Football: Old threat or waning power?

Phil Shaw wonders whether this will be a tournament too far for Germany
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The Independent Online
THE POSTER in a Montpellier restaurant set out an enticing menu of exhibition games featuring World Cup legends. One promised Zico, Carlos Alberto and Junior (surely Senior by now), while another boasted Manuel Amoros and Wolfgang Overath. France 98 has given the golden oldies a chance to shine again. There is even a veterans' team in the tournament itself. They are called Germany.

In an event brimming with gnarled campaigners - from poor Jim Leighton, 40 next month, to thirty-somethings such as Hagi, Stoichkov and Bergomi - the Germans have both the oldest outfield player in the 37-year-old Lothar Matthaus and the highest average age at almost 30.

While that does not put Berti Vogts' squad in quite the same bracket as Overath's greying band, Germany have still to banish the suspicion that the weary-limbs factor may counter-balance the benefits of experience as the matches become ever more intense.

Thursday's 2-0 defeat of Iran, which ensured that the European champions would stay at the Stade de la Mosson for tomorrow's second-phase meeting with Mexico, divided those watching. To some, it was an archetypal German victory. Unspectacular as they were, they mustered just enough might to finish off feisty but physically unimposing foes.

The alternative school saw confirmation of the view that this may prove a tournament too far for some of Vogts' elder statesmen. Intriguingly, 16 of their 22 in France were born in the 1960s, twice as many as the host nation, Italy or the Dutch. In theory, these stalwarts of Italia 90 are all steeped in Germany's big-match mentality; the conviction that team-work, within a tight, disciplined formation, will grind down the strongest of rivals. In practice, however, there was evidence to nurture the belief that even if Luis Hernandez and his fellow Mexicans do not rumble them, there are bigger, better teams who will.

The 36-year-old goalkeeper Andreas Kopke, for instance, went down in instalments for the low cross which led to Yugoslavia's second goal. Although Germany went on to retrieve a seemingly lost cause, for an hour they were overrun by younger, sharper opponents. Iran, too, troubled them with their fluid counter-attacks in the face of which Jurgen Kohler, now 32, no longer resembled a rock.

Two players rose above the mundanity. One was Matthaus, winning his 126th cap in his fifth finals and proving he still performs the constructive side of the libero's role better than Olaf Thon. Paradoxically, he showed the fewest signs of waning powers, although whether he can duplicate the box-to-box dynamism of Matthias Sammer remains to be seen. The other significant contributor was Oliver Bierhoff. A mere stripling of 30, the Milan-bound striker headed the first goal and made the second, giving credence to the notion that he, rather than Jurgen Klinsmann, is Germany's best hope of enhancing their awesome World Cup record. Vogts must pray that the one-time Blackburn target, whose mobile muscularity would have been perfect for the Premiership, avoids injury and suspension.

For all the protestations of unity between traditional adversaries such as Matthaus and Klinsmann, the coach let slip after the Iran game that he had to "calm the players down at half-time". Tellingly, it was only after he replaced Thon with Matthaus and put younger legs into midfield that Germany took control.

Yet while Klinsmann brushed past waiting media men, apparently in a huff, Bierhoff paused to claim that Germany drew strength from the "exaggerated criticism" following "one bad game" against Yugoslavia.

"At the moment we're playing like individuals," Bierhoff admitted. "But we've been having talks so that we can come together more as a team. There is no perfect team in this tournament, just teams improving with each match. We are one of them and there's no doubt in our minds that we can win the World Cup again. Before taking on Mexico in heat likely to test even their fabled stamina, Germany are back (some might say appropriately) among the rich and retired of Nice. Their hotel is a pounds 300-per-night Romanesque chateau, the kind of place Klinsmann would have had to give a miss in his back-packing days.

Everything is in the best possible taste apart from the peculiar idealised canine portraits adorning the walls. Many Germans believe that the tail, in the form of a clique of veterans comprising Klinsmann, Kohler and Andy Moller, is wagging the dog, as represented by Vogts. Maybe the decor is apposite after all.

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