Scope for tournament to go on getting better
BERLIN, June 5 (Reuters) Germany's World Cup kickoff against Costa Rica on Friday is the first of 48 games in a mammoth group phase and for once there is a real prospect of the tournament just getting better and better as it goes on.
The conventional wisdom these days is that the first phase produces the quality matches before fatigue and fear of failure make the second half of the competition a slog for everyone.
It was certainly the case at the last World Cup four years ago, at the European Championship in Portugal in 2004 and in the recently completed Champions League.
In South Korea and Japan four years ago, the first phase produced a series of shocks, thrilling contests and memorable individual and team displays before fizzling out.
Spain scored nine goals in three games, holders France were sent packing after extraordinary defeats by Senegal and Denmark, while Portugal lost 3-2 to the United States, beat Poland 4-0 and went out in a chaotic group won by co-hosts South Korea.
It was also in the group phase that Brazil terrified other teams by racking up 11 goals only to revert to a more defensive style for the knockout phase.
The eight second round matches produced 17 goals, including those scored in extra-time, while the four quarter-finals saw five goals and the two semi-finals just two.
Even the final was heading for a goalless draw before a mistake by Germany goalkeeper Oliver Kahn set Brazil up for a 2-0 win and a fifth World Cup triumph.
SAVING GRACE However, there are reasons to be optimistic that the pattern of dwindling excitement will not be repeated this time.
FIFA's rule barring players named in World Cup squads from featuring for their clubs after the May 15 cut-off point could turn out to be the tournament's saving grace.
''In the past, national coaches always complained their players arrived late and exhausted for the World Cup or European Championship,'' FIFA president Sepp Blatter said in defence of the rule after complaints from coaches.
Striker Wayne Rooney's likely absence for much, if not all, of the tournament is a blow to England's chances and a shame for fans but there are few other notable absentees.
Hosts Germany have clearly benefited from the long build-up time available.
They had the luxury of a few days spent doing very little but lounging on the beach in Sardinia before getting down to serious business at their second training camp in Geneva.
Captain Michael Ballack, Philipp Lahm and Christoph Metzelder all had time to recover from niggling injuries.
When Juergen Klinsmann fielded his preferred team for the first time against Colombia in a friendly last week they suddenly looked capable of challenging for another home triumph.
The sapping heat of South Korea and Japan also contributed to the sharp dip in quality at the last World Cup but it is not going to be a factor in Germany.
Most of the game's top players are based in Europe and the benign conditions should be nicely familiar.
The fact that the Champions League no longer has a second gruelling group phase should also mean the game's leading players are a bit fresher.
Of course, there is nothing FIFA can do to change the psychology of coaches, who will be tempted to play with more caution as the stakes are raised.
Injuries are also inevitable as the tournament goes on but equally players not quite fit or at the peak of their game, including Spain's Raul, England's Michael Owen and Argentina's Lionel Messi, may play themselves into form.
For as long as England are involved, there is still the prospect of seeing Rooney make his World Cup debut and that is something worth waiting for.
REUTERS PM PC1705