Ballack's unbreakable spirit inspires new soul of Germany

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The Independent Football

Now Michael Ballack, the hero of Germany, knew how it was when just the flick of a head had the potential to plunge a whole nation into mourning - not for a life but an idea and a hope that might suddenly die.

Ballack imposed the experience on South Korea four years ago when he knocked the joint host nation out of the World Cup in Seoul. For weeks the South Koreans had grown into the belief that they could achieve the impossible under their brilliant foreign coach Guus Hiddink.

Yesterday it seemed the slayer of the dream - the one that had gripped the Fatherland from the Baltic to the remotest Bavarian village - was Roberto Ayala, Argentina's magnificent central defender. Now plying his trade in Valencia, the rock-like Ayala met a corner from the great playmaker Juan Roman Riquelme and it was as though all of Germany recoiled from the blow.

The Argentines, the great hope of this 18th World Cup football with a magnificent range of skill and one performance at least which reminded the football aficionados of what beauty the game can achieve when it is played with the highest skill and imagination, seemed to be coasting through to the semi-finals as the terrible hush fell over the land.

But Ballack, the German captain, refused to accept this dying of the light and he raged at his team-mates to find again the extraordinary spirit that had made the German people believe, after months of disparagement of the team fashioned by former star player Jürgen Klinsmann, that they could indeed win their fourth World Cup - a mark which would leave them just one triumph behind the world's greatest football nation, Brazil.

When the equaliser came it told a story of the changing face of Germany - Miroslav Klose, a bold, free striker of Polish heritage, scored the goal that brought Germany back to life and sent a great roar from the stadium in Berlin rippling out in every corner of the land.

The game, shown in town squares, at the Brandenburg gate, even on barges floating down the River Main in Frankfurt, had brought Germany to a standstill and the goal of Ayala had come like a blow to the national heart.

But this is a remarkable German team, filled with spirit and self-belief, and included among its most fervent fans is the country's Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Before the tournament she spoke of the need to show that Germany were good hosts and they did not have to prove that they could win the cup. Germany was a new and smiling place, she said, and it not so essential to finish first. More important was grace and a celebration of the nation's place in the world and not just on the football field.

No one got round to mentioning this to Ballack or Klose. The result was an extraordinary decision to fight back, though it was one crowned with some controversy when Maxi Rodriguez, the Argentinian midfielder, was given a yellow card for diving in the last minutes while his team-mates vehemently appealed for a penalty.

When the whistle for 90 minutes blew the issue was still deadlocked and Germany, not to mention a large slice of South America, was locked in the deepest suspense.

Ballack urged his men forward and there was an overwhelming sense that this was a game which went beyond football. It was turning into one of the great tests of will of any sporting field.

Germany took another breath and believed, at least for another 30 minutes or so, that the great dream was still alive.