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Beckenbauer awed by World Cup buzz

Written by: Staff

BERLIN, Mar 6 (Reuters) Franz Beckenbauer says he has been overwhelmed by enthusiasm during his worldwide trip to extend personal invitations to all 31 nations qualified for this year's World Cup in Germany.

Before the final two legs to Belgrade and Sydney, the World Cup winning former Germany defender and coach said in a written interview with Reuters he was moved to discover soccer was a global unifying force that could promote peace.

Royal families, presidents, prime ministers and even the Pope lined up to greet Beckenbauer when the German World Cup organising committee president landed in their countries for state-like visits.

''I felt tremendously honoured,'' said Beckenbauer, whose stop in Costa Rica was broadcast live on television.

''Presidents and government leaders took time out for us and that is something you don't really expect to happen.

''We were also in countries where there had been civil wars until recently, such as Angola. But when it comes to soccer and the World Cup, these conflicts all seemed to disappear. That was an extremely gratifying experience for me.'' Beckenbauer spent some 170 hours in the air, flying more than 120,000 km to deliver invitations to the 31 countries that qualified for the finals, starting on June 9. The tour cost 1.8 million euros (2.16 million dollar).

GREAT ADVENTURE Beckenbauer and his team are eager to prove Germans can put on a memorable tournament, not just a well organised one.

''It's one of the best ideas we had.'' Beckenbauer, who won a World Cup as West Germany captain in 1974 and as coach in 1990, said his 50-day trek had been worthwhile.

''The effort has definitely been well worthwhile,'' said the charismatic 60-year-old who played for Bayern Munich, New York Cosmos and Hamburg SV in a career spanning two decades.

''It's been an invaluable public relations help for the World Cup and for Germany,'' he added.

Beckenbauer's goodwill travels began in Iran in October, where a promotional film he brought showing German fans drinking beer and eating sausages reduced the Iranian football federation officials to glum, stony-faced silence.

He then flew to Saudi Arabia, South Korea and Japan, where his delegation was briefed on local customs -- such as it being impolite to stand during the presentation. So he sat down.

''There were always at least 120 and sometimes up to 300 guests at the receptions,'' Beckenbauer said.

Invariably he was asked about each country's chances and often found diplomatic answers.

In London, Beckenbauer outed himself as a lifelong England fan and clearly relished meeting Prime Minister Tony Blair.

''He obviously hopes that England will make it to the final once again and perhaps win the championship,'' Beckenbauer said.

''I was struck by his easy-going nature and charm. It felt like we had known each other as close friends for years.'' Reuters PDS VP0920

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