If it goes to penalties, back Germany and Portugal
ESSEN, Germany, July 4: Football purists, neutrals and Italians will be hoping that this week's World Cup semi-finals are settled within 90 or 120 minutes.
Followers of Germany and Portugal, however, would probably not mind their path to the final being decided via penalties, while French supporters might offer a Gallic shrug and take their chances.
To paraphrase former England striker Gary Lineker, penalties is a game for 10 players, then the Germans win.
Shootouts certainly seem to hold no fear for German players, who have missed only two of their 28 attempts in six major shootouts.
Their victory over Argentina in the quarter-finals was their fourth from four attempts.
Italy, in contrast, have lost all three of their World Cup shootouts while France have won two and lost one -- the World Cup's first against Germany in the 1982 semis.
The teams had played out one of the most entertaining matches in World Cup history, ending level at 3-3 after an extra time that contributed four goals.
Toni Schumacher, widely condemned for his wild body check that hospitalised Patrick Battiston, ended as the hero, in Germany at least, as he saved two penalties to take his team to the final.
Four years later France were on the right side of the shootout as three of the four quarter-finals went to penalties.
France, by then European champions, could have lost it in normal time but Zico, arguably the greatest player of his era, missed a penalty two minutes after coming on as a 71st minute substitute.
In the shoot-out he was joined by two more greats of the game as Socrates had his effort saved and Michel Platini fired over the bar, France eventually winning it 3-2. Zico and Socrates never played for Brazil again.
Germany, who had lost the first-ever major shoot-out when Czechoslovakia beat them in the final of the 1976 European championship, proved quick learners and Uli Stielike's miss in 1982 remains their most recent failure.
They beat Mexico in the 1986 quarter-finals, England in the 1990 semis and, after beating England again in the Euro 96 semis, ousted Argentina last Friday.
Their record is remarkable and a tribute to the attitude, concentration and professionalism they bring to every aspect of the game.
Portugal, while new to the format, are proving quick learners.
Their two shoot-outs have both been against England, both in a quarter-final and both times goalkeeper Ricardo has been the hero.
He saved one then scored the winner in Euro 2004 and saved three of England's four in last Saturday's quarter-final in Gelsenkirchen to cause the English to overhaul Italy as officially the world's worst penalty-takers.
The very mention of penalties is enough to bring on the shakes for Italian fans, who missed out on the ultimate prize when Brazil won the only World Cup final to be decided that way in 1994.
That shootout was decided when Roberto Baggio blazed over the bar in Pasadena, instantly erasing all the incredible work he had done to get his side to the final.
Italy also lost to Argentina on home soil in the 1990 semis and to France in the last eight in 1998.
With their exit four years ago coming via a South Korean ''Golden Goal'' it is 20 years since they were knocked out of the World Cup by a conventional defeat, a 2-0 loss to France in the 1986 second round.