Ballack injury adds to German nerves
BERLIN, June 7 (Reuters) Germany cannot afford any opening night nerves when they raise the 2006 World Cup curtain against Costa Rica in Munich on Friday, especially with doubts now swirling over the fitness of Michael Ballack.
Costa Rica have been dreadful in warm-up matches for the 32-team tournament and Germany, three times World Cup winners, should have the talent and know-how to make it a celebratory evening for the hosts at the futuristic Allianz Arena.
History shows strange things can happen in opening matches, however, and Germany coach Juergen Klinsmann will rest a lot easier if his captain Ballack recovers from a calf strain in time.
Sixteen years ago, the world watched amazed as defending champions Argentina lost 1-0 against Cameroon.
France were also the champions when they kicked off the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan.
They also had a problem with an injury to their best player, and without Zinedine Zidane in the team they went down 1-0 against Senegal.
Germany are optimistic that Ballack will recover from his calf strain and make the starting line-up on Friday.
''I assume I'll be able to play,'' Ballack said last morning, but in the evening of the same day he was still unfit to train.
Juergen Klinsmann needs his captain on the field.
FIRST TEST Discounting the relatively insignificant Confederations Cup in 2005, this will be Klinsmann's first genuinely competitive match as a coach.
The 41-year-old had plenty of World Cup experience as a player -- he won it in 1990 and also played in the next two tournaments -- but he has still to be tested as a coach in the heat of battle.
''There is pressure on us, I won't deny it,'' Klinsmann said this week.
Costa Rica are making their third appearance at the finals, after reaching the second round in 1990 and going out of the opening group phase in 2002, pipped on goal difference by eventual semi-finalists Turkey. Their chances of a good run this time look slim. In warm-up games they lost 4-0 to Ukraine, 1-0 to Czech Republic and 2-0 against a Catalan selection.
The Ticos also have injury worries, with leading scorer Paulo Wanchope and right-sided Gilberto Martinez unable to train with the team on Tuesday.
Germany reached the final of the last World Cup, where they lost 2-0 against Brazil, and a positive start could set the bandwagon rolling again, especially as their other Group A opponents Poland and Ecuador will hardly inspire fear.
There look to be a lot more sides with better claims to the title, though.
Champions Brazil have the world's best player in Ronaldinho and are regarded even by their rivals as clear favourites to make it a sixth World Cup triumph.
They are not in action until Tuesday, when they make their first phase debut with a Group F match against Croatia in Berlin.
Argentina also look strong, especially with exciting teenager Lionel Messi now approaching full fitness, although they have tough Group C opponents in Ivory Coast, Serbia&Montenegro and the Netherlands.
The other main challengers will come from Europe.
The Dutch have the problem of being in that difficult group and have also been worried by injuries, while Italy may well be distracted by the match-fixing investigation going on back home.
England, tipped by Ballack yesterday as real challengers, need a good start against Paraguay in Group B on Saturday to put all the talk of Wayne Rooney's injury behind them.
If his 6ft 7in stand-in Peter Crouch is doing his robot dance goal celebration regularly it will be a good sign for the English.
The first round, split into eight groups of four teams, will conclude on June 23.
All 12 of the venue cities have one match in the second round or quarter-finals, with the semi-finals in Dortmund and Munich and the third-place match in Stuttgart on July 8 before the final back in Berlin a day later.