Soccer: Auf wiedersehen, Diego

By James Lawton

SOUTH AFRICA - Argentina lived Diego Maradona's dream for a few heady weeks here, but yesterday they died by it.

The new German World Cup contenders, like the ones from the past who won the tournament three times, do not do dreaming. They do planning and the relentless grooming of the best of their youth and now, once again, they loom large as the team who know better than any other how to make the best of themselves at the highest level.

It doesn't always create favourite's status, but it does make them competitive - and respected by every opponent in a way that can only make England curl in envy. Here they booked their place in a third straight semifinal and the possibility of a stunning eighth appearance in a final, two more than Brazil.

Most astonishing of all, though, is that in the 4-0 destruction of Maradona's multi-talented but ultimately fragmented team, the unfancied Germans made a serious case for their fourth triumph to add to the wins of 1954, 1974 and 1990.

Until the moment 25-year-old Bastian Schweinsteiger, a veteran of Germany's victory over Argentina on penalties at the same stage four years ago, began to crush the spirit of the world's most talented player, Lionel Messi, Germany were having to suffer the pinpricks of faint praise.

Yes, they had overwhelmed England in round two in Bloemfontein last week, but what was that to claim? Maybe a promising future fuelled by the brilliance of youngsters like Thomas Muller and Mesut Ozil, who counterattacked England's creaking defence to death?

Here, as the sadness on the face of Maradona lacked only the make-up of the most tragic clown, the new German team showed that they belong not to the future but now.

Whether they are mature enough, and their defence of sufficient resilience, to see them through to the final, is a matter of some intrigue but plainly a gleeful Chancellor Angela Merkel was ready to give them the benefit of any doubt.

She was made so exuberant by the goals of Muller, Miroslav Klose, Arne Friedrich and then the old hand Klose again, that she planted a kiss on the cheek of the South African President Jacob Zuma, a man of noted enthusiasm for such overtures.

The Germany coach Joachim Loew also seemed ready to embrace the world. He may well have the opportunity if the German soccer federation do not move swiftly to conclude contract negotiations. Currently he is a free agent, technically if not emotionally, but his value as the maker of a potentially world-beating team has surely rocketed his value.

Argentina came to this stadium as the romantic story of the tournament but soon enough it had become a nightmare of regrets. Maradona made just two substitutions as his team broke apart. His face became a landscape of desolation and at the end soccer had rarely seen such a poignant ritual as when he went to each of his players to embrace them.

Back in the real world there should be no shame for the man who once played like a muscular angel and wielded the hand of god.

He came to the great challenge without any significant coaching experience but he did manage to light up his nation with a string of victories filled with the adventurous game he once played so superbly.

The trouble was the Germans came from another kind of experience. It is one they are born into. It is the football not of chance and speculation and especially superlative skill. It is the game of character and discipline and the perfect implementation of all available talent.

Long before the end of this game Germany were running riot with the certainties of their belief. Muller, tragically, was booked harshly when the ball seemed mostly to cannon into his arm and he will miss the chance in Durban on Thursday to battle for a place in the final.

The 21-year-old gave Germany a sensational start, heading in a free kick after just three minutes. It was the strike of a young player who seemed to be seizing every ounce of his potential.

The rest was inevitable and if there was any temptation to cry for Argentina, once more, it was soon enough buried in sheer admiration for the quality of this latest German team.

- INDEPENDENT

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