Eilts scales the heights

The final countdown: Vogts trusts in another Wembley command performanc e from the man in his mould on the pitch
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Dieter Eilts is no longer an unsung hero. The Mastercard panel, which has adjudicated at each Euro 96 game, made him their "man of the match" in the game against England, while the BBC commentator Barry Davies went so far as to nominate him "man of the tournament". England know him as the rock upon which they threw themselves, while the German team call him "Mr Reliable".

Yet three weeks ago it was a case of Dieter Who? as Germany trotted out in their first game against the Czech Republic, the same opponents they now face in today's final. But since then the gangling, balding, jug-earred veteran has proved that dodgy looks and international anonymity are not disqualifications from being a successful footballer, albeit in a limited area.

Certainly Eilts has not commanded attention with his long-range passing, nor with his ability to carry the ball forward, nor indeed with his shooting. But when it comes to protecting his part of the German field, the man has been like a starving Rottweiler sensing the arrival of meat. But if this image suggests a capacity for violence, it is misleading, for Eilts's expertise has been not so much snarling savagery, more like the deft snuffling of a string of sausages from a butcher's window.

One by one they have come at him - forwards, attacking midfielders, advancing sweepers - only to be picked off cleanly before their intrusions could cause any lasting damage to the German defence.

Before the England game, Eilts had conceded only four fouls in the four matches in which he had played throughout, a notable achievement in itself, but particularly so in the context of wacky refereeing and the blatant malice of their quarter-final against Croatia. Even after the momentous battle with England, Eilts remains one of the few outright tacklers of the tournament not to have had a yellow card wafted under his nose.

It is likely that most Englishmen will have rushed to wipe their videos of last Wednesday's game, but if there are any intact they can be watched, once the pain has faded, in order to appreciate Eilts's significant contribution to thwarting England. in those periods when the home side appeared to have mustered a game-winning momentum.

He tackled hard but cleanly, he was always quick to get back on his feet, he tracked midfield runners and shepherded them away to dead areas, he didn't hesitate to turn defence into attack with shrewd little balls. He was, as I once described Italy's Claudio Gentile, "a one-man crowd". And in these talents, Eilts evoked memories of none other than the present German coach Berti Vogts, the man who elevated him to the national team just three years ago at the comparatively late age of 28. Vogts was a terrier, too, and it's tempting to wonder if he sees a mirror image of his own playing days in the marking and tackling skills of Eilts whose 12-year stint with his first and only club Werder Bremen matches Vogts's unbroken service to Borussia Moenchengladbach.

Devotees of "the beautiful game" will probably wince at undue attention to uglier ducklings, but Eilts seems to define the German team that Vogts has fashioned in the absence of the star talents that illuminated previous squads. And in the possible absence of Jurgen Klinsmann today and the certain suspensions of Andy Moller and Stefan Reuter, the depleted Germans will probably assume an even greater utilitarian style for a final that Vogts will be desperate to win, in order finally to place himself securely in the ranks of his successful predecessors.

But in the play of Eilts, and that of Markus Babbel, Thomas Helmer and Stefan Freund at Wembley, we saw footballing virtues other than fancy passing and crowd-pleasing flicks. We saw unquenchable determination, individual and collective stamina, comradeship and, yes, even moral courage. When England matched the Germans in these areas, and frequently outstripped them, it added to the thrill of the event as much, if not more, than any bicycle kick or diving header.

Ironically enough, the Czechs are cast in much the same mould as the Germans, more artisans than artists, which leaves most of us to expect a dull, one-sided final. Eilts will be expected to stop any advances from the Czech midfielders, while the likes of Christian Ziege and Matthias Sammer will have to support whatever passes for Germany's attack this afternoon, although Stefan Kuntz will point to his smartly taken goal and disallowed header as evidence of his ability to lead the line.

Which leaves the question of Klinsmann's possible appearance. He will have had only seven days to recover from his torn calf muscle, but the incentive to step out on to the Wembley turf is considerable, even if it is limited to a substitute's role.

The Czechs, who seemed to suffer stage fright against the Germans in the Group C game in Manchester, cannot possibly be as daunted now that they have overcome the ball-playing talents of Italy, Portugal and France. But the Germans will start as firm favourites to take their third European Championship, provided that the supreme effort at Wembley has not taken too much of a toll on their bodies, or that their failure against Denmark in 1992 does not prey on their minds.