Germany's soccer stars warm up for important Euro 2004 matches with a tough friendly game against Italy on Wednesday, but some players have all but written off the struggling squad's chances in international competition.
Ballack: "We're just not good enough."
As Europe's soccer nations gear up for a key round of matches in this year's qualification stage for the 2004 European Championships in Portugal, Germany takes on Italy in a friendly game in preparation for make-or-break matches against Scotland and Iceland.
But instead of relishing the challenge of stretching the muscles against an old foe, some of Germany's stars have been deriding their own chances of success in next year's championships and aiming barbed words at their national colleagues.
German Footballer of the Year Michael Ballack has put the boot in on Germany's chances of winning a fourth European title in Portugal next summer by saying that he believes the three-time World Cup winners are just not good enough.
"All the teams want to win but for some it is not a realistic goal. I don't think we belong as the favorites," the midfielder recently told German newspaper Die Welt. "Teams like France, the Netherlands, Spain and Italy are ahead of us," the Bayern Munich playmaker added.
Ballack, who shined in last year's impressive, although ultimately unsuccessful, World Cup campaign in Japan and Korea, explained that the German national team found itself in a difficult phase where younger players who have been brought in by coach Rudi Völler needed to adapt. "That will take time. I also believe that the teams I've just named have more in-depth strength than we have."
It may just be strategy on Ballack's part. Germany are in a strong position in their qualifying group for Euro 2004, even though they have failed to really impress so far. Wednesday night's practice match against three-time world champions Italy will be anything but a friendly and any psychological advantages the teams can get over each other will help once the leather starts flying.
Ballack's words could also be used as a buffer between the team and the supporters who witnessed their country come so close to World Cup glory last year and expect their boys to go one step further next summer.
Kahn's not happy with some of his colleagues.
One person who cannot be accused of using a subtle strategy is Ballack's Bayern colleague and German captain Oliver Kahn. The towering goalkeeper has recently criticized the weak mentality of German players who fail to turn up for international duty due to minor injury complaints.
Völler has had a major headache getting the walking wounded to the training pitch after a frantic start to the domestic Bundesliga season and the national team is ravaged by injuries for the Italy game in Stuttgart. Völler is without Ballack, Dortmund's Thorsten Frings and Liverpool's Didi Hamann.
Kahn has weighed in with his own comments on the subject, saying he believes some players need to show more commitment to the German cause. "It cannot carry on that players remain at home just because their left toe hurts," Kahn raged to German daily Bild. "Brazilians come to international matches carrying their head under their arm."
Not one to fear becoming unpopular with colleagues, the Bayern Munich shot-stopper, who has won 60 caps for his country, added that all Germany's games are vital for the country, including friendly matches. "Everything is part of the course over the next three years," explained Kahn. "Therefore every international match from now on is important."
German fans will be hoping that their team finds some kind of cohesion within its ranks on Wednesday night against the Italians and carry it on into the qualifiers against Scotland and Iceland.
The return of Trap.
The visit of Italy heralds the return of coach Giovanni Trapattoni (picture) who managed Bayern Munich in the 1990's. Trapattoni's latest stint as national coach of the 'Azzurri' brings him once again up against the country which embraced him.
"It is not a friendly but a difficult test, a classic game,'' Trapattoni told the Italian sport daily Corriere dello Sport. The Italians have beaten Germany nine times, including a victory in the 1982 World Cup final, while the Germans have been victors on seven occasions.