European affair could still quicken the pulse

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The Independent Football

With the departure of Argentina and Brazil in successive days the "world" has gone out of the World Cup leaving the semi-finals an exclusively European affair for the first time since 1982. The fear is that the fantasy also departed with the South Americans.

One semi-final pits a German team which is attack-minded but built on a hard-working, high-tempo game, against an Italian one that, whilst including Francesco Totti, has increasingly relied upon its traditional formula of defend-and-counter-attack. In the other France, fielding a five-man midfield which also plays on the counter-attack, meet Portugal, who have conceded one goal in five matches and become known as much for diving as dribbling. This despite, or maybe because of, the presence of Luis Figo and Cristiano Ronaldo.

Time to turn the television over to Wimbledon? Not yet. The 1982 semi-finals produced West Germany's extraordinarily dramatic tie with France, the one which featured four goals in extra-time, Harald Schumacher's obscene and unpunished assault on Patrick Battiston, and a penalty shoot-out (won, inevitably, by the Germans). Twelve years prior Italy and (West) Germany combined to play what has been voted the best World Cup tie of all time, Italy's epic 4-3 semi-final victory in Mexico City.

The chances of a repeat are slender but the atmosphere tomorrow in the Westfalenstadion, an arena in which Germany have never lost, will be electrifying. The following night, in Munich, there will be enough skilful players to satisfy anyone. Does the all-European make-up mean anything? It confirms how hard it is for teams to win outside their own continent, even when all the players (as with Brazil) are based there. But it does not prove the greater pragmatism of European teams dominate in such circumstances. Both in Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires many people believe their teams did not progress because the coaches mistrusted their talent and wrongly put their faith in pragmatism. Would Argentina have lost if Lionel Messi had played, would Brazil have done so if they had started with Cicinho, Gilberto and Robinho instead of the old warhorses Cafu, Roberto Carlos, and Adriano? Indeed, would England have done better if Sven Goran Eriksson had started with Aaron Lennon and given Theo Walcott a run? Franck Ribéry has been the catalyst for France, Germany fielded five players aged 22 or under.

This tournament began rich with promise, then dipped as the tension rose and cheats proliferated. It could yet be the best since 1974 but its place in history will depend on the next six days. The final quartet are evenly balanced and the challenge is there for Jürgen Klinsmann, Marcello Lippi, Luiz Felipe Scolari and Raymond Domenech. Liberate your players and reap the rewards.

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