Völler hopes Germany can laugh in face of old rivals

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The Independent Online

As continental football rivalries go, few have provided quite so much hostility and expectation over the years as that between the Netherlands and Germany. So when Rudi Völler says he wants his players to have fun in today's eagerly awaited showdown, you sense he is simply trying to relieve the tension.

As continental football rivalries go, few have provided quite so much hostility and expectation over the years as that between the Netherlands and Germany. So when Rudi Völler says he wants his players to have fun in today's eagerly awaited showdown, you sense he is simply trying to relieve the tension.

That neither of these footballing powerhouses set Europe alight in qualifying or in warm-up games says much about the problems in both camps. Germany have lost their goal touch while the Dutch, being the Dutch, are still trying to figure out how to accommodate all the talent at their disposal.

Normally, both countries would be expected to progress to the knock-out phase, but with the Czech Republic posing a threat in the tournament's "group of death", a slip-up could prove disastrous.

"Everyone says this is the weakest German side for some time, but that's what they said at the last World Cup [Germany reached the final]," said Jürgen Klinsmann, the former Germany striker. "It all depends on this game. If we lose, we could be on the first plane home."

With both sides likely to play one up front - Ruud van Nistelrooy for the Netherlands, Kevin Kuranyi for Germany - Franz Beckenbauer predicts a tight affair, a classic clash between Germany's superior organisation and the Netherlands' more skilful individuals. "The question is, are their forwards really capable of hurting us?" asked Beckenbauer. "I don't think we should be hiding from them."

Völler has told his team to focus on the fun factor, thus avoiding the ugly scenes that have marred so many previous confrontations - such as the infamous spitting incident between himself and Frank Rijkaard at the 1990 World Cup.

"They have to be happy to be here and looking forward to it," Völler said, refusing at the same time to answer questions on tactics. "The system we use does not really matter. Maybe it hasn't been obvious lately but there is quality in this team."

Nevertheless, embarrassing defeats against Romania and Hungary have cast doubt over Germany's ability to advance, though their captain, Oliver Kahn, says that the three-time world and European champions are raring to go. "You shouldn't read too much into those games," he said. "There are light years between a competitive game and a friendly. I have exactly the same feeling as before the World Cup."

The Netherlands, too, have had a wretched build-up with defeats against Belgium and the Republic of Ireland and may have to do without the injured Clarence Seedorf. As usual, they have an embarrassment of riches but doubts persist over how they will gel. Coach Dick Advocaat is confident, especially with Van Nistelrooy leading the attack in preference to both Patrick Kluivert - 40 goals in 79 matches - and Roy Makaay who has expressed his displeasure at not being picked.

"Ruud has proved in the past he can score at the top level," Advocaat argued. "None of our strikers particularly impressed me in the friendlies we played, but Ruud is a match-winner."

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