed them at the 1998 World Cup in France.

All in all, this World Cup has been one to remember.

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